Married with two children. 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. 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. 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. APRIL 26, 2018
A TONY HIGH SCHOOL for teenaged girls is the setting for a predator in inspirational English teacher clothing. They decide to publish the essay. Namkung reminds us, repeatedly and effectively, of the cost of coming forward. Jane reaches out to her network and a third victim, Sasha, reluctantly contacts her, and meets up with both Caryn and Eva. In Caryn’s case:
I had brought this upon myself because I never told him to stop paying attention to me. 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. Sasha, too, had a complicated journey to the prestigious Windemere. 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. 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 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. 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. 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 gifted a full ride to the exclusive high school. 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. 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? 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. 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. What justifications have been used by those who also considered his actions “not that bad”? 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. I feel my face and neck redden with increased blood pressure but I can’t stop now. 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. 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. 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. Victoria Namkung’s These Violent Delights mines a subject that is tragically, outrageously, maddeningly evergreen. Eva tells Caryn the story she had yet to tell her own husband. “My Tenth-Grade Teacher Claims He Fell in Love With Me” becomes the Daily’s viral sensation. Families can be, as in Caryn’s case, eager to brush it off, or in the case of the others, unaware or simply unavailable. 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. 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. 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. Society is skeptical of young women’s voices, when the counternarrative is a beloved father figure, or a highly paid school authority. She portrays the pushback of families loyal to Windemere and to Copeland, the article’s unnamed predator. […] 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? 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. 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. The trio forms a sordid club. Why do you think this is? Denial is practically a virtue among Koreans.”
In the face of sordid and tawdry online comments Caryn keeps her sense of humor. A man who renounces all his affection and attention after a pregnancy scare. A man who escorts his love interest to a parking lot not far from the high school. Copeland is known in his community as a charismatic, gifted teacher, beloved by students and faculty. Attending Windemere she found herself at sea in an ocean of privilege, and was grateful for the attention showered on her by Copeland. Among the three, her history with Copeland is the most intimate, and Namkung will show us how it is ultimately the most damaging. 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. “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? After Caryn confirms that they are talking about the same man, they meet. Jane, the editor, presents her colleagues with Caryn’s essay. And each woman in this novel who has been victimized has her own chain of self-defeating thinking, self-blame, and regrets. ¤
Désirée Zamorano is the author of The Amado Women. So I typed a short email.