Brady Pesola, @shh.adults.are.talking, and TikTok Misogyny

This morning, I learned that my TikTok account was permanently banned. Why? Because I spoke out against the misogynistic TikTok user Brady Pesola, who goes by the handle @shh.adults.are.talking.

Pesola specializes in a type of repugnant hypermasculine sexism that has netted him nearly half a million followers. His ugly formula of speaking in a tenth-rate John Wayne swagger and casually demeaning women for their feelings and their thoughts has proven such an alluring draw that he has been able to parlay this into a sizable fan base. I had responded to one of Pesola’s slightly less sexist posts in which he boomed, “Stop being an insecure little bitch and grow up,” by pointing out, quite calmly, that being emotional was not a sign of insecurity. For this, Pesola singled me out as “unhinged,” prefacing his stitch by saying “This one’s extra spicy.”

I was then bombarded by numerous comments from Pesola’s followers and later had my account hit with false reports of bullying and harassment, after I proceeded to outline the full extent of Pesola’s misogyny in a series of videos. And I received a permanent ban. I have tried to appeal this ban, but I have heard nothing from TikTok. The message is clear. TikTok supports the misogyny of creators with huge followings rather than the small-time people who speak out against such vile strains. I also suspect that I was targeted by TikTok because a few of my anti-corporate and pro-union videos went viral. Since I cannot access my videos, this article represents a thorough effort to expose and document Pesola’s clear hatred of women, as well as TikTok’s willful advocacy of misogyny among its high-ranked creators, despite community guidelines declaring that hateful behavior directed towards a group is prohibited. A thorough review of Pesola’s TikTok feed reveals that he violated these rules multiple times and faced no consequences — aside from a 24 hour ban in December 2020 and a permanent ban for twenty minutes that was somehow removed this month. Apparently, if you have enough followers on TikTok, you can get away with saying anything. The rules don’t apply to those who have the clout.

Pesola, a former Marine based in the San Diego area (originally from Minnesota) who runs a dubious nonprofit operation known as the Gray Man Project with some shady emphasis on self-reliance (a public records search and a Guidestar dive reveals no record), published his first TikTok on October 11, 2020. He has claimed to be a private investigator. A search with the California Department of Affairs reveals that he is licensed (with a firearms permit) through October 31, 2022. Pesola’s license matches up with an operation called The People’s Detective, which claims to be “a full-service investigative agency with a 30-year track record of successful investigations, high profile cases, and newsworthy discoveries.” (The People’s Detective did not return my requests for comment.)

Pesola’s initial four videos detailed how a Sharpie, a flashlight, and a belt could be used to attack someone and his initial videos shortly after this quartet were carried out with a strain of tough-talking military bravado and alleged expertise. This was apparently enough for Pesola to earn the beginnings of a following, where his relationship to his audience would involve addressing douchebags (while mispronouncing Epictetus, whom he has frequently declared to be his favorite philosopher) and engaging in fairly unimaginative conservative talking points.

As Pesola acquired more of an audience, it took only days for Pesola to go off the deep end with an October 14, 2020 video in which he declared, “Toxic masculinity is a myth…Masculinity is a heightened state of being that all men should strive for.” By October 23, 2020, Pesola began honing the beginnings of his pugnacious TikTok formula, calling some of his audience “motherfuckers” and “miserable pricks.” But this was enough for Pesola to gain 11,000 followers in two weeks. Pesola then started stylizing his voice in a preposterously deep manner to woo more followers. At this point, the strains of misogyny and ugliness that were to become Pesola’s hallmarks still drifted somewhat in the background. But since this was his chief draw, it became more of his raison when publishing videos.

In an October 20, 2020 video, Pesola offered hotel advice, claiming that you didn’t want to get a hotel room on the second floor because there might be “some fucking crackhead breaking in the window and wanting to get in bed with you in the middle of the night. Unless you’re into that.” He called peaceful protesters “fucking retards.” By the end of October 2020, Pesola gradually strayed away from his tips on security and began embracing the beginning of his bullying, going after the “ignorant fucking retards.” He reveled in crude violence when offering “advice” to domestic violence survivors, suggesting that women “turn into the most vicious, fucking, violent psychopath you can imagine in your entire life.” While dispensing questionable wisdom to rape survivors, Pesola giddily declared, “Guys will fuck you with a potato sack and heels on.”

By November 2020, Pesola’s feed had become a reliable hotbed of hideous misogynistic takes. He bemoaned the idea of men facing penalties for hitting a woman while adopting a phony position against domestic violence. (Pesola spent most of his time in this video siding with men who were simply “defending” themselves, concluding in a crude manner, “I don’t care how good the pussy is. Get away from that toxic shit.”) In a November 11, 2020 video viewed by 912,600 people, Pesola reached his first major viral nadir of casual misogyny, claiming that preventing rape was the responsibility of women and that it was a woman’s obligation to parent well: “I got an idea. Be better fucking mothers.” When, on November 28, 2020, a TikTok user named @gishaz called Pesola out on the misogyny of this post, Pesola smugly responded, “So you agree then that the world does need better mothers.”

It took six weeks for Pesola to hit 100,000 followers. And by early December 2020, the fame had swelled to Pesola’s head. He confidently announced, “Hello ladies. I know what makes you tick.” In a multipart series that began on December 6, 2020, Pesola giddily described how he manipulated an escort into almost having sex with him for free, later bragging about lying to this escort by claiming to be an escort, and offering further confabulations that he couldn’t enter into a meaningful relationship because of his false escort role. For Pesola, women are merely sexual vessels to be used — with counterfeit empathy as the tool.

By December 22, 2020, Pesola was referring to himself as a “famous TikTokker” and, with his colossal hubris confirmed by his growing follower base, he declared on Christmas Eve, “Frankly, I don’t give a fuck if I’m likable. Apparently, 160,000 followers is telling me [sic] that I’m doing something right.” And there was more sexism to come: Pesola remarked on the unfairness of men paying child support, offered tips on how to keylog a lover’s phone, claimed that there was no such thing as rape culture (“It’s illogical and just plain fucking stupid.”), reconfirmed his view that toxic masculinity was a myth, and took the side of a man in a marriage split without considering the woman’s perspective (“It sounds like his ex-wife is a righteous cunt.”). By the turn of the year, Pesola had become hopelessly resolute in his hatred of women. When not condemning Nelson Mandela, he claimed that a man giving his phone to his girlfriend was weak (“Oh boy! That’s a red flag towards an unhealthy and toxic relationship.”), demeaned women for not revolving their entire lives around men (“If she doesn’t value your time as her man, then she’s always going to be a waste of time as your woman.”), and condemned women for allowing men to be disrespected.

