"Always it came back to the women," Blake Bailey wrote of novelist (and noted misogynist) Philip Roth in his best-selling biography of Roth's life.
For Bailey, too, it seems, it ultimately came back to the women. At the end of April, a series of reports from outlets including The New York Times, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, the Los Angeles Times and Slate revealed that Bailey was alleged to have engaged in inappropriate, grooming relationships with some of his students when he was a middle school teacher in New Orleans in the 1990s. In 2021, the women alleged to have been affected by Bailey's life choices were "ready to talk," as former student Eve Crawford Peyton wrote in an essay for Slate. The stories that came flooding out painted a disturbing, stomach-turning picture of an educator and writer who took advantage of women who saw him as a trusted mentor and authority figure.
Peyton accused him of having raped her — after years of grooming — when she was 22. Another woman, publishing executive Valentina Rice, also came forward, alleging that Bailey had raped her in 2015. Bailey has denied the allegations, calling them "false and libelous." The principal at the school where he taught also has said she never received any complaints about him during his employment.
The allegations also raise vital questions about whom we allow to shape public narratives. What does it mean that a man who is now alleged to have been a sexual abuser wrote a widely circulated, mostly critically lauded biography of a man who himself displayed a lifetime of harmful misogyny — misogyny that was present both in his personal life and in his work?
As a culture, we routinely prioritize men's power, access and humanity above women's safety. Nothing drives this point home more than the fact that Rice emailed Bailey's publisher, W.W. Norton, about her allegation in 2018. Norton's president, Julia A. Reidhead, did not respond to Rice, but she did forward the email to Bailey, according to The New York Times. (The publisher told The Times in a statement that it took the allegations seriously, confronting Bailey and contacting others who could better verify the claim.)
There is something particularly disturbing about realizing that so many of the arbiters of our public narratives are themselves alleged to be abusers. The role of a biographer, presumably, is to examine and elucidate truths about a public figure that the person cannot accurately articulate. There is both a closeness and a distance necessary to do the job well. But what happens when the biographer sees himself in his subject's greatest faults?
Bailey openly admitted that part of what got him the job as Roth's biographer — granting him access to Roth that no one else had —- was, in his own words, his willingness not to take "too prim or judgmental a view of a man who had this florid love life." This ability to not only excuse Roth's misogyny but also relate to it led to a biography that in turn reflected a misogynist worldview. The New Republic's Laura Marsh aptly pegged Bailey in March as "a biographer who is exceptionally attuned to [Roth's] grievances and rarely challenges his moral accounting," who ultimately wrote a narrative that casts women as "forever screeching, berating, flying into a rage, and storming off, as if their emotions exist solely for the purpose of sapping a man's creative energies."
Allowing abusive men to write the public-facing narratives of other abusive men's lives creates a dizzying cycle of cultural empathy for abusers. These genius men, these tortured artists, get to be sympathetic characters, whereas the women who suffered because of them are written off in the footnotes of their lives as nags and scolds and roadblocks to be overcome.
How many stories that frame the stakes this way can people absorb before they, too, believe that imperfect women make for acceptable sacrifices at the altar of male artistic talent?
Bailey, who has been accused of grooming his 12- and 13-year-old students, had the power to transform Roth's predations into quirks. In one egregious passage, he transforms Roth's (admitted) aggressive sexual advances toward a friend of his stepdaughter's — "What's the point of having a pretty girl in the house if you don't f--- her?" Roth says in the book's telling — into nothing more than an "impulse to mock a certain kind of bourgeois piety."
The allegations against Bailey are particularly disturbing, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Since the first explosive reporting about former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's abuses was published in October 2017, so many men who held the power to shape public perception of Big Important Things have been called on to account for their varying abuses. Who did the men that have been exposed and accused and confronted since Weinstein's fall from grace make more palatable? Who did they protect while they themselves were allegedly privately abusing their power at the expense of women? Which women got shunted to the side to facilitate their professional ascendency? Which stories got told in the first place? Which didn't? And by whom?
"It may seem like a wild coincidence that the man who chronicled Roth's history of s----- behavior toward women ... is also allegedly s----- to women," Emily Alford wrote over at Jezebel after the news broke. "But allow me to explain something to any outsiders who are reading this — the overwhelming majority of (overwhelmingly white) men in the literary and academic world are s----- people who routinely harass women. Production of most books by dudes would have to halt indefinitely if publishers actually began to care about this problem in actuality."
This statement may be a touch exaggerated, but it illustrates a truth about the depths of the problem. When it comes to ending misogynist abuse, trying to toss out the bad apples in any industry is akin to playing a particularly frustrating and never-ending game of whack-a-mole. As soon as you tamp one down, three more pop up. Again and again and again. After all, that is exactly what the machine that controls the arcade game is meant to do.
Until the operating system of the game is shut down, until not just the publishing industry but also our culture writ large stop letting men be the final arbiters of their fellow men's behavior toward women, the tokens will continue to be fed into the machine and the moles will continue to pop up. Only some will get whacked.