Written with Amos Kamil, Great Is the Truth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015) tells the story of a sex abuse scandal at the Horace Mann School and the survivors of that abuse who battled the school while calling for an independent investigation.New York Magazine published the following excerpt in 2016:
On an icy Sunday in February, 2014, I drove to Shoreham, Vermont, a rural town a few miles southwest of Middlebury. A recent nor’easter had buried the quiet valley in snow. I was going to see Crawford Blagden, the teacher who had been named as a perpetrator by several female students in the wake of the first exposé of widespread sexual abuse at Horace Mann. My stomach tightened when I saw the name BLAGDEN on a black postbox in front of a typical rustic Vermont home. A few cars were parked in various levels of snow.
Blagden arrived at Horace Mann in 1980 after several short high-school teaching stints and a job in admissions at Columbia University, where, for three dollars an hour, he would interview prospective students. He’d been driving a cab in Boston for four years when Horace Mann’s headmaster, Michael Lacopo, invited him to join the English faculty. The two had met a few years earlier when both were working toward a master’s degree at the Bread Loaf School of English, a summer graduate school of Middlebury College. Back then, Blagden, who was divorced by the time he arrived at HM, smoked a pipe and wore flannel shirts. He fit in easily with the other members of the department. In addition to teaching English, Blagden coached cross-country and assisted with Searchers — HM’s Outward Bound–style program. Although I never had him as a teacher, I got to know him through my friends who had taken Searchers. Sometimes he’d pitch batting practice and delight in the fact that he could still get kids out.
I knocked gingerly on the front door and heard nothing. Had he changed his mind about speaking to me? I had hastily packed my family into the car for a “weekend trip to Vermont” the moment Blagden agreed to see me. I knocked a little harder and took a few deep breaths as I heard footsteps inside. When the door opened, I recognized him immediately. His hair was whiter and he was slightly heavier than I remembered him, but the square jaw and the glasses were the same. Whenever I heard Garrison Keillor on the radio, it was Blagden’s face I pictured.
“Hey, Crawford,” I said, willing my voice into a casual, familiar tone as if we spoke all the time.
“Nice to see you, Amos,” he said as he grasped my hand warmly. Blagden poured me a cup of coffee. (He’d asked me the night before if I preferred coffee or tea.) His relaxing living room was lined with the books, old newspapers, wool blankets, and gentle disorder one might associate with a retired schoolteacher in Vermont. A potbelly stove warmed the home he shared with Lynn, his wife of eighteen years. He lowered the volume on the Olympic hockey game he’d been watching, offered me the big chair, then sat on the comfortable couch, where he was quickly joined by Rosie, his springer spaniel.
His home reminded me of the atmosphere he had worked so hard to create in Room Ten, the HM classroom he’d turned into a refuge where kids would spend hours lounging on frayed couches listening to jazz and shooting the breeze. Blagden’s shepherd-husky mix, also named Rosie, roamed the classroom freely.
“I loved my time at Horace Mann,” he told me. “I absolutely loved it. Interesting, smart kids who worked hard. I was extremely happy there.”
Blagden encouraged students to write their deepest thoughts in their journals. “I just wanted them to write,” he said. “They would write whatever they wanted. I just wanted to cool everything down. The place was so pressured and everybody had to go to Harvard and Brown. Room Ten was a drop-in room for students. They would listen to music, relax. They had enough to worry about.”
Blagden carried some of those close relationships with him for decades, including with G., a victim of the football coach Mark Wright whom I’d grown up playing baseball with in Riverdale. Blagden had grown very friendly with G.’s mother as well, and for many years he’d sent them Christmas cards. In 2013, in response, he received a curt cease-and-desist letter that began: “Crawford, it was upsetting to me to receive your Christmas card. I am the person referred to as ‘G’ in Amos Kamil’s article, a member of the HM survivors group, and fully and painfully aware of your role in the abuse of minors at HM.”