On November 19, 2020, Pesola risibly claimed that it was important to treat people with different perspectives and worldviews with respect. It was advice that he was not to follow months later when he started using his bully pulpit to crush any position that differed from his own. He started addressing his audience as “fuckfaces” in late January. He engaged in casual fat-shaming with a disturbing eugenics streak, demanded that women make more money as they aged (“Your looks depreciate as you get older.”), claimed that blowjobs were the male equivalent to a woman receiving flowers, claimed that anyone who was offended by behavior was a “stupid fuck,” and falsely claimed that the government was forcing people to get vaccinated.

Pesola did not reply to my questions. But the undeniable strain of misogyny in Pesola’s TikTok feed is clearly the very quality that the TikTok algorithm values the most. This allowed an unremarkable chowderhead in Carlsbad with a toxic strain of sexism to become a small-time TikTok star. Systemic misogyny appears to be permanently baked into the factors that cause TikTok videos to end up on the For You Page. And if you speak out against this nefarious truth, you get banned. In my case, I made hundreds of largely benign videos on TikTok. I offered empathy to people who looked like they were in trouble. I sang songs. I cracked jokes. But none of that matters. Because I dared to speak out against a garden variety thug like Pesola, all that I made is now inaccessible to me. I have no backup copies. Pesola, on the other hand, will be just fine. And it is because Pesola perceives women as little more than shallow little wretches to manipulate. Despite the significant advances of the #metoo movement, hating women is apparently still your hot ticket to social media fame.

The Dark Manipulative Life of Blake Bailey

“For a while Scott talked of nothing but his lawsuit — in that half-joking, deadly serious way of his — then abruptly dropped the subject and focused on me. He wanted to know every detail of my life, or as many as I could provide in the half hour left to us: How did I meet my girlfriend? Did we sleep together on the first date? How much did I make as a teacher? Was it hard to get certified? What kind of car was I driving?” — Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait

Like his brother, he was half-joking but deadly serious. He was the first teacher to speak to them as adults, to tell them that their feelings about life and literature were valid. Many of the girls, particularly the lonely girls who lived with single mothers and who longed for a father figure and who cloaked their anxieties beneath the breakneck bellow of flooding hormones and accruing acne, thought that he was brilliant and handsome, even if he did sometimes explode over a modest and pardonable transgression. If you whispered “Thank you” as your friend passed you some lip balm, his face would turn beet-red and the veins would bulge from his neck like logs under tarpaulin on a speeding truck. And this charismatic man, who always told you so sweetly that your thoughts were so special, would erupt with volcanic fury, his voice lurching from that weird theatrical amalgam of mid-Atlantic and a slight Southern tinge into something fierce and tyrannical. And then he’d assign you detention. “In retrospect,” said one of the dozens of former students who I spoke with on anonymity, “abusive people are like that.”

The girls were too young to understand this volatility. But they never questioned the teacher. They didn’t want to be summoned into the halls during the middle of class, where the teacher would move in close, close enough for an embrace, and lecture them about their outbursts or rebuke them for interrupting. Besides, they were smitten by him. The teacher wanted the girls to be smitten by them. Much as eighth-grade girls are often smitten by teachers. Given the pattern established by these allegations, it would appear that this was always the teacher’s plan. He told them that he had given up a writing career to teach them. He told them that teaching was his calling. His duty. He told him that this was the most important thing in his life and they were lucky to be part of it. The girls. And the boys, whom he was much harder on. But mostly the girls. Particularly the vulnerable ones.

The girls alleged that he would move in close, sometimes too close, placing his hand upon their backs as he whispered bright words of burning promise into their ears. If he talked with you face-to-face, he would place his palm on your shoulder. It helped that he sometimes rolled in with a skateboard and quoted from Beavis and Butt-head and wore pleated khakis with the telltale imprint of a burned iron to suggest to these young girls that he was a fellow preadolescent who could be trusted. It helped that he assigned them Salinger and Yeats and Byron. Always men, never women. He forged their literary tastes, although some of his former students told me that they could never read Lolita again decades later. “He seems to view himself as this real-life modern-day Humbert Humbert,” said former student Sarah Stickney Murphy, who cited Bailey’s frequent assignments of The Catcher in the Rye. “Youth is innocence and truth. Older people are phonies.”

Bailey was strangely obsessed with The Carpenters’s “Close to You.” It is a song that several of Bailey’s former students permanently associate with Bailey. Multiple former students allege that he would lean in very close and sing the song very loud to their faces. Some students found this to be disturbing. One former student alleged that he took this further at a school dance, in which many of the girls were nervous and Bailey interfered with their budding lives by calling them up to the DJ booth and singing an a capella version of “Close to You” to various classmates. This struck the classmate as deeply inappropriate. It was almost as if Bailey viewed any boy at a junior high school dance as a rival.

This was life at Lusher in the 1990s, if you were assigned the highly coveted English literature class taught by Blake Bailey, now a successful literary biographer with a bestseller on Philip Roth riding high on the New York Times bestseller list. Lusher was a top-ranked middle school that welcomed the wealthy and gifted kids of New Orleans, as well as other children from nearby neighborhoods. It was converted from a former courthouse. The school earned high marks for its emphasis on the arts. Typically, if you grew up in that area, you would start off at Edward Hynes (close to the City Park), make your way onto Lusher, and then finalize your primary education at Benjamin Franklin High School. Bailey taught at Lusher for a good ten years, winning the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Teacher of the Year Award during his final year in 2000. Accounts vary as to what factors caused him to leave after this triumph. The school itself has been less than forthcoming in my efforts to obtain answers. Some insiders believe that he was strongly urged to resign and serve a final year. Some believe he ran away with a former student, although my thorough investigative efforts reveal that this isn’t true. But if you do the math and you add six years to twelve, you can probably draw a few conclusions over what may have transpired near the end of Bailey’s run. New Orleans is one of those “small town” big cities, where people talk and stories circulate and the pain and grief caused by a teacher who was wildly inappropriate with his students could only carry on for so long before it caught up with these girls in adulthood. The girls who went to Lusher have been talking with each other for decades and living with their pain, trying to make sense of what happened while sometimes contending with the great fear of speaking out, trying to understand how they could have been so easily manipulated. They were still starstruck with Bailey in college. And Bailey would stay in touch and meet them and betray their trust by being wantonly flirtatious. Some of the former students allege that they went up to the hotel room with him. Some allege that this was consensual. Some have carried their secrets for far too long and some have had rough lives afterward. Until now, their stories have been largely contained by the many beautiful lakes that surround the Big Easy.

