S1: This is the waves.
S2: This is the waves.
S1: This is the way. This is the way. This is the way. This is the waves.
S2: Welcome to The Waves, Slate’s podcast about terrible teachers this week. At least we’re back. And every episode you’re going to get a new pair of Slate feminists talking about things that they can’t get off of their minds. I’m Susan Matthews. I’m Slate’s news director. And I’m the editorial lead for The Waves. Given that this is our first episode, we’re going to completely abandon the format, but we have a really good reason for it. Today, we’re going to talk about an incredibly important story that Slate recently published about Blake Bailey. Now, this episode is going to contain discussions of rape and sexual assault. So if you’re not comfortable hearing those types of discussions, please feel free to turn off this episode and we’ll see you next week. Now, who is Blake Bailey? He’s a literary biographer whose most recent book was about Philip Roth, but before that he was an 8th grade English teacher in New Orleans. He taught for seven years. And during those seven years, as we and other news outlets found out, he formed really close personal relationships with his students. He stayed in touch with many of the girls. He taught us 8th graders as they went through high school and college, and he went on to have questionable sexual encounters with many of them. The nature of the encounters varied. Some women immediately rebuffed his advances. Some women had what they described as consensual sex with their former teacher, one woman, Eve Crawford. Peyton, told us a story about Blake Bailey raping her when she was 22 years old. I want to note here that Bailey’s attorney has denied any accusations of impropriety. But what does this mean for the format of our show this week? We’re going to start with a conversation among those reporters. Slate’s Josh Levin and Molly Olmstead will join me to talk about what’s not in our piece, what it’s like to report a meta story now years after everything started, and why reporting still isn’t really the way to get justice, at least not in any traditional sense. After that, you’re going to hear my conversation with Eve, the woman I mentioned at the start of the show. In addition to our reported piece, you’ve wrote a personal essay for Slate about the years Bailey was her mentor and the years they stayed in touch after the rape. We aren’t going to rehash what’s in those pieces here. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend that you check them both out at Slate Dotcom Bailey instead. This episode is devoted to giving you a more in-depth look at an incredibly important story and how it affected us. It gets personal and we’ll get started right after this. Welcome back to The Waves, I’m Susan Matthews, and I’m here with Josh and Molly, my co reporters, on our story about Blake Bailey. Hi, Josh. Hi, Molly. Hey, Susan. Hi. One thing that I felt during this and we said this to each other all the time, every single person basically said he was my favorite teacher. He was a monster in this way. And so one of the decisions that we had to make really early on was that we were not just going to focus on the bad stuff. We were going to focus on like what it was like to be in his eighth grade class. And one of the decisions that we also made pretty early on was we weren’t just interested in the women. We wanted to talk to the men and we wanted to show the experience of what it was like to be a boy in this class. Josh, you talk to most of the boys there now, men, obviously. But can you talk a little bit about how you felt about bringing that kind of male perspective and experience into a story like this?
S3: There’s, I think, an important reason to do it. And then I think there’s a counterargument that we where the counter argument being that this is a story where we want to center the women and we want to make sure that their voices are heard the loudest and that there’s nothing there that would obstruct that. The way we ultimately incorporated the boys stories in the piece was actually done in service of that mission. And the truth is that you can’t tell this story without representing what Bailey was like in the classroom. And what he was like in the classroom was he was he was not a person who only appealed to and was charismatic towards the girls. He was somebody who had this dramatic effect on so many different people in the class. And what we were able to see by interviewing Sam Brando, whose journal pages you can see throughout this reported piece that we did, was that Bailey related to him as a peer and as somebody who was like a mini me kind of. And he talked to Sam as if like, oh, here’s some of the things that I did as far as like going after girls and romance when I was your age. And he was kind of like burrowing down with him in a way. And then with the girls, there was this quote that I found was kind of like the payoff for me in terms of including the boys was that he told Sam, essentially, you’re just like me and you told the girls I would have been your boyfriend in high school. And that just showed. The huge kind of contrast and the difference between what it was like to be the object of Bailey’s attention as a boy versus as a girl, that he didn’t see the girls, he didn’t see the girls as being people that could grow up to be like him. He saw them as people that could grow up to be objects of his romantic or sexual interest and attention.
