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Lolita, Blake Bailey, and Me

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In high school, a teacher gave me his copy of Lolita. But only after he read me the opening lines —“light of my life, fire of my loins”—over french fries in a diner, late at night when I should have been home. When he spoke those words to me, my hands cupped around a mug, my palms warming from the stale coffee, I was as in love with him as any teenager could be. I couldn’t believe I was so lucky that this grown man would, as he often reminded me, risk his job to spend time with me alone. That wasn’t our first secret meeting outside of school, and would not be our last.

One may assume, given recent allegations about Philip Roth biographer Blake Bailey and his abuse of young girls when he was a teacher, that this story is about him. It’s not. And in some ways, that’s the worst part: There is nothing unique about Blake Bailey. Just like there was nothing unique about my teacher who manipulated, abused, and raped me. Predatory men are pathetically all the same.

The stories about Bailey are sickeningly similar to my own: encouraging his chosen girls to write about their love lives in journals that he then read, and leaving flirtatious notes on their writing. Expressing interest in their virginity, or lack thereof. Paying extra attention to a certain few students, creating a bond of trust, making them feel special. Using those same tools for manipulation and sexual abuse.

Even their use of Lolita. Poor, languid, cruelly misread Lolita. Somehow these supposedly learned men—Bailey went on to win a Pulitzer Prize! My teacher graduated from an Ivy league school!—believe that a tale about a pedophile is fodder for igniting a forbidden romance. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, recounts his version of the story with throbbing sentences, phallic imagery, and lusty language. Humbert transforms the central preteen girl, whose name is actually Dolores, into “Lolita,” the eponymous nymphet, the coquettish harlot of modern literature. Humbert is no predator, he tells his captive reader; Lolita seduced him. The modern-day predator’s playbook teaches that the novel is clear: Your teacher is Humbert; you are his Lolita. Your story is one of love. At least, that’s how it happened with me.

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This is a scenario that has played out in memoirs and novels chronicling abusive men: In Wendy Ortiz’s 2014 memoir, Excavation, she references reading Lolita multiple times, and in the 2020 best-selling novel My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, the predatory teacher gives his student victim a copy of the book. After I published a memoir of my own experience being abused by my teacher, I received hundreds of emails and social media DMs from women who had been in similar situations; dozens specifically mentioned Lolita as part of their abuser’s grooming devices: look, this lionized book is about our own star-crossed affair. Read this to understand.

Here’s the trick: Lolita is not a story about love. It is a story about violence. Through language that laps into pure poetry and a conveniently unreliable narrator, the kidnapping and rape of a young girl is veiled with romance. But nothing is romantic about abuse. Nabokov makes Dolores Haze’s pain plain in the pages; Humbert, for all his pretty words, cannot help revealing the truth of the relationship in “her sobs in the night—every night, every night,” and that she was only with him because “she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” In an attempt to show his generosity, Humbert reels off a list of gifts he buys her in town: comic books, roller skates, “a box of sanitary pads”—this just after he rapes Dolores for the first time. Careful readers understand that Dolores needs menstrual pads because she is suffering vaginal bleeding from forcible sex with an adult man.

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The violence is right there, within the beauty of the prose and the perspective of the abuser. Pain is part of passion, love means being obsessed, an older man trying to control you is for your own good. Your teacher knows best. These are lessons that can haunt a person. In Lolita, Humbert, after the first rape, describes driving in the car with Dolores to be like sitting beside “the small ghost of somebody I had just killed.” I do not know if I have ever seen such an accurate rendering of the lasting trauma of sexual violence. As a victim myself, I can remember my abuser created a twisted mold of what I, as a teenage girl, expected from a romantic relationship. That secrets are a part of love. That violence is your fault, a product of passion. My teacher impacted my life for far longer than I dreamed. Years after their first meeting, when an older, now married Dolores sees Humbert one final time, Nabokov writes that she “flattened herself as best she could (even rising on tiptoe a little) to let me pass, and was crucified for a moment,” to avoid having to touch Humbert as he passes by.

In the hands of mentors and teachers, given to young girls in bad faith, Lolita becomes toxic. These men are in a position of power, of knowledge, of supposed generosity, sharing a gift of literature with a student who doesn’t know better. This in no way disavows the maturity, intelligence, or insight of teenagers—but the entire point is that these are girls in the midst of life-altering changes to their bodies, brains, and world. They are learning new things every moment, making them ripe for manipulation and lies.

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