Bailey was dedicated to the mission, but he had designs of his own. For one student with the last name of Trujillo, he would cross her name out and correct it with “Tru-he-ho.” To this day, the student, who was one of the fortunate ones to evade Bailey’s attentions after Lusher, remains disturbed by a man abusing his authority to imply that she was a whore. Former students report that he would saunter into the “dance intensive” class which occupied the first two hours of the school day, the workshop run with a firm hand by Miss Burke. One former student claimed that Bailey would sit at the cafeteria table or stand at the door and watch these bright young things in their leotards contorting their bodies for about twenty minutes. He said nothing because he knew that Miss Burke never tolerated an interruption. But, as the student alleged, he had to get a peek at the girls. His girls. He was always watching them. He was always plotting. He was always waiting. Waiting for editors to accept his literary essays. His freelance journalism. His feeble stabs at fiction, which he was eventually forced to give up. What the hell else did he have to do? These were girls to be shaped and influenced. Girls who would grow up into young women. Not that he didn’t have sordid thoughts about them in the cafeteria, thoughts that, as these former students alleged, he would confess to them years later when they came of age.

And then, when the girls would change out of their leotards and join his class, he would dip further. He would have them write about their lives. He would urge the girls to “share their secrets.” The first writing assignment involved “chronicling the ups and downs of your life.” He would have his students make a list of the most formative traumatic experiences in their lives after reading Slaughterhouse Five. He insisted that this was purely a literary exercise. He told these girls — girls as young as twelve and no older than thirteen, girls that, in some cases, hadn’t even experienced their first kiss — that they were free to write about their blossoming sexuality. The only person who would read their journals would be him, just him. Mr. Bailey. Sometimes, if you showed enough initiative and willingness, he would take you to CC’s Coffee House and pay special attention to you. Particularly if you had problems. He would move in on the vulnerable ones. The ones who had drug and alcohol problems. The ones who had “issues.” The ones who had never been told that they were special.

“He definitely had a type,” recalls former Lusher student Megan Braden-Perry. “He liked white girls with dark hair and dark eyes. Stacked. Breasts and things. Those were his favorites.”

Even though many parents objected to Bailey’s attentive approach, the girls still longed for his attention. You could be be among the lucky few who Mr. Bailey corresponded with in high school and well into adult life. Mr. Bailey would mentor you. And then, when you were eighteen, he would meet you in a bar and eventually a hotel room to “discuss your career.” These eighth-graders had no idea that their teacher was waiting for them to hit the age of consent or maybe just a few years later after that just to be on the safe side. “As a non-drinker,” alleged one former student who described an encounter with Bailey when she was a freshman in college, “I ordered a Coke and I was over the moon to have so much face time with my mentor. When he placed his hand on my thigh and began asking me suggestive questions about my life, I shrugged it off as ‘He was drunk.’ I politely excused myself and promptly erased that encounter from my consciousness.”

He would keep tabs on girls who had grown up, noting what cities they were in and contacting them whenever he rolled through town. During a 2009 promotional appearance for his John Cheever biography on the West Coast (the city has been elided to protect the alleged victim, but the incident has been corroborated by multiple individuals), he invited one of his former students to bring her sister along. He took the two young women to dinner after the reading. “I wasn’t initially hesitant,” alleged this sister, “but as the evening wore on, I could tell Bailey was fixated on us. He watched us the entire time he was doing the reading.” When the former student left the table to go to the restroom, Bailey allegedly revealed to this sister all of the inappropriate thoughts he had about her when she was thirteen, in the days when she would pick up her sister or her friend from school. “Do you know how hard it was to resist you back then?” said Bailey, as alleged by the sister. “The things we wrote and how you looked?” Then, Bailey invited the two sisters to return to his hotel room because “it had an amazing library.” The two sisters knew that they had to stick together. They didn’t want Bailey to make any moves.

Bailey would wait years for his former students to grow up. Then, as several of his students have alleged, he would invite them for drinks and ply them with liquor and get handsy, often blaming these wild flirtations on drunken behavior. But in the case of his former students, because all of his alleged victims were over the age of eighteen, if they wanted to go up to his hotel room, it was all perfectly legal. That’s what Bailey would tell anyone who was creeped out by his behavior. It is indeed what Bailey has emailed a number of people, including me, in the last few days. As Bailey emailed me on Friday night, “It is untrue that I EVER committed an illegal sexual act, regardless of what comes out of the woodwork to say so.”

Some of Bailey’s alleged victims have claimed that they went up to Bailey’s hotel room after one too many drinks with Bailey and things happened. They alleged that they were coerced to do so. But I have honored their request not to go public. As I was putting together this story, a New Orleans reporter by the name of Ramon Antonio Vargas contacted many of the same parties. The two of us were in touch during our respective investigations and exchanged some information to ensure that we were both accurate in reporting these allegations. According to Vargas, one of the students he talked to accused Bailey of rape. Among some of the more stunning revelations:

He kept in touch with both after they left Lusher and progressed through high school. They both said he often checked in on their love lives and showed an unusual interest in their virginity, frequently asking: “Have you punched your V-card yet?”

Bailey also allegedly told one of his alleged victims, when she rolled off of bed, “What is wrong with you? You just don’t know how the game is played.”

But the pattern that Vargas and I have established from the allegations of these brave women is clear: Find a vulnerable young girl, befriend her, stay in touch with her over the years, wait until she turns eighteen, and then invite her for drinks and try to bed her.