S4: And I also think one of the things that made it made me understand this story was talking to the women who were harmed most by this sense of betrayal almost that came from the particular dynamic that they had and the trust that they put in this man who they felt like was really listening to them in a way that adults had not been before and someone who was really formative in the creation of their identity and sense of self. And so I sort of feel like that’s almost what one of the things people responded to hearing these women stories was this idea that it’s not about the act itself that he committed. It’s about like the way he corrupted this particular sense of security they had or this sense of who they were and who believed in them. That made it so painful for so many of them. And I kind of feel like the more that we talk to people, you know, I I don’t know about you, Suzanne, but there were points where I was really worried, like, oh, someone sees this thing and they see that it’s consensual sex. They might, you know, feel like I might want to be dismissive of this woman’s pain. But I actually feel like people were pretty understanding of of the ways that this exact dynamic was was harmful.
S2: One of the things that made the dynamics in this story really clear was that he met that he was their eighth grade teacher. Like there was kind of no way, no world in which this pattern happening with so many women was was normal or acceptable. And this kind of gets into the next thing that I was hoping to talk about, which is like he is not that famous on his own. He has a connection to fame, obviously. But I think a lot of people maybe aren’t familiar with his work. But I think that the response has been really outsized because a lot of people have had a creepy teacher. So I was curious how you negotiate, how how you were thinking through him as a slightly as a person who’s adjacent to fame. I don’t know if we can say that he’s famous versus just him as a kind of character
S3: or story kind of represents a continuum of behavior. You have the boys who kind of at the time only saw the positive at him and now kind of see his behavior as being problematic. In retrospect, you have the women like Amelia who recognized that they were kind of the objects of unwelcome attention at the time and managed to escape. You have the women who did have unwelcome sexual encounters with them, and then you have Eve, who you’re going to speak to, you know, shortly on this podcast, who was raped by him, says that she was raped by him. And so I think if you read this story and you’re not familiar with Bailey, his fame, who he is or what he did, you can probably see yourself somewhere. But by including that full spectrum. Of experiences, I think it was both true to the story, but also universalised it in a way that it felt close to home to so many different types of reader.
S4: And I think what specifically resonated for some people with this is that he was an English teacher and in an English class, especially at that age, when you are becoming or you’re starting to think of yourself as like your own person and no longer just a child, and you’re getting these ideas of your own individuality, but you’re also taking these classes where you’re reading these books and getting introduced to all these new ideas. And you’re thinking about things that you don’t think of is normally belonging in a school setting these sort of big questions about life and love and death and all these things that really sort of take you out of what you think of as like the limited confines of the classroom. I talked to another English teacher who was there at the time, and he was basically like, I experienced this with my students do not to the level that Bailey did, but like they were really emotionally attached to me in a way that they would never be attached to, like a math teacher.
S2: Yeah, I really have been thinking about this so much because I’ve been thinking about I think that we, like, solved it in this case. But I think that there’s kind of this interesting journalism question about reporting on abuser’s of like how important do they have to be to warrant a news story about their abuse? Like I’ve gotten emails from women talking about a teacher that they had a professor. I’ve written stories about other people at other other colleges. And I’ve gotten questions about like, is my college not prestigious enough? The the the schools I’ve written about are like Yale and Dartmouth. And it’s just something that really haunts me and like makes me really wonder about like what the role of journalism is in uncovering abuse. And I sort of think to myself, like our job as writers is to figure out how to tell stories that are. Our true and real and have have some element where people will be drawn into them, whether it’s because, you know, it’s a law professor misbehaving at the top law school, like there are these things that framing devices and so on. But it also is such a strange, ethical, mucky area. And I just I don’t know what I think about it. It just it is one of those things that, like, kind of keeps me up at night. It makes me feel worried. And I was wondering if either of you had advice for me. I think about it.
