More than 20 years before I got up the courage to send an open letter to the New York Times accusing my former English teacher Blake Bailey of grooming his eighth grade students and then, years later, coercing us into sex—or, in my case, just holding me down and doing it even while I cried “no” and “stop” repeatedly—I sent a very different letter on his behalf.
I wrote his nomination for the Louisiana Humanities Teacher of the Year in 2000, an award he went on to win.
I described how he gave me the language to discuss poetry and literature, how he insisted that his students all be not just well-read but also culturally literate, how he affirmed my love of writing and mentored me for years. I recalled how I’d dutifully read Animal Farm for his class but before his lessons had only understood it as a more intense and militant version of Charlotte’s Web. “Trotsky? Stalin? The Russian Revolution? I thought this book was about a barnyard!” I wrote in the letter, explaining how this talented teacher had opened my eyes to the way a story that seemed like one thing can turn out to be another.
The thing is: Both of my letters are true. He was a fantastic teacher; he was a sexual predator.
For so long, I thought his involvement with me, his investment in my life, was mentorship, that he cared about who I was and who I might become. But he didn’t care about me. He cared about what he could get from me. A story that seemed like one thing turned out to be another. What he was doing wasn’t mentorship; it was grooming.
The one line I keep reading in different news accounts is a line that’s haunted me since the night he raped me in June 2003. As he dropped me off that night, while I was still shaking all over, he looked over at me, his eyes sad and sort of pleading, and said: “You really can’t blame me. I’ve wanted you since the day we met.”
At the time, that line almost broke my heart more than anything else. I couldn’t fathom that he could possibly have actually wanted me since the day we met—because I was 12 the day we met. Instead, I thought, he was just using the line on me that he used on all women.
“I’ve wanted you since the day we met,” I could imagine him slurring as a Tulane frat boy, pulling a young coed into his bedroom. I could hear him saying it to a colleague after weeks of courtship and flirtation. I figured it must be a habit, and the fact that he said it to me—someone he met when I was a child and he was in his 30s—made me feel like he didn’t even know who I was, like I was just some nameless, faceless woman.
That was hurtful. The truth was worse.
As more and more of his former students who went on to have unwanted sexual encounters with him have spoken out this past week, the same key line keeps emerging. “He told her he had ‘noticed’ her the moment their paths crossed at Lusher.” (To be clear, Lusher was a middle school.) “Those breasts, those breasts—I’ve been dreaming of touching them since I met you.” And of course, “I’ve wanted you since the day we met.”
Here’s how young I was “the day we met”: I still wore underwear with Minnie Mouse on them. Here’s how young I was “the day we met”: Every time I went to the bathroom, I’d pray to see a spot of blood on those cartoon-patterned panties because I was certain I was the last girl in my grade to still not have started my period. Here’s how young I was “the day we met”: I was still losing my baby teeth.
I know now, with the advantage of being 40 and having my own two daughters, that his attention to us was not actually flattering or normal. But at the time, he told me—told all of us—so many nice things about ourselves that we wanted to believe.
After one particularly harrowing day by eighth grade standards—my boyfriend told my rival he wanted to take her to the movies, and I wasn’t invited to a big end-of-the-year party—I wrote a tear-stained entry in my English class journal, one of the journals he made us all keep and turn in. I wrote about how no one liked me or would ever like me, how I just didn’t know how to be one of the cool kids.
“Ah, Eveness,” he had written in his trademark scrawl when he handed my journal back a few days later, using his affectionate nickname for me. “PLEASE don’t worry about middle school. You’re destined for better things. As Nick said to Gatsby, ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’ ”
Can you imagine how that felt? To have the cool teacher, the one everyone adored, say something that validating to you at age 13? For years, I would hold that phrase close and treasure it. It informed so much of my self-worth.
Several years later, when I was 16, I won the 1997 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society gold medal for high school short story. This turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected, with media coverage and an awards ceremony, and I found the whole thing completely overwhelming. On top of it all, there was ridiculous personal drama going on with some of my friends—typical high school stuff—and we were all fighting with one another by the time of the after-party.
I remember sitting on a black wrought-iron bench in New Orleans’ Jackson Square, surrounded by banana trees and humid air, the party going on all around me. I was sad and lonely and half-drunk on a mint julep I’d managed to sneak from the bar, and I was feeling very sorry for myself and very Southern Gothic.
Suddenly, Mr. Bailey was there by my side, in attendance at the party because of his own rising literary star. He sat down next to me on the bench and toasted me, tapping his sweating plastic cup against mine.
“Don’t sulk, Eveness,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “Great genius is always going to be lonely.”