* * *

Bailey has suffered few consequences for this despicable behavior, but he is not entirely immune. On April 18th, when courageous women started coming forward after I wrote an essay which documented the rampant misogyny in Bailey’s writing, his agents at The Story Factory swiftly dropped him (and they were courteous enough to promptly inform me). On the other hand, his publisher, W.W. Norton, has refused to return my phone calls and emails. On April 18th, Bailey threatened me by email to launch a smear campaign against me (although he did later issue an apology). A magazine that I pitched this investigation to also went silent, opting instead to promote an excerpt from Bailey’s Roth biography on its Twitter feed. Few literary people have said anything about these allegations. Indeed, many blue checkmarks — most notably, putative #metoo champion and current literary superstar Taffy Brodesser-Akner (who did not return my email) — were merrily yukking it up with Bailey on Twitter in the days after these allegations were first brought to public light. Bailey is now so deeply entrenched in the literary world that he is near bulletproof. And yet several sources who have had contact with Bailey in recent years have reported to me that he has aggressively charmed the daughters of friends and acquaintances and that he is still using the same moves on twelve-year-olds that he cultivated at Lusher. Some who are friendly with Bailey are not surprised by the allegations. But they have opted not to go on the public record. And I respect their decision.

I contacted Bailey by email with a number of questions in relation to these allegations. My last question to him was this: “What steps do you plan to take to correct your wildly inappropriate behavior and alleged abuse of these women (which I understand to be ongoing)?” That Blake Bailey could not even answer this basic question suggests that contrition, restitution, and owning up to his alleged awful treatment of the women he harmed may very well be beyond his capabilities. Instead, Bailey threatened me with legal action through his attorney, Billy Gibbens, and claimed that he would pursue “all available legal remedies” if I published “any further anonymous, uncorroborated, false allegations about Mr. Bailey.” Gibbens also used The Los Angeles Times as a bully pulpit, calling me “a notorious internet troll” and claiming the allegations to be “scurrilous charges.” Unfortunately, for Bailey and Mr. Gibbons, the comments in question are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In constructing this story, I have relied on testimony from multiple alleged victims and witnesses and have taken great care to ensure that it is fair and accurate. To further clarify my intentions and my First Amendment rights, I do not intend malice with my investigation of these allegations.

Having managed to flee New Orleans and establish some modest literary fame on the national stage, there is little doubt that Blake Bailey truly believes he can get away with anything. And this is because the literary and media worlds in which he has operated and roosted for so many years have become so accustomed to looking the other way. Particularly in relation to the abuse and victimization of women.

4/20/2021 9:30 PM UPDATE: A previous version of this story featured inaccurate geographic details about the Lusher School. This article has been corrected. I regret the error.

4/21/2021 11:50 AM UPDATE: Ramon Antonio Vargas reports that Norton has paused shipping and promotional events on Bailey’s Roth biography. I tried contacting all of my publicity contacts at Norton by phone. Every voicemail I reached was full. Clearly, this story has grown legs.

4/21/2021 2:50 PM UPDATE: Blake Bailey has deleted his Twitter account.

4/22/2021 6:30 AM UPDATE: In a devastating article published on Wednesday night by The New York Times‘s Alexandra Alter and Rachel Abrams, the two reporters uncovered an alleged rape that occurred in 2015:

That same year, Valentina Rice, a publishing executive, met Mr. Bailey at the home of Dwight Garner, a book critic for The Times, and his wife in Frenchtown, N.J. A frequent guest at their home, Ms. Rice, 47, planned to stay overnight, as did Mr. Bailey, she said. After she went to bed, Mr. Bailey entered her room and raped her, she said. She said “no” and “stop” repeatedly, she said in an interview.

According to the Times, Rice attempted to remedy the assault by approaching Norton president Julia A. Reidhead, offering to confirm this allegation. Reidhead never responded, but, one week after Rice sent the note, Bailey did. What’s so jaw-dropping here is that it appears that email was simply forwarded onto Bailey and that Reidhead had never planned to investigate. My emails to various Norton people on this subject have not been returned. The Times piece also notes that Bailey was paid a mid-six-figure advance for the Roth biography.

4/22/2021 7:00 PM UPDATE: The New Orleans Advocate‘s Ramon Antonio Vargas has posted a new followup article on Blake’s former students at Lusher. One of the alleged victims was only seventeen, just past the age of consent in Louisiana.

4/29/2021 UPDATE: Eve Peyton has written a devastating first-person account of her experience at Slate.

Blake Bailey, Casual Misogynist and Eager Rube

[4/20/21 UPDATE: Comments left on this post led to two thorough and detailed investigations which uncovered severe allegations of grooming, rape, manipulation, sexual assault, and much else from Blake Bailey. I conducted an investigation focused on Bailey’s time as a teacher and the allegations of grooming and manipulation. The New Orleans Advocate‘s Ramon Antonio Vargas focused on what happened to Bailey’s former students as adults. I urge you to read both of these stories. (Mr. Vargas is a great reporter. And the two of us communicated with each other to ensure we had accurate information.)]

When I first met Blake Bailey at the back of a Le Pain Quotidien outlet just south of Central Park in the spring of 2009, he was carrying a large foamcore blowup of a glowing New York Times review of his most recent book. He pointed to this gargantuan slab, raising it above his head like a dubious trophy, and spent at least five minutes pointing to it and laughing hysterically as I was setting up the mics, vacuuming up the rapturous sentences in a way that made me (and the person who I was with) think, “Christ, how much ego-stroking does any man need?” While I had come to expect occasional insecurity from authors during my long former tenure as a literary interviewer (which I did my best to assuage with off-air empathy before I rolled tape), this was one of the most absurd displays of narcissism I had ever seen, obscenely disproportionate to the delicate hand that had forged two remarkable literary biographies with lapidary care. But when I interviewed Bailey, he did eventually win me over with his charm — the same “charm” that has allowed him to exhume all sorts of sordid skeletons from the unlikeliest subjects; he even got me to summon a few vulnerable truths that I wish I hadn’t spilled when I met him years later on the Charles Jackson bio. This is pretty much the promotional manner that this boiler room man of letters has used to win over the entire literary world with his current volume, a Philip Roth biography with the decidedly uninventive title of Philip Roth. Like most literary biographers (and, for that matter, most literary interviewers), Bailey is a louche leech and an attention whore with an oleaginous sheen, a dishonest huckster who has built up a career with, yes, some laudable volumes, but ultimately with the relentless Energizer Bunny cadences of a sycophantic solipsist. Fortunately, for Bailey, this is the kind of shameless promotional spectacle that the literary world, which I am mercifully no longer a part of, eats up with the voracity of starved wolves moving in on a recently slaughtered lamb thrown to them by some sadistic god.