S3: Well, these are stories that are incredibly intensive. The sad reality is that there are more abusers and more cases of abuse than there are journalistic resources to cover them. And so ultimately, where I think we’re left is having to make those choices and having to you know, whether you tell people this directly or not, make a choice about whether we’re able to cover a story that is maybe incredibly sad and warrants coverage. But you just have to decide, like this is the example of this phenomenon that we’re going to be able to cover and it’s just going to have to stand in for the whole. And I think if we’re going to be honest, you know, Suzanne, I think he did have a certain level of fame and presence in the news cycle because of the Roth biography that did put this into another category of story. It wasn’t just that he was an English teacher. It was that he was an English teacher who had attained a certain level of of notoriety. And so I think you’re not going to be able to rest easy if you care about the subject ever.
S4: Well, if you want solidarity, Susan, I wanted I remember one of the women saying that, you know, she was sexually assaulted by a different person at a different stage in her life, that she was like, you know, but this person wasn’t famous. So no one’s ever going to care about that. And that comment, I mean, I felt kind of queasy for like twenty four hours after that. I mean, it just is it is a hard thing. I think the thing that made me feel a lot better doing this story is, is the feeling that we were focusing on an English teacher, even though, as Josh pointed out, he was a famous English teacher. He was something that did represent a much more common version of the, you know, abuser in a power dynamic with another person who is in an institution. I mean, that’s obviously the thing about journalism is we’re not going to do many and we’re not going to do much reporting on just like a random guy. Right. I mean, what we feel like we are more empowered to do is look at something that is an institution and a school at the local level. Is that and I mean, God bless local journalism for doing so much of this work. But it’s a crummy feeling. And it just felt or it made me feel better to feel like we weren’t just talking about this famous guy. We were talking about this common place where this abuse occurs in a way that while it won’t in a very explicit way, help the other women who have had this situation, it will at least make them feel like they’re other people who they can relate to and who have experienced things. And at least they’ll see the same patterns and feel a little bit less crazy for, I don’t know, keeping in contact with their abuser or something like that, which otherwise might make them feel bad in the years afterwards.
S2: I think that you just have to understand that, like, journalism isn’t the mechanism for obtaining justice. And I think that one of the things that I felt working on this piece specifically was that there have been kind of a couple of years where I feel like this type of story has has faded into the background a little bit there. The pandemic, you know, kind of took over everything, understandably, the election. And I think with Cuomo and then this story, it feels a little bit like the conversation is coming back. And so it feels like a reminder that journalism can do a specific kind of thing. It can’t solve the problem. It just, you know, it tries to surface the issues. It tries to explain what it’s like. It tries to create empathy. And do you share that sense that the story went away a little bit and now it’s it’s coming back? And do you have a sense of like have we learned how to do it? Better this time, since we’ve kind of had these, like years of practice,
S4: some part of me can’t tell the difference between whether we’ve learned to do things better or whether the audience has actually shifted on this. I feel like we don’t have to make some of the same assumptions that we maybe would have had to make several years ago, that the the reaction to some of these stories would be, you know, maybe very hostile in a way that it might have been some years ago. It gives it a little bit of wiggle room to explore some of the nuance and shades of gray that we might not have been able to explore back when people were having the earlier versions of this conversation. I mean, I’m not sure if that’s a lesson. It might just be that the conversation has moved enough that we get to do something that is a little bit more satisfying when you’re looking at this kind of story then, whereas maybe earlier we would have had to focus on just the very, very violent versions of this. Maybe, but I do feel like the response to this has been positive in a way that feels informed by the stories that came before.
S3: It were all kind of an unsteady ground. And everything is always changing, whether it’s the appetite for these stories or the appetite for, you know, people to come forward. And so it definitely feels like things have changed and are changing. But it also feels like that progress is always kind of fitful and doesn’t move and that steady or straight line.
