Blake Bailey: The Past, the Present, and the Book About #MeToo
April 7, 2023
In 2010, Blake Bailey was a superstar – and he was coming to ODU. Thirteen years later, faculty and students are still reeling from the impact of his time as a visiting assistant professor.
When Bailey started at ODU as a writer-in-residence in spring of 2010, he was touted as the “top of his field,” a “genius” and as one of the United States most important biographers. He had written two biographies, one about Richard Yates, and one about John Cheever. He was a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, a Francis Parkman Prize winner, and in spring of 2010 he was named a Pulitizer prize finalist and received an Academy Award in Literature. A semester later, in fall of 2010, Bailey became the Mina Hohenberg Darden Chair of Creative Writing. He would go on to spend seven years at ODU, staying through the spring of 2016.
Bailey’s first semester appeared to begin smoothly. Then, in April of 2010, reports say Bailey sexually assaulted a linguistics professor in a hot tub during a creative writing retreat.
His behavior continued to escalate, and in October of 2011, witnesses reported that Bailey harassed a graduate student in a bar near ODU campus, forcing her to dance with him and holding her arms so that she couldn’t walk away. Witnesses say that when she escaped to the bathroom, Bailey followed her and tried to keep her from leaving the bar.
Other accounts of his behavior present a picture that, nearly a decade later, can’t be entirely substantiated, as records have been destroyed and many of the women involved have declined to participate in recent investigations.
These include reports of Bailey’s behavior towards a visiting writer in residence during a literary festival party at Bailey’s house in October of 2011. When the visiting writer left, witnesses saw Bailey take her hand and lead her down the road. The visiting writer later told the witnesses that Bailey had kissed her without her consent.
A graduate student who was advised by Bailey in 2014 also reported sexual misconduct. She told The Virginian-Pilot that Bailey had encouraged her to “write more about [her] sex life” for class. She said that she began to avoid him after a meeting in his office during which Bailey propped his leg up on the desk, presenting her with a view of his crotch.
I remember thinking ‘I wonder what he’s finally done.’
— Dr. Kevin Moberly
Dr. Bridget Anderson, the professor whom Bailey assaulted in the hot tub, reported to the Virginian-Pilot that a year after the hot tub incident, at a creative writing retreat in the spring of 2011, Bailey threatened to rape her. She felt stalked by Bailey, as he would sit next to her in meetings, follow her when she moved, and attempted to put his hand on her leg. When she left, Bailey cornered her in the mailroom, where, Anderson said, she pulled a knife on him and told him to leave her alone. After that, she said, Bailey’s behavior towards her stopped.
Between 2010 and 2012, Anderson and several graduate students reported Bailey’s misconduct to multiple ODU faculty members and administrators. Anderson reported inappropriate behavior by Bailey to several administrators in her direct chain of command, but nothing was done and Bailey’s visiting professorship continued to be renewed.
ODU was aware of Blake Bailey’s actions, but other than one meeting with administrators where Bailey was chastised about his behavior towards women, there were no consequences for his actions.
A review of the situation conducted by an independent law firm in November of 2021 found that while ODU did not violate any laws in their response to the situation, “best practices dictate that ODU should have done more” at the time.
“It was a well known fact that he was doing what he was doing,” said Dr. Kevin Moberly, an associate professor in the English department. “I remember thinking [when Bailey’s departure was announced] ‘I wonder what he’s finally done.’”
Bailey remained at ODU as a writer-in-residence until spring of 2016. No one has served as the Chair of Creative Writing for as long as Bailey did.
All of this could have been stopped when he was here if somebody had just listened to what people were saying. And somebody had taken action about it. All of it could have been stopped.
— Dr. Kevin Moberly
In April of 2021, Blake Bailey’s world started crashing down around him. The year started on a high note: at the end of March, The New York Times published a profile of Bailey’s life in advance of his upcoming book; the book also received promotion in The New Yorker. “Philip Roth: The Biography” was released on April 6, 2021 and made The New York Times Best Seller list.
