Blake Bailey and the Rise of Survivor Activists in Academia

Over 200 faculty and alumni at Old Dominion University have signed a statement denouncing the school’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct by Blake Bailey. UPDATE: Since this post was written, Old Dominion has announced they will do an independent investigation of Blake Bailey’s alleged sexual misconduct while holding the Mina Hohenberg Darden Chair for Creative Writing at Old Dominion University from 2010 to 2016.

Blake Bailey, who wrote a biographer of Philip Roth which was removed from print by Norton, stands accused of multiple acts of sexual misconduct. (Image credit: Norton)

From 2010 to 2016, Old Dominion University in Virginia hosted a visiting professor by the name of Blake Bailey. In addition to being a teacher, he was an author and the biographer for several esteemed male literary figures including John Cheever and, more recently, Philip Roth. But upon publication of his biography of Philip Roth, much has come to light about Blake Bailey’s history of alleged sexual misconduct, both during his time as a professor and in his professional life outside the school. As a result of some of these accusations, Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was removed from print, his literary agent dropped him, and the biography’s original publisher, Norton, has pledged six-figures for sexual assault survivor advocacy.

In response to these accusations, Old Dominion tasked a law firm with addressing the issue. The law firm’s response was such that more than 200 members of the Old Dominion university faculty and alumni have denounced the response, calling for the lawyer who wrote the response to be fired, and for the school to do more to protect students and faculty from abusive staff.

Bailey’s History of Sexual Misconduct Allegations

The allegations against Bailey are numerous. The Virginian Pilot compiled a comprehensive list of them in their article, which can be read in its entirety here. 

Among those who have come forward to accuse him of such harassment and assault are an ODU linguistics professor by the name of Bridget Anderson, two graduate students, a visiting author, several former eight-grade students and a publishing executive. 

In the case of the publishing executive, Bailey stands accused of raping her at the home of a New York Times staff member. He was similarly accused of rape, attempted rape and grooming for sexual assault in regards to the former eight-grade students. 

Anderson’s story involving Bailey includes a large plethora of instances in which he groped, inappropriately touched, forcibly kissed, verbally harassed and threatened her. She states that the harassment only came to an end when she threatened him with a knife during an incident in which he cornered her. She also says that she informed the university various times about his behavior, but nothing was done. 

Many other witnesses and victims back her claim that the university was aware, but did not respond at the time. 

The grad students and visiting author at Old Dominion University also report being victims of inappropriate physical contact and verbal harassment from Blake Bailey. 

University Elects to Defend an Alleged Rapist

Despite the overwhelming amount of testimony by both those who bore the brunt of this sexual misconduct, and those who were bystanders, the university has denied the claims outright. In their statement, they claim that there is no reason to believe the accusations and that they were never aware of them. 

However, they seem to contradict themselves on both points in a single sentence from the statement. They write that, “On occasion, other faculty members were told by students and other members of the faculty that his classroom directions were odd, his assignments unusual, that some of his comments were perceived as misogynistic, or even that he was “creepy.” 

This admission certainly sounds like the university was at least aware of some of his unseemly behavior. It also suggests that there is reason to lay trust in the accusations against him. 

Further, the statement utilizes language and lines of thought that support sexist notions and victim blaming. They emphasize the time break between the incidents and the accusations, insinuating that it makes them less credible. They seem to not realize that their own statement is evidence as to why women might not come forward about their experiences. 

University Staff Reject ODU Statement and Release their Own.

A faculty letter released on June 13th, signed by more than 200 university staff supports the women who have made these accusations, disavows the university’s statement and calls for the university to make amends for their actions. 

“We, as faculty, students and staff, wish the public to know that the official statement released by ODU does not represent the beliefs of the community,” they wrote. 

The university president, John Broderick  has since emailed an apology, and vowed to create a task force dedicated to reviewing their policies and procedures that relate to such matters. 

Still, the university has not outwardly expressed any sentiment which disavows Blake Bailey or offers support for the women who have come forward about him. 

Important Lessons from Blake Bailey Ordeal

The Blake Bailey scandal is one that contains important events for survivor justice. First, the events indicate how easily academic institutions can be swayed to allow abusers to practice their abuse within the university setting. Because Blake Bailey was the hand-picked biographer for Philip Roth, a notoriously misogynist yet esteemed (in literary circles) writer, he seemed to be granted carte blanche in society. He was able to move in upper class circles and get an endowed literary positions at a university. Despite everyone knowing he was a “creep,” including the university administration, he was not questioned, disciplined, or fired. Instead, he was allowed to continue to abuse women without impunity.

The story holds important lessons for donors. First, always be sure that any institution or organization you donate to has a strong policy for protecting its community from sexual predators. We have seen again and again how universities from Harvard to Old Dominion to MIT have allowed known and suspected sexual predators into their communities and made it easy for them to find, groom, and assault victims. Before you make a donation to a university, read up on its sexual harassment policies and learn about how it has treated both staff and survivors in the past.

Second, the story illustrates the immense power of survivor narratives. The women who have come forward at Old Dominion have provided excellent evidence including journal entries that show the trauma they experienced. These stories and others like them must enter into the public discourse as they provide an essential window into the reality of survivors, and help institutions figure out how to listen to and protect their communities.

Finally, the story shows how different levels of patriarchal privilege can enable sexual predators. Being the chosen biographer for a famous literary figure like Philip Roth is one way that the sexism and misogyny of that writer can be further enabled. Because everyone had grown accustomed to tolerating Philip Roth’s sexism, Blake Bailey seemed able to follow along right in his footsteps without anyone openly objecting. Thankfully, the girls who were his eighth grade students were brave enough to raise their voices, and from their courage, others were able to summon the strength to speak up as well.


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Author: Kimberly Pike

Kimberly Pike is a writer, artist and self proclaimed cat lady living in Rhode Island. She is passionately writing about women's issues and helping to teach others about it.

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