Of course, as a Philip Roth fan, I was quite elated when I heard the news that Blake Bailey — the accomplished biographer of Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Charles Jackson — was the big choice enlisted to tackle one of the 20th century most controversial writers. In his previous volumes, Bailey had balanced fairness with gentle tugs at the ugly truths to present literary titans as glaringly flawed, needlessly neglected, and ultimately very human. What made Bailey a compelling biographer was the way in which he aligned himself with the underdog. His empathy (at least on the page) not only applied to his troubled subjects, but to the many patient friends, lovers, and literary associates who endured volatile excesses and often booze-fueled torrents of abuse. In A Tragic Honesty, Bailey wrote of the way in which Richard Yates’s patient agent, Monica McCall, did her best to make Yates a better writer while contending with Yates’s often shaky life circumstances and shaky sense of self-worth. Bailey was gentle in reporting the often fragile dynamic between John and Mary Cheever, implicating both husband and wife through methodical interviews and archival excavation that were impressively vigorous. Bailey spent years combing the dusty stacks and often tracked any connection who was still alive to get a hot tip. If he wasn’t quite Richard Ellmann (who could be?), it was certainly the stuff of solid shoe-leather journalism.

But with his Philip Roth biography, Bailey’s approach has changed to what The New Republic‘s Laura Marsh has perspicaciously described as “an adoring wingman who thinks his friend can do better” — particularly in relation to Roth’s first wife, the troubled Margaret Martinson. Until Martinson enters the picture, Bailey’s biography is the usual even-keeled mix of life-forming incidents and wild jaunts through disruptive gossamer. Unfortunately, with this book, Bailey cannot walk the tightrope. For one thing, Bailey is no longer documenting a neglected author on the margins, but a literary giant whose work will very likely stand the test of time. Roth’s stature has very obviously altered the winning Bailey formula for the worse. Roth isn’t a dark horse to root for. He is, instead, an admittedly fascinating egomaniac boasting about how he’s the equal of Malamud and Bellow well before Goodbye, Columbus is even published. (Never mind the seventeen years of duds and shaky curiosities that Roth turned out after Portnoy, including such horrors as The Breast, before stumbling upon Zuckerman and truly securing his genius, beginning with a breathtaking run that began with The Counterlife.) What’s so disappointing (and indeed outright nasty) is the way that Bailey has traded in his compassion for casual misogyny and a complete lack of fairness in relation to Maggie Martinson. Much as it pains me to say, Bailey’s Roth assignment turns out to be his Faustian bargain. Bailey now operates with a repulsive misogyny that is incongruous and completely unacceptable in an age of #metoo and women significantly victimized by COVID job losses.

You know that something is awry when Maggie’s first introduction comes saddled with a footnote in which Bailey has “changed the names of Maggie’s first husband and their daughter.” Did Bailey burn his sources? Was this an edict from Norton legal to prevent a lawsuit? Is Bailey about to launch some character assassination to perform ardent fellatio to his hero? Yes, definitely, on the latter question. You read some passages of this biography wondering if Bailey was writing sentences on his knees with Vaseline-smeared lips extended to their widest diameter for Roth’s throbbing member. (To cite one of many embarrassing examples, Bailey approaches Roth’s calculated courting of Andrew Wylie and his eventual bolt from FSG for lucre as if Roth is somehow a humble naif or a victim. He willingly buys into Roth’s bullshit that he “begged” FSG’s Roger Straus to make him a sizable counteroffer, which not only demonstrates just how much of a sad and naive mark Bailey is in matters of ruthless business transactions, but the pathetic amounts of dun that Bailey is eager to apply to his covetous nose in order to more exquisitely adulate his subject.)

As I read on and became increasingly unsettled by the nasty sexism directed towards Maggie (of which more anon), I wondered why Bailey only seemed to draw solely from Maggie’s journal (how did Bailey obtain this?) as opposed to including any independent sources outside the Philip Roth Seal of Approval, which would seem to me to be the responsible journalistic approach. I was stunned to find this endnote:

PR gave me MR’s journal and the abortive beginnings to her novel(s) in progress contained therein. The story of how this intriguing artifact came into PR’s possession is told at the end of Chapter 19.

One then flips to the end of Chapter 19, only to find this footnote from Bailey:

In most cases I’ve tried to cull only the most telling, pertinent, and perceptive passages in Maggie’s journal, and hence may have inadvertently misrepresented the basic tenor of what is, indeed, a pretty insipid piece of writing.

In short, Bailey has imbibed the Roth Kool-Aid and is far from objective. If anything, this development — complete with the needlessly subjective aside that Martinson was only capable of “insipid writing” (this was a journal, for fuck’s sake) — completely erodes any trust we can have in Bailey as a fair-minded biographer.

Instead of considering Maggie’s trauma of growing up with an alcoholic father who was arrested, Bailey instead offers a nonchalant aside about how this personal anecdote was possibly shoehorned into And When She Was Good. Instead of empathizing with possible sexual abuse from her father, Bailey skims over this. He describes her as possessing “a gimlet eye” at the age of eighteen, establishing Maggie as a masterful manipulator of men. There isn’t a shred of sympathy for Maggie becoming pregnant while studying at the University of Chicago. Bailey also cheapens Maggie’s aspirations to be “a scholar and a bohemian” by painting her as merely “an unwed mother in college.” We have only Roth’s July 19, 2012 email to Bailey used to uphold the spurious claim that Maggie believed she was impregnated “by force.” Pages into Maggie’s first appearance in the book, Bailey has aligned himself with Roth and villainized Maggie and used dubious sources to uphold this convenient narrative.

