A TONY HIGH SCHOOL for teenaged girls is the setting for a predator in inspirational English teacher clothing. Victoria Namkung’s These Violent Delights mines a subject that is tragically, outrageously, maddeningly evergreen.
Namkung, whose credits range from The New York Times to NBC News, applies her journalistic background and her lens as essayist and cultural commentator to her novel. Told in a variety of voices, the book opens with intern Caryn Rodgers at the Daily Mail pitching her editor a personal essay based on her experience at the astronomically expensive Los Angeles private school Windemere. Jane, the editor, presents her colleagues with Caryn’s essay. Their responses range from “How do we even know this is true?” and “Why is she coming out with this now?” to “Why didn’t she contact the police then?” and “An accusation like this can ruin someone’s life.” All too familiar negating responses.
Jane’s reaction is fierce and forthright:
Don’t you find it interesting that these types of crimes against women — whether it’s violence, sexual assault, rape — are the only kind where we force the victim to make a case about their own innocence before even investigating?” The room goes quiet. I feel my face and neck redden with increased blood pressure but I can’t stop now. […] If someone walked in the office right now and said they were hurt and needed help, would you need an investigation and a prosecutor to bring charges and a judge or jury to convict them before you attempted to assist them? Why do you think this is?
They decide to publish the essay.
Caryn understands that publication will come with a certain measure of personal exposure: “I just hope they use a good picture and not the one from Windemere. I had not yet discovered the wonders of brow shaping.” She considers the responses of her family and professors, as well as the one from the predator himself. She muses that her “experience seems innocent compared to some of the media accounts I’ve read lately,” wondering why the Daily Mail is publishing her essay considering “nothing that bad happened to me.” But the reader notices that today she’s bulimic/anorexic, estranged from her US diplomat father and former Miss Korea mother as well as resentful toward the school that did nothing except mandate counseling for the teacher.
“My Tenth-Grade Teacher Claims He Fell in Love With Me” becomes the Daily’s viral sensation. In it, Caryn depicts how the unnamed teacher complimented her, flirted with her, placed his hand on her knee, then later kissed her, and how, once alerted, the school essentially brushed her and the incident aside.
As her personal essay goes viral, Caryn explains the condemnatory silence of her family to Jane: “Once Windemere decided not to act on the Copeland situation, I think my mom was relieved that we could put it all behind us and never speak of it again. Denial is practically a virtue among Koreans.”
In the face of sordid and tawdry online comments Caryn keeps her sense of humor. She is aware of Jane’s horror at her family’s silence, but still admires and respects Jane, kind of: “If we remove things like fashion, grooming, and general taste and style, I want to be just like her.” And, telling her roommate, “I realize I sound judgmental, but if you can’t be judgmental about Birkenstocks, then what fun is there left on this Earth?”
Buried in the online comments before Jane closes them is a message from a woman, class of 2002, more than a decade before Caryn’s experiences. After Caryn confirms that they are talking about the same man, they meet. Now married with children of her own, Eva Garcia was once the self-propelled scholarship girl who applied on her own and was thrilled to be given a full ride to the exclusive high school. Attending Windemere, she found herself at sea in an ocean of privilege, and was grateful for the attention showered on her by Copeland. Eva tells Caryn the story she had yet to tell her own husband.
Jane reaches out to her network and a third victim, Sasha, reluctantly contacts her, eventually meeting up with both Caryn and Eva. Sasha, too, had a complicated journey to the prestigious Windemere. Among the three, her history with Copeland is the most intimate, and Namkung will show us how it is ultimately the most damaging.
The trio forms a sordid club. Sasha sardonically refers to them as “The Rose Club” after the fact that Copeland told each of them they were “as special as a rare rose, because there was no one else” like them.
Namkung reminds us, repeatedly and effectively, of the cost of coming forward. She portrays the pushback of families loyal to Windemere and to Copeland, the article’s unnamed predator. Published just before the #MeToo movement exploded upon our consciousness, These Violent Delights portrays societal, familial, and personal pressures to simply pack it up and put the memories in storage, without complaint, without retribution, without justice. Society is skeptical of young women’s voices, when the counternarrative is a beloved father figure, or a highly paid school authority. Families can be, as in Caryn’s case, eager to brush it off, or in the case of the others, unaware or simply unavailable. And each woman in this novel who has been victimized has her own chain of self-defeating thinking, self-blame, and regrets. Namkung depicts the self-flagellation and self-doubt of these young women who have torn themselves up over their responses, their mixed emotions and signals.
In Caryn’s case:
I had brought this upon myself because I never told him to stop paying attention to me. I didn’t want to have to tell my parents, because they would make a big fuss […] But I knew I had to do something before facing him again the next day. So I typed a short email. “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression,” I wrote. “This isn’t right and I just want to be treated like a normal student.”
After receiving the email the teacher refers in class to Caryn as a “tease.”
Who is this predator? Copeland is known in his community as a charismatic, gifted teacher, beloved by students and faculty. Married with two children. According to Caryn, “A most-average-looking man with a toothy smile and a soft belly that hangs over his khaki pants when he goes over the day’s lesson plan.” A man who tests his sexual ambitions with a dry hand on a naked knee. A man who escorts his love interest to a parking lot not far from the high school. A man who renounces all his affection and attention after a pregnancy scare.
If there is any weakness in this novel it’s that it seems at times people are generally too understanding and sympathetic, with a lack of complexity in their responses. Although we read critical comments, we never meet a single character voicing a harsh word about the women, which in a way lessens the emotional stakes of the novel. Supporting characters are almost too willing to take the women’s side, when, day after day, in social and mainstream media, we see ample signs of skepticism and misogyny, even post-#MeToo pushback.
Namkung’s background in journalism and magazine writing gives the novel a sense of the action all unfolding as we are reading; and in a sense it is — somewhere. In the back of our minds as we read is the realization that this is probably going on right now, filled with the same testing and grooming, the same lonely or lost young girls looking for a haven, a mentor, a safe place, with a canny man who is looking for sex founded on a serviceable web of meaningless words and deeds. Even just now, while writing this review, I read about a family in Pennsylvania that has been reunited with their 16-year-old daughter, who had traveled to Mexico with a 45-year-old “friend of the family.”
Less a who- or howdunit, this novel is one of psychological exploration: What reverberations has this abuse caused within the women themselves? What justifications have been used by those who also considered his actions “not that bad”? With a pitch-perfect insight Namkung charts the ranges of emotions, justifications, and equivocations that a predator’s actions have provoked in the lives of others.