S2: Thank you to Josh and Molly. Thanks so much for coming on and talking about this with me. Thank you for reporting it with me. And when we come back after the break, I’m going to talk to Eve Crawford about her essay in Slate. We’re about to bring on Eve Crawford in, but before she joins us, I want you to know about her story. Eve was one of Blake Bailey’s students that Lusher Middle School in the early 1990s. She stayed in touch with Bailey throughout high school and college when she was 22 years old. She met up with her former mentor when they were both back in New Orleans. Thought that it was going to be coffee, but he asked her if he could get drinks instead. Later, he invited her back to the place he was staying. He kissed her and told her to take her clothes off. You’ve resisted and thought it was bizarre, but he wouldn’t stop. Bailey raped Eve that night. Eve wrote about the experience and the aftermath in an essay for Slate that we ran alongside our piece. The headline is I Was 12 When We Met and you can find it linked at Slate Dotcom Slash Bailey. There is no other way to describe this piece than to say that it is unbelievably well-written and it is absolutely cutting. Eve, welcome to the waves and thanks so much for being here.
S1: Hey, thanks for having me.
S2: I’ve described to our listeners a little bit about your piece, so even if they haven’t read it, they they know the details. You don’t have to rehash everything. And I just wanted to have a conversation with you a little bit about everything else that you’ve been through and about Blake Bailey more broadly. The first time that we talked, you told me about your own personal history with Blake Bailey, but you also told me about moving back to New Orleans and the fact that over the years you had had a couple of different experiences where you met women and realized that they seemed to have really terrible stories about Blake Bailey, too. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like, particularly in the past few years, to sort of learn that this man had a pattern and had maybe done something awful to more women besides you?
S1: It was definitely a gradual realization. For so long. I completely wrote the entire experience off to the fact that he had written me back and said he was just in a really bad, dark place and I was willing to accept that and willing to forgive. He he had mentioned that night with me a couple of students that he had hooked up with, basically. And I don’t know what I assumed at the time it was before or anything like that had happened. And so I sort of knew this about them. And I didn’t know if, you know, if they knew anything about me. It was all whispers like everybody was sort of I found out later he had told another student that that shit with me got weird or something, which was kind of shocking to read, and it was that kind of thing. He had mentioned Chicot weird to her. I had heard from other friends that it was all rumors and innuendo. What finally brought it to a head was his his book was so high profile he was everywhere. And it started on a Facebook group. And one by one, women started revealing that. As someone put it, we had all thought that we had had this unique experience. One person said that she thought she’d had a bad a typical Katrina experience because what happened between them happened after Hurricane Katrina. Someone else thought he was really stressed out about, you know, a book he was working on. We would try to rationalize it and make excuses for him. And finally, there were just so many stories that we realized that it was a bleak daily experience. It was not that it was a universal thing. And that was what finally kind of broke it all open, is there were just too many of us for it to be a coincidence anymore.
S2: It sounds like it was right about then where you all had this realization. And then there were like several reporters who were reaching out to you and you decided to write your letter to The New York Times. Like, did you do that in consultation with those other women? How did you all decide once you made that realization how to proceed from there?
S1: We definitely had discussions on Facebook. We formed text groups where we were all sort of strategizing about what the best thing to do was. It wasn’t a strategy so much as just an explosion of frustration that we tried to channel into the most productive and effective way of getting our message out.
S2: I think that that’s a really smart thing to say, that it wasn’t a strategy. It was just like this emotional realization of what happened and a decision to kind of not be quiet anymore. You wrote about and we talked about a little bit when we were working together about the intensity of this friendship that started in this moment. Can you talk a little bit about how much you were all talking to each other at? And what it was like to kind of go through that as a group.
S1: Absolutely, that’s been the biggest silver lining of this whole thing is sort of the the power of the sisterhood. We were all communicating with each other in different ways. And once we realized we had this bond that none of us really wanted to have, we started supporting each other, validating each other’s experiences, offering words of support. The night that we knew that the New York Times story would be breaking, a group of us met for dinner. And as we read the story together, we were all crying and making weird noises and everybody in the restaurant thought we were crazy. And we still maintain these friendships. It’s it’s been very you know, we’re reminding each other to go to therapy, take care of yourself, drink your water. So I think there’s just been something really amazing about the support of women. And like I said, the sisterhood that’s that’s come out of this that has been really just the most amazing part of it.