Bailey skims over abuse that Maggie’s first husband inflicted upon her, but casts needless doubt on these ugly assaults by claiming that it doesn’t “appear to be entirely untrue.” And this comes even though both of Maggie’s children remember growing up in a household of violence. Then Bailey has the audacity to besmirch Maggie further by slyly suggesting that her affair with an auto mechanic named Bob may have suggested that Maggie deserved it. It’s a setup that foreshadows the abhorrent misogyny to come. “Look at this evil bitch who slept around,” Bailey seems to be saying. “Is it any wonder why our man Roth was victimized?”

In short, Bailey is not on the side of women. And certainly not on the side of “difficult” women. But then anyone steeped in Bailey knows that this old Southern white boy grew up in an environment of casual misogyny. As Bailey wrote of his brother Scott in his memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, without much in the way of familial rebuke:

I think he called her a cunt at some point (the word was such a normal part of Scott’s vocabulary that it didn’t really convey the usual nastiness).

Maggie is then portrayed as someone with “likable spunk.” When Roth’s friend Herb Haber says that he was impressed by Maggie’s qualities (“very bright, very funny, good sense of humor”), Bailey negates this observation one sentence later by claiming this to be a persona. Then Bailey proceeds to describe Maggie’s “withered and discolored” vagina by way of Roth’s transposition in My Life as a Man. After glossing like a mercenary pornographer on physical attributes and Roth’s lack of physical attraction to Maggie, Bailey then describes Maggie’s Chicago railroad flat not much in terms of how she actually lived, but more in relation on how Maggie’s boarder slept around. He can only countenance Maggie’s friend Jane Kome as “a big blonde who was ‘attractive in a kind of blowzy Blythe Danner way'” (the quote is Roth’s). And then Maggie gets pregnant from Roth and there is some perfunctory mention of the “heavy bleeding” she suffers (little concern, of course, to the anguish that a woman undergoes after an abortion) and inserts a quote from Roth only sentences later, “I had my first sense that she was crazy.”

So Maggie is established by Bailey (serving as Roth’s willing sock puppet) as some wild, insane, and adulterous free spirit who was set to ruin the Great Man of LettersTM rather than a woman of her own mind and soul. He describes Roth as being “unsettled by the novelty of her rage” after Maggie’s abortion, as if having to contend with the feelings of a woman who has made a significantly stressful decision should be received not with empathy, but as a troubling inconvenience. He never once considers Maggie’s pain or the behavior that Roth may have committed to induce such fury. Throughout all this, Roth carries on affairs, at least the ones that Bailey is privy to. Could it be that a woman might be justifiably angry towards her lover if, in the immediate aftermath of her abortion, her lover has affairs behind her back and shows disdain? At no point does our good old Southern biographer even consider this. He is too seduced by the Roth legend. And if he has to surrender his empathy, well, then that’s the cost of doing business.

He describes Maggie “weepily harangu[ing]” Roth after Roth selfishly spoiled her two weeks of vacation. Note the use of “harangue” — which is lecturing someone in an aggressive and critical manner. Maggie is an “aggressive” woman, not a thinking and feeling soul. “Harangue” is the kind of clinical word you use when you want to dismiss someone’s feelings. The fact that Bailey has modified this with “weepily” suggests that any tears that Maggie rightfully spilled for being betrayed are largely superfluous.

More Bailey misogyny: Maggie is described as having “a brittle laugh.” Maggie is “relentless” in showing “her displeasure” when Roth abruptly leaves Chicago. She “acquits” herself by playing hostess (as if Maggie is incapable of being pleasant or social in any way). Maggie acts “like a pig.” And when Maggie joyfully waits for Roth as his ship comes in, Bailey describes her as “waving radiantly in a white dress that made her look like a summer bride.” The implication is clear. Maggie is a woman trying to manipulate Roth into marriage. Bailey interviews a man named Gene Lichtenstein, whose wife reports that Maggie screamed (while house-sitting in a Bowery apartment by W.H. Auden), “I don’t want a strange man coming here overnight! How dare he!” (Bailey italicizes this quote to stack the deck against Maggie. But we don’t have any information about why Maggie would say something like this. Aside from the reality of roommate dynamics, particularly temporary roommate dynamics, when you live in a crowded apartment, things can get tense. Without context, one gets the sense that Bailey is grasping at straws to further declare Maggie as evil incarnate.)

Bailey is such a smug and self-serving elitist that he also has no compassion for the desperate lengths that people will go to when they are completely impoverished. When Maggie is broke and has to pawn Roth’s old Royal typewriter in order to survive, Maggie is portrayed as the one who betrayed Roth, rather than a victim of dire hard-scrabble reality. Maggie announces that she is pregnant. And it isn’t too long before Bailey lines up a quote declaring Maggie to be “an hysterical schizophrenic Gentile girl.” And this is the way it runs until the tragic end.

I could quote Elaine Showalter or Kate Zambreno or any number of smart feminist writers to tell you why all this is completely and distastefully wrong. But surely these examples — taken with the examples that Laura Marsh has tendered — abundantly demonstrate that Blake Bailey is a misogynist. Bailey offers scant redeeming qualities about Maggie. She lives only as a vessel for which Roth to deposit his entitlement. And Maggie isn’t the only victim. In his Roth bio, Bailey can only view women as histrionic and enraging and kvetching — even if they happen to be single mothers who are struggling.

If you call out Bailey on his misogyny, it turns out that he is a spineless thin-skinned coward and not much of a man about it. I truly wanted to understand why a biographer who had written empathy-driven volumes in the past would stoop to such a stunning low. I offered a fair-minded question to him on Twitter. Bailey replied, claiming that I was “disparaging” him. He claimed that he had talked with Maggie’s family and then he blocked me. His reply was favorited by a bountiful variety of fellow misogynists who were happy to cosign onto his sentiments — which included the author Jonathan Carroll, biographer Lance Richardson, cultural journalist Costanza R.d’O, and the proprietor of Neglected Books. Bailey appears incapable of recognizing the vile hatred he has towards women. I mean, I haven’t even ventured into how he portrayed Claire Bloom. I will leave others to sort that out. But he clearly has an ugly strain of misogyny that he needs to reckon with. Unfortunately, this also aligns with the Philip Roth legend. You look the other way when a brilliant writer is being sexist and dismissive and abusive. You ignore the facts. You ignore the way that glossy hagiographers like Bailey cover up the sordid details. You simply print the legend and sell as many copies as you can.