Can you imagine how that felt? To have a man so many people admired call you a “genius” when you were 16 and vulnerable and on the verge of tears? For years, I would hold that phrase close and treasure it.
Because we’d all gotten so used to writing these intensely personal class journals and getting back such thoughtful responses from him, many of us kept in touch with him through high school and college. He asked too many questions about our love lives, frequently inquiring if we’d “punched our V-cards yet,” but we all still thought it was exciting to be treated like adults and talked to like adults. Through the years, first in actual handwritten letters and later through emails, we kept writing, even as we went off to college and moved away from New Orleans. We told him the most intimate details of our lives, and he wrote us back, encouraging us, giving us advice, signing his letters, “Love, B.”
And so on that night in June 2003, when I was a month away from my wedding and I happened to be in New Orleans at the same time Bailey was there on a book tour, I met him for drinks. (It was supposed to be in the afternoon for coffee; he changed it at the last minute to drinks at night, a detail that now turns my stomach because it makes me realize how carefully he’d planned this.) When he asked me to go back with him to the place he was staying, I really didn’t expect anything would happen. In fact, when he kissed me, my first reaction was to laugh because it was so bizarre to me that Mr. Bailey had just kissed me. I think I was in complete shock as the rest of it unfolded. First, the unwanted oral sex and me trying to squirm away. Then I remember pushing down on his shoulders as hard as I could as he penetrated me, thinking if I just pushed hard enough, I could push him out of me, but he pinned me down and continued to have sex with me as I cried and said a panicked collection of “no” and “stop” and “don’t” and “please.” He finally stopped when I told him I wasn’t on birth control, and as he rolled off me, he hissed in my ear, “What is wrong with you? You just don’t know how the game is played.”
Can you imagine how that felt? To have a man who has been your greatest source of external validation since early adolescence betray your trust in that way and then mock you for being naïve? And to realize that this wasn’t a man who actually valued you or respected you or was impressed by your talent? It was just another man who wanted to fuck you. I thought he was different. He wasn’t—he was just more patient. He was playing the really long game. And I may not have known how it was played, but he certainly did.
After it happened, after he drove me back to my father’s house, where I was staying, I remember walking numbly back to the bathroom and standing in the shower until the hot water ran out.
“This is what they tell women not to do,” I remember thinking. “We should never shower after rape. That was rape, wasn’t it?”
But at the time, I needed that hot shower more than I needed oxygen. And there was no DNA evidence anyway; after all, he eventually stopped.
After the shower, I sat up all night. I don’t recall what I thought. My brain was just white noise.
As dawn broke, I called my best friend, the maid of honor in my upcoming wedding and also a former student of Mr. Bailey’s. I knew she was an early riser, plus, it was an hour later in her time zone.
She answered her phone in her studio apartment, vaguely alarmed to have it ring so early.
“Kate,” I said, finally starting to cry after a night of utter and complete shock. “I have to tell you something. I was raped last night.”
“No, wait,” I said. “It gets even worse. I was raped by Mr. Bailey.”
Kate (now Dr. Catherine Roach) is the woman who went on record with the New York Times last week to confirm my story. She is also the person whom, in an email that arrived several days after the rape, Mr. Bailey begged me not to tell.
“Eveness, I’m so sorry,” he wrote. “I simply don’t know what possesses me sometimes. Nothing to say, really, except ‘sorry’ over and over. … P.S. You will do what you will, but I’d be ineffably grateful if you’d see fit not to succumb to an urge to share with Jamie [my then-fiancé], Kate, et al.”
I’m not sure if I would have told her if I’d gotten his email sooner. I might have held off. I still loved and respected him so much.
A few days later, I went back to Missouri, where I was a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. I threw myself into work and planning the minutiae of my wedding, which went on as scheduled a month later.
An odd footnote: The night we met for drinks, he kept referencing the movie Say Anything. I told him I’d never seen it. He explained that the movie reminded him of me and Jamie, that I was Diane Court—the driven, brilliant one—and Jamie was Lloyd Dobler—this friendly, goofy guy who is a total underachiever. He said we were not a good match and were way too young to get married.
I guess by way of further apology, a week or so later, he “anonymously” sent a VHS copy of Say Anything to my home in Missouri. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, and I was absurdly pissed that he hadn’t even sprung for the DVD. But after he sent it, due to some weird database fluke, I started to get tons of junk mail at my home address—all addressed to Blake Bailey. It made me sick every time.