“I was very surprised to get that letter,” Blagden told me. “He threatened to take legal action against me if I ever contacted him again. I called his mother and she doesn’t want to speak to me. Breck [HM colleague Alan Breckenridge] doesn’t speak to me. It hurts. A lot of people don’t speak to me anymore. Clearly I hurt a lot of people I didn’t mean to hurt. Can you imagine? Some of my closest friends, people I’ve known for so long, find me so reprehensible they won’t even speak to [me]. But I gave people a reason not to talk to me. Clearly I fucked up.”
I asked him what he knew of the charges against him.
“I had an affair,” he admitted. “She was a student and on the cross-country team. She was very bright. I waited till she was seventeen.”
The relationship, as Blagden referred to it at times, with Rebecca lasted four, five, or six years and, according to him, they would get together every two or three weeks or so. Rebecca [whose name has been changed] said it went on for a lot longer and with more frequency.
I had tried for more than two years to gently persuade Rebecca to speak with me. I don’t know if it was conscious or not, but it seemed as if she was avoiding me. She would tell me to call her and then miss the appointment. Given what some of the others had said about her volatility, I assumed she simply didn’t want to speak anymore about it. Although I understood her trepidation, her behavior did little to ease my sense that she might be an unreliable source. I didn’t want to retraumatize her, but given what Blagden had said about her, I felt it was important to at least give her the opportunity to respond.
When I finally did connect with her, she seemed thankful to be able to tell me her version of the events. Rebecca said Blagden’s interest in her started when she was in the seventh grade and had first arrived at Horace Mann. “He would say things like, ‘I want to be your boyfriend.’ Then he would stand behind me and start molesting me.”
She described her contact with him as going on for nine or ten years. “He would take me into the woods and have sex with me and stuff. He would take me home from school to his house and have sex with me around four times a week. There were times when I slept at his house. My parents would be calling all my friends looking for me. I would tell them I fell asleep at a friend’s house.
“The first time he raped me, he took me to his basement apartment and made me take a shower. His shower had two showerheads — one up at head level and one at the level of my stomach. I remember him soaping me up and washing me off.”
One night, in the mid-1980s, when Rebecca was a junior, Blagden says, he invited her to an English-faculty party. “I had called David Schiller, who was the head of the department, and he said I could bring anyone I wanted. When he greeted us at the door, Schiller gave me that look like, ‘What are you doing here with a student?’ But nobody said anything to me. She was the only student there. I remember Randal Castleman [HM’s much-beloved librarian] talking to her for a long time in the kitchen.”
“Did anyone give you a signal it was okay?”
“Oh, come on! What kind of signal do you need, Amos?” he said, his anger flaring. “Jesus! Look, I was stupid. When I look back, I was sick and bloated. And so corrupt. Nobody ever admonished me. I assumed they all put two and two together. I mean, today … it’s good that things like that wouldn’t fly today.”
When I asked Rebecca about her memory of this event, she guffawed.
“That is so fucked up. He is mixing me up with another girl. I know who he is talking about. He had multiple relationships. He was telling me I was the only one. That was one of the things that hurt. When I caught him and confronted him, he said, ‘They came on to me. They bought me flowers.’ I realized he wasn’t in love with me. I was just an object. A number.”
Whether or not she attended Schiller’s party, Rebecca insists that her connection to Blagden was out in the open. “They knew it while it was going on,” she told me.
“Crawford would take me to concerts, and when other teachers asked who he was with, he’d say ‘I’m with Rebecca’ and nobody would bat an eyelash. Some teachers definitely knew. They didn’t condemn it. They thought it was hot.”
Rebecca claims that after she graduated, her parents approached headmaster Foote, board chair Michael Hess, and other trustees with evidence of Blagden’s abuse.
“My parents were not seeking revenge or money, but when they found out what I had been through, they wanted to make sure it never happened with anyone else. Every time a new headmaster came, they would contact them,” she said. A former teacher and administrator, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of risking his pension, told me he had been next door at the time of one such meeting.
