Sex, Orwell taught us in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is a force that is “always smoldering just under the surface” of a boys’ school. When you add to that smoldering force a number of now blessedly outdated social norms—among them, the requirement that gay male schoolteachers lead closeted lives, and the absence of cultural vigilance regarding sex between teachers and students—it is hardly surprising to learn that there was once a Mr. Antolini, or several Mr. Antolinis, at many boys’ schools. By the 1970s, an accelerant had been poured on these coals: the sexual and personal liberation of the American teenager, and the idea that he or she might form egalitarian relationships with adult figures of authority, including even teachers. Gather together a group of prep-school graduates of a certain age—over 45, say—and you are likely to hear stories that, by today’s standards, would be the makings of a scandal.
Just such a scandal erupted in 2012, when a journalist named Amos Kamil published a blockbuster New York Times Magazine essay called “Prep-School Predators,” concerning the widespread practices of sexual abuse at the elite Horace Mann School, in New York City, from the late 1960s to the early ’90s. Kamil, himself an alumnus of the school, had been shocked when, on a camping trip with several other alumni in the early ’90s, one of them made a startling confession. “You guys remember Mark Wright, the football coach?” his friend asked as they sat around the campfire. He was a legendary and beloved figure at the school. “When we were in eighth grade, he raped me.”
As the evening wore on, three of Kamil’s four friends told horrifying stories of sexual assault by teachers at the school; Kamil himself had been touched inappropriately by one teacher, and experienced a weird, boozy night with two others who would later be charged with abuse. For years, Kamil did nothing with this startling information, but when news broke in 2011 of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, he remembered that night around the campfire: “The combination of the horrific stories and the happy-go-lucky man accused of being a rapist—a rapist charged with the task of taking care of defenseless children—was deeply disturbing. And it made me think of Horace Mann.”
The Sandusky story may also have been a catalyst in persuading so many Horace Mann survivors to talk to Kamil; so, surely, were the scandals in the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. The era of keeping sexual abuse—especially the abuse of boys by men—a shameful, lifelong secret had come to an end. A year after Kamil’s piece came out in The Times Magazine, another reporter—and Horace Mann alumnus—named Marc Fisher wrote a long New Yorker essay called “The Master” about one of the school’s most notorious alleged abusers.
Now, along with a co-writer, Sean Elder, Kamil returns to the subject in Great Is the Truth. Part memoir and part exploration of what happened after the publication of his essay, the book is a bit padded. The two articles, and a withering evaluation released by “concerned alumni” in May—with which this new book dovetails very closely—would seem to provide all the information anyone could want on this sordid mess. But together, the documents give us a rare look into the world of a private school during a dark chapter of its history. They also provide insight into profound changes in the way our country regards sexual or romantic contact between teachers and students.