Then, on April 20, 2021, The New Orleans Advocate/Times-Picayune (NOLA) reported accounts of students who claimed that Bailey groomed them and pursued sexual relationships with them early in their adulthood.
In 1993, Bailey accepted a teaching position at Luster Middle School in New Orleans, Louisiana, as an eighth grade English teacher. He was beloved by his students; he would assign the novel “Lolita” – about a literature professor who rapes his underage step-daughter – which made students feel that he viewed them as mature enough to handle adult content.
Bailey assigned weekly journals that encouraged students to write about crushes, kisses, and scribble down secrets. He would add commentary and doodles in the margins. He maintained a relationship with the students as they aged out of his class, mentoring them into adulthood.
Eve Crawford Peyton was in the first eighth grade class Bailey ever taught at Luster. He called her “Eveness” and kept in contact with her through college, sending letters signed “Love, B” and asking if she had punched her v-card. When Peyton was 22, engaged and traveling through New Orleans, she met up with Bailey for drinks and went with him to his hotel room. Peyton wrote that Bailey kissed her, raped her, and then drove her to her father’s house. Several days later, she said, he emailed her, begging her not to tell anyone.
Many other former students have come forward with stories of misconduct, with one writing that Bailey groomed his 12- and 13-year old students.
“We cannot deny that he waited until we were no longer his students to cajole, coerce and rape us, and we also cannot deny the deep and lasting betrayal of trust that his actions ignited,” wrote a classmate of Peyton in a comment published by NOLA.
Within 48 hours of the NOLA article being published, W.W. Norton & Company had stopped producing, shipping, and promoting “Philip Roth: The Biography.”
The Story Factory, Bailey’s literary agent, dropped him. W.W. Norton & Company took the biography out of print entirely on April 27, 2021, as well as ceased publishing Bailey’s 2014 memoir “The Splendid Things We Planned.” Former students took to Twitter to share their stories.
Blake Bailey had encountered the #MeToo movement.
On June 10, 2021, The Virginian-Pilot released their article about Bailey’s assault of Dr. Anderson in a hot tub, the harassment of a visiting writer, and the stories of two graduate students in Bailey’s classes.
Prior to publication, The Virginian-Pilot had reached out to ODU for comment regarding the allegations. ODU hired outside legal counsel, Kaufman & Canoles, who conducted a six-day internal investigation in which Anderson was not contacted. Kaufman & Canoles drafted a response, which was reviewed and edited by several members of ODU administration, including former President John Brodrick, who was directly involved and who approved the statement to be sent.
The statement, which was intended to deter the Pilot from printing the article, claimed that ODU never “received any complaint, formal or informal, from any student, regarding inappropriate touching by Blake Bailey, much less any complaint of sexual assault,” a claim which was shown to be false in the internal investigation conducted by Nixon Peabody in 2021.
The statement was widely seen as victim-blaming and aggressive, saying that the “salacious” hot tub incident was “sought-after” and reiterating claims that “no one ever voiced a word to ODU about any occurrence of the type of assaultive non-consensual conduct for which he has been indicted in the press.”
Two weeks before The Virginian-Pilot published the article, they informed ODU of their intention to publish the statement. ODU did nothing to prevent them from doing so.
When The Virginian-Pilot article was published on June 10, 2021, chaos broke out in the ODU English department and creative writing program.
“There was outrage. People wanted people to apologize. And that became [a] chasm,” said Dr. Kevin Moberly, an associate professor of English who has been employed with the university since before Blake Bailey.
A statement with dozens of signatures was released by faculty in support of the survivors, only days after the article was released. Professors demanded a statement from the chair of the English department, and a group called Concerned Citizens of English formed to demand an apology for the victims.
We as a department can’t fix these problems because this is a university culture problem. This is a leadership problem.