S2: Something that really comes across or that came across in your piece for me was the fact that you had this extremely intense and awful experience with Blake Bailey. But you also had had in your life at different times, lots of very different experiences with Blake Bailey. And you wrote in your piece about recommending him for the Humanities Teacher of the Year award. And you wrote about, you know, he was a fantastic teacher. He was a sexual predator. Both of those things can be true. I imagine that being able to talk to other women about the fact that they probably had some of these complex feelings, maybe made it feel more OK to like exist in that complexity. But I’m curious how and maybe it’s even different a few weeks later, a few weeks after the fact, how that idea that he was an excellent teacher and he was kind of this monster. How are you holding that complexity in your head?
S1: I, I guess I’ve been kind of navigating that complexity for a long time now. That was sort of the cognitive dissonance of that is is the main thing that I had to to reckon with as I went through all of this, because he had been such an important mentor for me. And it was really hard to to give that up, to lose that that relationship. And so I think that’s a big part of why I did maintain a friendship with him over the years that and like I said, I was willing to kind of forgive his behavior that night as a one off. He he was very kind and understanding. And after those years, that that year of keeping a journal for him, he did sort of become like a confessional for all of us. We all loved the way he made us feel about ourselves. And it was it was hard to navigate the idea that if he had only said these things with some idea of getting us into bed 10 years in the future or something, it’s hard to it’s hard to imagine that that could be true. First of all, it’s hard to imagine someone calculating something like that. But it’s also you don’t want it to mean that everything they said wasn’t real. You still want to believe the things about yourself that that a mentor told you at that vulnerable stage in your life. It was really good to hear from so many other people who had kept in touch with him, despite knowing that he was kind of doing some questionable things because it made me feel so much less crazy, I. I do I mean, there’s definitely a large part of me that still feels terrible for for hurting him like this and certainly for hurting his family, I mean, that’s that’s been the worst part of this. It’s definitely complex.
S2: I wanted to switch gears a little bit and just say that it’s there’s kind of this meta element here where he was your English teacher. He gave you feedback on your writing. You were a writer for for many years. You’re clearly still a writer. And you wrote this piece that was like, phenomenal, just one of the best personal essays I’ve ever read. And I’m like, I never published. And the response I mean, just my end. The response has been extraordinary. And I was wondering if you could speak just a little bit about any feedback you’ve gotten from that essay and what it was like to kind of deal with this via writing when your relationship with him also had a lot to do with writing.
S1: Thank you. Yeah, it was I received a lot of positive comments from from women all over all over the world. I think people had just sent me emails. I tried to make myself as hard to find as possible because I didn’t want to get disgusting death threats and that kind of thing. That seems like women get so often, but everybody’s been just amazing. Several women have reached out to say that they had similar experiences with teachers. One woman even reached out to say that she had been raped and her experience also started with oral sex. And so the fact that I included that in my account really made it sort of validated what had happened with her, like it was able she was able to finally say in her head, OK, this definitely was rape or something that happened years and years ago. So that’s been really gratifying to hear that sharing this story could could help other people come to terms with their own experiences. I I’ve also been talking I mean, and this is such a typical female experience, but I have a friend who was raped by a stranger and she has always sort of felt guilty about the fact that she was like this perfect victim and she doesn’t want her experience to invalidate anyone else’s. And of course, women who are raped by people they know and trust feel stupid for trusting them or going home with them or whatever. So it’s just this impulse that women have to sort of blame themselves in any situation. And she and I then both discussed the fact that we feel guilty because her rapist is in jail. And I sort of saw this these immediate consequences and not immediate. It was 17 years, but still, once I spoke out, it was consequences. And the donation that Norton made to sexual assault survivors was just incredible. So we both feel bad that there’s so many women out there who have experiences that they will never have any validation for. And so if this story helped anybody on any level, that makes me feel good. It’s also I said earlier, I think that having someone say so many nice things to you about your writing and then turn out to be maybe not the best person makes you question everything. Like if what was his motivation for complimenting me? What was his motivation for telling me I was talented? And so hearing that from other people has has been very healing as well, because it’s like, OK, it wasn’t just like Bailey telling me I was a good writer in eighth grade. It was it’s been very nice to to hear people say so many nice things about a very personal piece
S2: for people who aren’t going to have maybe the cathartic or however you would describe it, experience of being able to speak out. Do you have any advice for those people of what they can or should do in a situation like this? And I realize that’s kind of asking you to be like both God and police and everything that we want in the world. But I’m still going to see what what you have to say.