When her parents died, Rebecca says she went through their belongings and came across many items from the period. “I had storage lockers of evidence,” she said. According to her, there were dozens of love letters from the English teacher. There were apology letters to Rebecca’s father from Blagden, written on school stationery. There were other letters to her father in which Blagden blamed her for the sex they were having.
For his part, Hess claims he was never approached by Rebecca’s parents about Blagden. “I didn’t know Crawford Blagden. I didn’t know there was anything involving him,” he said. When it was suggested that he must have known Blagden because his kids attended Horace Mann at the time Blagden was teaching there, Hess said he was not involved enough in his kids’ schooling to know the names of their teachers.
When pressed, Hess admitted that perhaps he had misspoken about never knowing or meeting Blagden but still insisted he never attended a meeting about him or knew of the accusations.
Rebecca said her parents also approached the Bronx DA, who she said did nothing with the claim.
When Tom Kelly took over as headmaster from Eileen Mullady in 2005, Rebecca says, her parents told him what had occurred so that it wouldn’t happen to other kids. She says they never asked for money.
Blagden insists that Rebecca’s parents knew about his “relationship” with their daughter all along. “Her parents would call looking for her at my apartment. I went to their house lots of times for dinner. Obviously they knew. But they never said anything.”
If taking her as his date to concerts and parties hadn’t gotten them noticed, what happened next did. When Rebecca was a junior, she was taking care of her friend Edward’s apartment in Manhattan. Edward was not a student at Horace Mann.
“She invited me over and we had sex that night,” Blagden said. “We go back there the next day and we were in Edward’s parents’ bed. When the parents come back to the apartment, they were like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ and ‘What are you doing here?’”
After some ugly back-and-forth, Blagden was forced to admit to Edward’s parents who he was.
“Once that happened, I thought I’d be fired for sure,” he said. “I was waiting for Michael [Lacopo] to call me in and can me. But it never happened. Lacopo didn’t know. That poor guy. He was as straight as they come. He would have fired me immediately. Probably would have kicked my ass first.”
According to Rebecca, Blagden was emotionally and physically abusive. “He would hit me across the face so hard that I would fly across the room and land on the linoleum floor with blood running out of my mouth,” she said. “I remember staring at the linoleum floor and seeing stars and having him beat me on my back. This was intermingled with him raping me vaginally and anally. He was mentally ill. Out of control. … He physically abused me, but I never stood up for myself. I took it. He made me feel like a whore. He would beat me and say, ‘You made me do this!’ Then in another moment he could be so sweet. And I would totally bond with him. I would go home and remember not wanting to shower because I would have these bruises the size of handprints all over my back.”
I asked Blagden about Rebecca’s charge that he beat and raped her in the basement of his rented apartment.
“She’s crazy, Amos,” he said emphatically. “I didn’t rape nobody,” he said as either a turn of phrase or an odd construction for a former English teacher. “Absolutely not.”
“But Crawford, why would she make it up?”
“I have no fucking idea, man. You know me well enough to know that I would never … I was stupid and way …” He gasped and his voice trailed off. “I didn’t abuse her. I think she’s fucking crazy. I guess I didn’t think she was crazy back then.” He laughed. “I cared for her. I was good to her.”
“Did you love her?”
“I guess at that time I thought I did. When you’re fucking someone, you tell yourself that you love them. What else can you do? But looking back on it now, I’m like, Jesus Christ! What was I doing?”
“If I’m crazy, it’s because of him!” Rebecca countered when I told her what Blagden had said. “He got me high, drunk, and physically and mentally abused me for ten years. It destroyed my parents. They both passed away before this all came out, so they never got to see HM held accountable. It destroyed my family.”
“Were there others?” I pressed Blagden.
“This is the first time. The only time. But I flirted a lot with a lot of girls.”
I asked him if he remembered Alison Pollet.
“Sure, I remember Alison,” he said.
I showed him a page in her journal where he had written “I love you, Alison Pollet” in the margins.