After grad school, I took a job in publishing right as his book A Tragic Honesty was going through the awards cycles. Between seeing his name at work, getting his mail at home, and receiving the occasional braggy email from him (he’d kept my email address on some kind of mass list), I kind of lost it in July 2005, and I wrote him, in a fit of pique: “Please stop contacting me. I am tired of hearing about all of the good things that are happening to you because, quite frankly, after what you did to me, I don’t want good things to happen to you.”
The next time I saw his name in print, it was on the series of columns he wrote for Slate about losing everything he owned to Hurricane Katrina. The guilt I felt was both irrational and extreme. I’d told him I hadn’t wanted good things to happen to him—I felt like I’d destroyed the entire city of New Orleans, including my own family’s homes, with the power of my mind.
Years passed, and I had a baby. I moved back home to New Orleans. I had a lot of therapy. I ended up getting divorced (turns out that although Lloyd Dobler and my ex-husband are both good guys, Bailey was right that I probably shouldn’t have gotten married at age 22).
In late 2008, I was shocked to learn that an old friend with whom I’d had a complicated relationship had died in a car accident. In a whirl of grief and confusion, I emailed Mr. Bailey for the first time since 2005. I wanted to let him know I forgave him just in case he suddenly died or something, although I added, “I still think our relationship had been inappropriate for years. Browsing through old notes and postcards and such, I realized you said things to me when I was 15 that I’m sure we both hope no 30-something man ever says to our little girls. But it’s in the past, you know?”
At the time, I meant it, too.
We stayed in touch sporadically in the years that followed, trading the occasional email update or pictures of our kids. I kept him posted as I remarried and had a second daughter. In many ways, staying in touch with him minimized the horror of what had happened. It also helped me to be able to continue to believe that the nice things he’d said about me were true.
In 2009, I sent him a link to some writing I was doing in my career as an editor for a home-and-garden magazine, and he responded, “You’re a combination of Martha Stewart and E.B. White. Very well done—mais bien sur.” It was somehow comforting to know that he still respected my work.
The Kavanaugh hearings were the end of that for me, though. I felt so much rage and exhaustion. Almost every woman I know did. I also had my own teenage daughter by this time. (She is now an eighth grader at the same school where he once taught me and so many other girls he went on to groom.) And I work at a high school now, where I realized two things that brought my experience with him into greater focus:
1. Even our seniors look like infants to me.
2. The bond between teacher and student is sacred. Even students who are no longer technically students are still “my babies,” no matter how old they get.
Which is probably why, when he asked me in the summer of 2020 why I hadn’t written him, I was honest. I said that I was having a hard time with the fact that my older daughter was going to be in the same grade I was when I met him. He chided me for continuing to bring up what had happened between us, saying that his “well-being [gets] completely shattered” whenever I made him remember it.
“You’re not a monster; I wouldn’t stay in touch if I believed that,” I wrote, trying to console him. “And I know you were not yourself, and I know you’ve apologized. … But it definitely fucked me up for a long time and certainly shatters my well-being when I recall it, as well.”
I really believed that then. I believed he wasn’t a monster.
Then I learned about the others. It started on a private Facebook group of New Orleans women, prompted by the absolute inescapability of his Roth biography. One by one, women from many different years of his class started sharing our stories. There were so many of us. We were ready to talk.
The sheer number of these stories, some from women I’d known casually for years (including one he introduced me to) without knowing that this part of their lives intersected with mine, was unfathomable. Reading their stories has been the only time in this whole ordeal my knees have literally given out from under me.
But then I got back up, and I wrote that second letter, the one I sent to the New York Times. I didn’t do it because of his book. I’m doing it because of my daughters. All of our daughters. And honestly, our sons, too.
The night we knew the story was breaking in the Times, a group of former Bailey students, including Elisha Diamond and Jessie Wightkin Gelini, met for dinner. As I read the revelation about Valentina Rice, a woman I’d never even heard of who accused Bailey of raping her in 2015, I put my head down on the table and cried. I felt such agony for her. What if I’d said something back in 2003? Could I have spared her that experience? I also felt a sick sense of relief that it wasn’t just me. I wasn’t crazy. I really did remember the events of June 2003 correctly. He raped me. And then he went on to do it again.
In the journal I used to keep for Mr. Bailey’s class, he would often depict me in his hand-drawn cartoons as a Chihuahua. He’d put little wiggles around the dog to indicate it was shaking, because he thought of me as an anxious, neurotic mess.
When I heard he’d emailed other women asking them not to tell their stories, not to talk to reporters, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t even contact me. I knew how sure he was of my loyalty and my silence.
But I don’t need Mr. Bailey’s approval anymore.
Life in Mr. Bailey’s class: Read Slate’s reporting on how the former teacher got inside his eighth grade students’ heads.