— Dr. Kevin Moberly
“Most of the people in the department signed this statement from the faculty and staff. There .. was an underground movement of what I would call a ‘loyalty test’ by senior faculty members who started on the down-low contacting other people in the department, other faculty who had been outspoken about it,” said Moberly.
ODU administration responded to The Virginian-Pilot article, with then-president Broderick emailing an apology to staff, faculty, and students on June 14, 2021. In it, Broderick said that the work of the legal party who drafted the statement to the Pilot “had to be independent” [from the university], but that he saw how it appeared that “the victims were being blamed.”
Despite numerous requests, the creative writing program didn’t issue an apology to the victims. The chair of the English department, Sheri Reynolds, left ODU and moved to Wofford University.
Issues only escalated in December of 2021 when the Nixon Peabody report was published.
The Nixon Peabody report was an investigation of ODU’s response to complaints about Bailey’s behavior, the university’s reactions to the complaints, and an examination of the drafting and approval of the statement sent to the Virginian Pilot. Unlike the six-day internal investigation conducted by ODU, this investigation was extensive, culminating in a report spanning 92 pages. It was conducted by an outside law firm, Nixon Peabody LLP.
Nixon Peabody found that reports of Bailey’s behavior were made to multiple ODU administrators – including the Title IX coordinator – and that several were substantiated. Many could not be substantiated “due to a lack of documentation and physical evidence, the significant passage of time, and divergent recollections.”
“ODU was at least constructively aware of alleged improper conduct by Bailey during a significant period of his employment at the University,” the investigation reads. “Even if the alleged conduct did not constitute unlawful harassment or sex-based discrimination, we conclude that such concerns warranted responsive action by the University to address them and prevent harassment or sex-based discrimination.”
The investigation also uncovered that former President Broderick reviewed the statement and approved it before it was sent to The Pilot. He also likely edited it.
It should still be a scandal that the administration went to all this [trouble] to do a cover-up of what happened.
— Dr. Bridget Anderson
“The Statement to The Pilot was ill-conceived, insensitive to complainants and witnesses, and inaccurate regarding certain facts, causing harm to the University and its community,” the 92 page report states.
The report worsened the division between faculty that believed Anderson and faculty that didn’t, spurring angry “reply all” emails that circulated the entire department. Declarations of support were made towards Anderson, and others defended Reynolds’ decision not to apologize. Committees on civility, equity, inclusion, and harassment were created to heal the division. The English department brought in a mediator and encouraged faculty to attend mediation meetings, as well as complete mandatory sexual harassment training.
“The session [with the mediator] was all about ‘How can we as a department fix these problems?’ And I remember saying and thinking that we as a department can’t fix these problems because this is a university culture problem,” said Moberly. “This is a leadership problem.”
Even after two years, tensions are still present.
“It’s just like an appalling lack of empathy from the creative writing program, from people in the English department who were here at the time,” said Anderson. “It’s just not an emotionally safe environment for survivors. And I know from the students who were involved, that it hurts them that they have not had … an acknowledgement [of harm] from the department.”
For Anderson, healing requires overcoming that division, and receiving an acknowledgment of harm from the English department and creative writing program.
“The fact that we know all this wrongdoing took place and the English department and the creative writing [program] have never issued a statement to the victims… To me, that is an embarrassment to the university, a slap in the face of all survivors of sexual violence, and there’s no excuse for it.”
Anderson wants ODU to acknowledge Broderick’s participation in the statement sent to The Virginian-Pilot, which he told investigators that he never saw.
“ODU needs to have Broderick’s name removed from the [Broderick Dining Commons] building,” said Anderson.
ODU’s Broderick Dining Commons are named after former president Broderick and his wife, Kate. There are also multiple scholarships named after Broderick.