4/16/21 11:00 PM UPDATE: Shortly after this review went up, Blake Bailey threatened that he would ruin me, with a cc to his agent. Screenshot below:

4/18/21 3:00 PM UPDATE: I have received a number of messages and comments alleging that Bailey committed unspeakable behavior to eighth-graders while teaching in New Orleans in the mid-to-late 1990s. If you were a student of Bailey’s during that time, please email me at edATedrants.com. Anonymity and sensitivity guaranteed. Thank you. (Concerning the comments left publicly here, Bailey contacted me, claiming, “It is untrue that I EVER committed an illegal sexual act.”)

4/19/21 4:15 PM UPDATE: The Story Factory, which represented Blake Bailey as an agent, sent me the following email:

Please be advised: Immediately after we learned of the disturbing allegations made against Blake Bailey, The Story Factory terminated its agency representation with Mr. Bailey on Sunday, April 18, 2021.

Marcus DiPaola is Not a Journalist

If you’re on TikTok, there’s a good chance that you’ve stumbled across Marcus DiPaola on your For You Page. He has 2.5 million followers and he doesn’t follow anybody back. With thick-framed glasses, poorly groomed stubble, and hair parted in the middle in a manner that suggests that he could be the love child of Alfalfa and a Williamsburg hipster, DiPaola reads the news in an intense and fearmongering style against an Olan Mills backdrop that is grossly at odds with his “I spend most of my time in a basement” aesthetic. Think of DiPaola as Awkward Family Photos enhanced with white male rage. Like many grifters who have made a name for themselves in an age in which facts, fairness, and the appearance of objectivity are increasingly devalued, DiPaola cloaks his inadequacies behind his mission statement: that he is, according to his own bio, using a writing style “designed to make it possible for middle schoolers with learning disabilities to understand the news.” But if this were truly the case, why then does DiPaola enunciate innocent words like “trains” with all the sinister timbre of Richard III chewing up the scenery just before hiring assassins to kill his older brother? If he is truly speaking to children, why then does his content have the feel of Walter Winchell with severe anger management issues? DiPaola reminds me of that Simpsons bit in which Christopher Walken read Goodnight Moon, only for the kids to scurry away in fear.

Up until recently, DiPaola’s bizarrely aggressive “reporting” style was largely tolerated as something you had to endure before scrolling onto a shirtless Russian man loving his bear in subzero temperatures. But on March 29th, DiPaola offered a preposterously inaccurate report that “LGBTQ residents of Philadelphia are getting attacked by criminals so often that, today, the person in charge of dealing with crime in Philadelphia created an advisory board to figure out how to deal with the problem.” It is certainly true that a transgender woman was attacked in Philadelphia on March 20th and that there was an uptick in transgender attacks last year. But DiPaola’s hysterical rhetoric suggested that Philly was something out of Frank Miller’s apocalyptic portrayals of Gotham. Last year, USA Today reported that Philadelphia was among the friendliest cities to LGBTQ people. The city was one of the first places in America to initiate a yearly Pride parade in 1972.

@marcus.dipaola

If you don’t recognize the real world is a scary place, it’s time to grow up.

♬ original sound – Marcus DiPaola

DiPaola faced rightful pushback for his histrionics, which felt more like the bilious white supremacy spewed by Tucker Carlson than a man who professes to “anchor the news” on his Twitter bio. He never once corrected his inaccuracies — the basic responsibility of even a soi-disant journalist. Instead, he doubled down on his demagogic fury with a video that was swiftly parodied and widely condemned:

Journalism exists to point out things going wrong so people can change them. It is never my job to cheerlead or to make people happy. It is my job to point out the scary and bad stuff happening in the world, to build up pressure on the people in power so they fix things. If you want to make a change in the world, this is the channel for you. If you’re scared of real life and want to pretend things are perfect, follow someone else.

As the user @jewishanarchist observed, this represented a case in which DiPaola refused to countenance the LGBTQ-friendly truth of living in Philadelphia. “You might not have the job to cheerlead,” said @jewishanarchist, who grew up in Philly and who noted the vibrant drag scene in the City of Brotherly Love, “but you have the job to represent the accurate facts. Because what you did? You made the people of Philly look bad. You didn’t make the government of Philly look bad. You made the people look bad. That’s bad reporting.”

Moreover, there’s something incredibly dodgy in DiPaola’s partisan approach here. It is a journalist’s job to present the facts fairly and accurately. If the reader (or, in this case, the viewer) decides that she wants to change things, then that’s on the audience, not the journalist. But these basic responsibilities are clearly beyond DiPaola’s wildly limited faculties. He often fails to cite his sources. And a cursory exhumation of his feed instantly reveals numerous inaccuracies or willful misreadings of other reports. Irrespective of who your audience is, this is a deeply irresponsible approach for anyone who claims to report the news.

DiPaola could be easily ignored if he didn’t have such a large platform to deliver his venomous spittle-flecked tirades. The fact of the matter is that, for some people who are hopelessly hooked on TikTok (it is incredibly addictive!), DiPaola could very well be the first place that they hear about a news story. And if they hear it from a man who is so careless and capricious with the facts, then DiPaola’s outsize influence is incredibly dangerous. Not unlike Father Coughlin in the 1930s, who used his vast radio audience to whip up widespread anti-Semitism and support for fascism. Even comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver have employed fact-checkers. Because they have known very well that millions of people are watching their shows and that they have a responsibility to convey the basic truth.

But DiPaola shows no such care or commitment. He cannot, by any standard, be called a journalist.

The Droppers, the Ghosters, and the Grifters

I am blessed to have friends who are far more brilliant than I am. I am fiercely loyal to all of my friends. And if my friends happen to toil in a creative field like me, then the admiration I have for their work, which is always honest and never false, only helps to seal the deal. But I am also someone who has stood out simply for being who I am. I try not to second-guess life. The universe could throw you an unanticipated curveball tomorrow. Thus, it is better to be instinctive and decisive and expressive and idiosyncratic and true to who you are. Still, people like me tend to attract a particular form of fawning admirer — usually a younger man on the make — who eventually turns into a peculiar rival.