S1: For a long time, I sort of felt sorry for myself because I was like, oh, God, I if I had just been raped by some frat boy or something, I wouldn’t have to see his picture in The New York Times. And now I’m feeling kind of the flip side of that, which is I was I was raped by somebody famous enough to matter and to be able to have this sort of cathartic experience, like you said, for people who who are not going to have that. I mean, I can’t in good conscience encourage anybody to go to the police in many of these cases, because I know there have been a lot of strides made in how sexual assault cases are handled, but. I mean, even if you get Olivia Benson, for most of you as your cop, you’re still going to have to go to trial a lot of times. And that’s that has not really gotten better from what I understand from from my few friends who have actually tried to try to prosecute somebody, it’s their entire lives are picked over and on display. And it’s a very painful experience. So I wouldn’t necessarily advise anybody to do that route unless it’s what feels right to them. Therapy is probably my best advice. I had a lot of therapy after this happened and I and I actually reached out to my therapist from 17 years ago as this was breaking. And she wrote me back the most incredible email, just saying how proud he was of me and how she definitely remembered me and our work that we did together and my bravery for coming back every week to grapple with it some more. She was tremendously healing for me and she was really helpful in terms of helping you recognize the behavior for what it was helping me call it predatory behavior. So I think I think therapy would be my first piece of advice is to just try to get yourself to a place where you can handle whatever comes next.
S2: Yeah, I. I think that therapy is almost always a really good piece of advice, which is particularly applicable now. And I also I mean, I try to think that like pieces like yours help women process what has happened so that you can at least like talk to friends about it. Or I think even if we’re not at the level where we figured out how to fix all of the systemic injustice, quite yet we are every piece like this, every woman who speaks up like this, it makes it a little bit more. Acceptable and relatable and understandable.
S1: I think that’s one hundred percent true. I know when the all the different Harvey Weinstein stories were coming out, one of the things that really I think I think I cried for like an hour when I read this that a lot of the women had stayed in touch with him even after what had happened. And I thought, oh, my God, I’m not I’m not insane. Like this is this is a reaction that is not necessarily self-destructive. That isn’t a complete sign that you’re that you’re mentally ill or something. This is a very normal trauma response, is to try to minimize what happened by staying in touch with someone and trying to maintain things like they were. And so the fact that those women were brave enough to tell their stories helped me realize that my own behavior was more normal, which made me, in turn, more willing to share my story. So, yeah, every woman that speaks out and is as brutally honest as they can be, including the parts of the story they wish they could change. It’s going to make it more relatable to people and it’s going to make women more willing to speak up.
S2: Yeah, and I I think your piece is a huge part of that. So I just want to again, thank you so much for for writing it, for coming on and talking about it. And I really appreciate it.
S1: I appreciate the opportunity to write it and I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. So thank you very much.
S2: That’s our show this week. The Waves is produced by Shayna Roth. I’m the editorial director with June Thomas providing oversight and moral support. It feels great to have the waves back. And if you like the show, be sure to subscribe rate and interview wherever you get your podcasts. Let us know what you thought of the show. Our email address is the waves at Slate dot com. If you’re happy about the return of the waves, please consider supporting the show by joining Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast and bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom. The waves plus the waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic, same time and place.
S5: See you there.