“It is documented by an independent investigation that he maliciously attacked and victim-blamed survivors of sexual violence in the press,” she said. “We still have a building named after John Broderick, who got caught in the Nixon Peabody investigation … being the architect of the attack in the press, lying to the public saying that he didn’t have anything to do with it when he did, trying to obstruct the investigation by saying he couldn’t remember any of the [events] they were asking him about.
“To me, it’s shocking. And it should still be a scandal that the administration went to all this [trouble] to do a cover-up of what happened.”
On the front page of Skyhorse Publishing’s website is Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography,” which W.W. Norton & Company pulled from production in April of 2021. Skyhorse announced that they would be publishing the biography in May of 2021, within weeks of W. W. Norton & Company dropping it. Since then, they have also published Bailey’s memoir “The Splendid Things We Planned.” Skyhorse, a Manhattan-based publishing company founded in 2006 by Tony Lyons – who has been labeled “the last radical publisher” – is distributed by Simon & Schuster.
Skyhorse describes themself on their website as “dedicated to publishing books that make people’s lives better, whether that means teaching them a hobby, bringing them a unique and important story, or encouraging them to fight against injustices, conspiracies, or abuses of power. The company maintains a firm stance against censorship and aims to provide a full spectrum of political, theological, cultural, and philosophical viewpoints to counter the increasingly biased environment in mainstream media.”
Positive reviews of their publishing process include names such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Tucker Carlson. Skyhorse is notorious for publishing highly controversial content. Authors include Alex Jones, a Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist who Skyhorse describes as the “most controversial man on earth” and reviews label as “the most misunderstood guy on the planet.” His book, “The Great Reset: And the War for the World,” is about “the global elite’s international conspiracy to enslave humanity and all life on the planet.”
Skyhorse has also published Woody Allen, JFK conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination accounts, and on January 10, 2023, an account of the January 6 insurrection. The book has a foreword written by Darren Beattie, who previously was a speechwriter for Trump, and who was fired for participating in a panel in a conference popular with white nationalists. He also created a conspiracy that PolitiFact named as its 2021 Lie of the Year.
#MeToo is supposed to center the stories of survivors. And I think it says a lot about his character that [this is] his response to all of this.
— Dr. Bridget Anderson
In June, Skyhorse announced that they would be publishing another book by Bailey: his upcoming memoir titled “Repellent: Philip Roth, #MeToo, and Me” which will be released on April 18, 2023.
“In the era of cancel culture, get a behind the scenes look at the journey to the critically acclaimed Philip Roth: The Biography and its “canceled” subject and author,” reads the heading.
In the description, Bailey describes the sexual harassment and rape allegations as “rumors… about Bailey’s own private life.” It also says that the book will look back on Bailey’s work with Phillip Roth and the time shortly after the release of the biography, during which “ominous forces were afoot.”
The description also advertises that “Bailey … frankly describes his own wayward behavior, and reflects on the extent to which writers’ personal lives should affect the perception of their work.” It also includes a “clear-eyed examination of the perils courted by any writer or artist—fallible human beings, after all—in the era of cancel culture.”
The book, which is only available in hardback, is already on sale for $25.10.
The Mace & Crown reached out to Skyhorse Publishing for comment, and for an advance copy of Bailey’s “Repellent.” We received no response despite repeated requests.
“It seems desperate,” said Anderson. “I’m not going to read it, and I don’t really care about what he has to say. #MeToo is supposed to center the stories of survivors. And I think it says a lot about his character that [this is] his response to all of this.”
Despite the numerous sexual assault and harassment allegations leading to Bailey’s fall from stardom, Bailey’s “cancelation” doesn’t seem to have stuck. With all of his books republished through Skyhorse and another on the way, the students and professors he impacted have been left scrambling for closure while Bailey continues to write.
“[Blake Bailey’s book] is going to open up all these wounds again,” said Moberly. “All of this could have been stopped when he was here if somebody had just listened to what people were saying. And somebody had taken action about it. All of it could have been stopped.”