Private Sins

Sometimes you find books that are sharply reported, incisive, edifying—and that you wish you could just file away in a hermetically sealed memory hole. That’s the dilemma posed by Amos Kamil and Sean Elder’s Great Is the Truth: Secrecy, Scandal, and the Quest for Justice at the Horace Mann School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). I am not a particularly soft person—in fact, I am rather callous—but this chronicle of an awful, decades-long conspiracy to cover up massive trauma being inflicted on defenseless kids is all but begging me to tune it out. It’s like Andrea Dworkin doing a dramatic reading of A Little Life!

Back in the late aughts, tony New York City private school Horace Mann was all riled up in a terrible scandal. The students, who seemed to be incredible little monsters, were using Facebook to be mean to a teacher! A lengthy New York magazine story spilled out about it in March 2008, and the whole thing rattled along at Gawker for some time.

But Horace Mann survived that and is still regarded as a very fancy school. It is certainly expensive. For simple tuition alone, these days, Harvard is $45,278 a year, Princeton $45,150, Dalton $42,960, and Horace Mann $45,000—even for pre-K. (If you think it’s suspicious that private schools match and march their pricing in seeming concert with one another, you’re correct!) At Horace Mann, nearly 85 percent of students pay the full price. It is also one of the schools, to judge from the historical data, at which you’re most likely to have been sexually abused by a teacher (at least through the turn of the millennium).

For while the privileged tots featured in New York and Gawker were busy making racist images of their teachers and talking about how women were better off in the kitchen, there was a darker scandal hiding beneath the surface. In June 2012, Kamil dropped a cover story in the New York Times Magazine that sent the school into a lockdown from which it has never unclenched. In it, he presented the experiences of a number of students who were sexually assaulted by a number of teachers.

Horace Mann School on opening day, 2015. Jasmin Ortiz/Horace Mann School/Picasa

Almost a year later, the school wrote a letter of apology. Plenty more victims came forward. Now, courtesy of Elder, Newsweek’s West Coast editor, Great Is the Truth lays out the facts aired over the past three years: From 1962 to 1996, in the words of one alumnus, “at least three sets of serial predators” abused students. Kamil and Elder write that some were “abused hundreds of times over a period of years”; one of many accusations made by survivors and their lawyers during a March 2013 mediation process with Horace Mann was that the chair of the guidance department not only failed to assist students in need, he extorted sex from some victims.

For years now, a group of alumni has fought to make the school recognize that something was rotten. (They have a website: HMActionCoalition.org.) The school has made very few public statements. With victims, Horace Mann officials bargained down settlements to comparative pennies—and then fought with their insurer AIG over covering the bills. By August 2013, nine trustees, unable to institute any meaningful reforms, had walked away—and yet some remain.

It’s hard for those of us on the outside now, knowing what we know, to see Horace Mann as what it also is: a first- or at least not-second-rate school, a pile of supersmart and superliterate kids setting out to run the world. Looking at the board of trustees as listed on the school’s website, you wonder: What kind of person could support an institution that worked so hard to keep from acknowledging that it was simply unable to refrain from sexually abusing students for three of the past five decades?

There are no answers here. I kept stupidly expecting them. So there’s seemingly a whole necessary category of book that is too smart to be exploitative, too wise to have pat solutions, and too distressing to recommend.

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History (Harper, 2013).