They start off as fans in apparent awe of my talent. I am hopelessly confused but grateful. And I like them. For I am a congenial wiseacre who tends to be very fond of people and deeply curious about them. My curiosity in them greatly exceeds any interest I have in myself. I usually sense that someone who admires me and who reaches out is probably going places or that they are certainly on their way somewhere. And I spend months or years steering our dynamic towards one in which they are not so much acolytes, but creative and human peers. Being a self-effacing type, I have always felt strange being placed in the role of outlier sage. Thankfully, that happens less often these days.

I hedge my bets against this unanticipated game of impostor syndrome by expressing honesty and vulnerability and gentle truth about my life so that they understand that I am highly fallible. I would rather be a human being than a cult leader.

There comes some point in which they achieve some hard-won success and I congratulate them and I am never jealous but always in admiration. But the fame floats to their head much like a hot air balloon drifting over wine country. And the relationship swiftly careens into a spectacle. That’s when they drop me. That’s when they finally recognize the truth that I’ve known all along: that they are better equipped for achievement than me. That they can negotiate the false metric of fans and gigs and hosannas simply because they relish the guise of being a somebody who others look up to and I am more interested in admiring other people without a comparative yardstick. They are better at playing the game of ingratiation and sucking up and flattering other people — as if frangible souls who happen to be in the public eye are ridiculous superheroes being paraded and marketed before a horde of rabid zealots bedecked in cosplay. Maybe this was always their game with me, but I don’t look back. Maybe they recognized that I was the type of man who would quickly puncture their outsize estimation by being real and they needed to meet me for their hubris to swell.

1. The Ambitious Writer: He started off publishing chapbooks at very small presses, but he was hungry for attention. His ambition was limitless and this was certainly reflected in the massive and awe-inspiring volumes he published years later. I didn’t recognize how voracious he was when he first contacted me. But back then, I was being bombarded by everyone. I misconstrued his hunger to be hyperbole. He landed press and attention by starting feuds with other literary people. But before he did any of this, he contacted me with a fawning email, telling me that I was one of the most important voices writing about books. A few years later, I ran into him at an event and introduced myself. And he said nothing and stared right through me. As if I was an eidolon. Not even a friendly hello. What a stark contrast from the obsequious email from only a few years before! I couldn’t find it within me to read his books until years had passed and one friend who reads him told me that he didn’t have anybody else to discuss his books with (being a good friend, I obliged by reading the ambitious writer’s work). Another friend told me of his phone calls with the ambitious writer and this allowed me to see from a distance that this guy was human. Still, this isn’t someone who I would go out of my way to talk with. Far better to keep him at a distance so that I can read his books without prejudice.

2. The Fawning Podcaster: For many years, he ran a very smart podcast on a niche psychogeography topic that was unlike anything else out there. So he had my admiration already. But he also thought that I was terrific and even wrote a piece in which he didn’t understand why I wasn’t a huge star. So I wrote him an appreciative note and opened myself up slightly. I sent listeners to his podcast. And that was when he suddenly wished to have nothing to do with me. Now I am wondering if what he had to say about me had any genuine validity. I have stopped listening to his podcast. And I haven’t communicated with him in any way for many years.

3. The Chicken Farmer: On TikTok, there was a lonely man who lived with chickens who became a huge fan of my commentaries. Being an affable sort, I sincerely expressed my empathy for his situation and marveled over the fact that he expressed such affection for his chickens. Then, out of the blue, he left a number of vituperative comments on my feed, claiming that I wasn’t very intelligent and so forth. And I was forced to block him. What changed? Could it be that he resented me for taking the time out of my life to offer him solace and interest? There was no warning for any of this. I never said an unkind word about him.

4. The Admiring Commentator: I had read her work for years and admired it. Then we met. We became friends in San Francisco, meeting regularly to write together in coffeehouses. We had many hilarious and honest conversations. Perhaps my mistake was not letting her more into my life. But I’ve talked with other people she’s known and she’s done the same thing to them. She seemed convinced at one point that I was a one-in-a-million voice. At one point, when a major development rightly landed in her lap (she is incredibly smart and ferociously talented), I delivered a protective monologue urging her to be careful about having her writing voice compromised in any way and declaring that she was a vital writing voice. It’s not that I didn’t think she couldn’t handle herself. It’s that I wanted to see her blossom and I knew certain inside information about the editors behind the operation. Perhaps I overstepped. One day, she seemed to disregard me. She offered a writing job to a friend as I was sitting right there, never once considering that I might be in need of work. I was hurt. There are more discreet ways to handle an offer like this. When I went to revisit San Francisco after several years of living in New York and I met up with her, I was pushed to the side, feeling like an afterthought rather than a human being and I knew the friendship was over. But I do know that she pushes many people she befriends away until they are not useful to her. I haven’t communicated with her since.

5. The Competitive Blogger: I am not competitive with anyone other than myself. And when this blogger started out, he fawned over me. I hooked him up with publicist contacts and told him how he could get review copies and gave him several suggestions on how he could become a major literary website. Like all my other admirers, I got the gist that I was a “vital voice” and so forth. And then one day, he turned on me and turned into a wild egomaniac. Not just to me, but to friends who I had introduced to him. He started a literary criticism outlet. I sent a few people his way. He then decided that he was better than me and took on the practice of exploiting these people, who later came back to me. And I was forced to apologize to my friends for the competitive blogger’s conduct and buy them many beers.

* * *

These are only five exemplars of an underlying pattern. There are dozens more. The common element is me. So I clearly must be the problem. There must be some fatal flaw within me that allowed these relationships to veer into the dynamics I have described. It’s quite possible that I simply don’t possess any particular draw that allows a reader or a listener of my work to stick around for the long haul.

I have found, of late, that I am better at keeping friends. But that is only because I have never allowed my friendship to be defined by the art that I make. I usually never mention what I do. I am more keen on listening. I am not so in need of approval, as so many other writers are, to require constant validation for my work. If I send anything on, I do so because I know the friend is going to be entertained by that side of me. Or it may be referencing something we’re talking about and this allows me not to repeat myself. Or, if the friend is a fellow writer, I know that I can trust that friend to rake me across the coals, tell me what’s wrong, and not bullshit me.

But I do need to be validated as a person sometimes. And I find that, on the whole, people in the media world often make the worst friends. If your default position in life is admiration for a slice of someone rather than an appreciation of his totality, warts and all, then I think you’re doing friendship very wrong.