“I wrote stuff like that all the time. I did. But I didn’t mean it like that. It wasn’t sexual. But we did have a kiss, so I guess it went at least that far. We talked on the phone. She came to the apartment. That’s when we kissed. I don’t remember how it developed. But if Alison wants to know she should write me directly. I’ll answer her.”
When I pushed him a little more, he admitted that there had been another girl from HM, but he insisted that it ended well and they were still in touch. I didn’t know whom he was referring to and he wouldn’t tell me her name.
When Lacopo took a job as the head of Isidore Newman, a day school in New Orleans, he asked his old friend to come down to teach English. In 1992, after eleven years at HM, Blagden went to Newman, where, among other students, he taught Cooper Manning, the older brother of NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli.
“I was king of the hill when I left Horace Mann. I had good relationships with the kids. That was part of the program. I was good at my job. I had one parent tell me, ‘My kid would have committed suicide if it wasn’t for you.’ I still have the last evaluation letter that Schiller ever wrote. It was very positive.” Blagden got up and rummaged around looking for the teacher evaluation he’d received more than twenty years earlier.
Blagden said that Rebecca, then in college, visited him in New Orleans, where they hooked up again. “It was the last time I saw her.”
I asked Blagden if he knew how many teachers and administrators had been named. He shook his head.
“Twenty-two,” I told him.
“Wow. That’s scary, man. That’s fucking scary,” he said. It was hard to tell if he counted himself among them. “I had no idea how widespread it was. I had absolutely no fucking idea. I mean, I would have been somebody that somebody would have come to if someone was bothering them. Nobody ever did. There was too much shit to do to wonder about who was fucking who. It isn’t part of the thing.”
As much as he liked his fellow faculty members, Blagden was no fan of headmaster Inky Clark. “Inslee was a weird one. He was bogus. He did a great job up at Yale, but by the time he got to HM he was sliding through. Frankly, I thought he was a bit of a blockhead. It was pretty clear to the grown-ups that all he cared about was the baseball team and that he didn’t care about anything else.
“Early on at HM I was walking the campus one Saturday when I ran into Inky and [his friend, history teacher Stan] Kops,” he recalled. “They invited me to the house for a beer. There were two iceboxes, one packed with Heinekens, so I took one of those. Inky then went to the icebox and made himself a martini in a jelly jar. I thought he was going to split it up but he just handed it to Kops and then made another for himself. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, these guys like to drink.’”
Drinking was a subject Blagden knew something about. I remember hoisting beers with him at the Dublin House or the West End, two Upper West Side bars frequented by HMers where pitchers of beer were cheap and, despite the drinking age of eighteen, the bouncers and bartenders never checked our fake IDs. On more than one occasion I pulled Blagden, blind drunk, out of a bar and deposited him on the floor of his basement apartment a few blocks from my apartment. I wondered aloud if he had simply blacked out during the episode in his basement with Rebecca, but he waved me off dismissively.
“Do you still drink?”
“Yeah, I still drink,” he said almost defiantly, almost proudly.
“I didn’t know Wright. He was before my time. I had no idea about Somary [the Swiss-born head of HM’s art department who would pick out one special boy a year and lavish attention on him before sexually abusing him]. He was real pompous, but he was pretty much a genius and the head of the art department. With a school as high-pressured as Horace Mann, you really needed a strong arts department. I really admired Somary for his dedication.
“I was amazed by the revelations about Tek [the revered English teacher and chaplain who admitted that he had had sex with several boys while at Horace Mann]. I was very surprised. I learned a lot from Tek. Especially grammar. You have to admire what he did for the school. He planted all those trees. He was like a minor god. It’s not like we were buddies, but he did a lot for the school. Do you think they all knew about each other?” he asked me. “I would have thought that there was no collaboration.”
I told him that we now knew that Somary knew about both Inky and Tek. And that [guidance counselor William] Clinton knew about Tek. And so on.
He shook his head. “I used to be so proud of Horace Mann, and now I feel ashamed. The closeness I had with the kids was a good thing. We would go to concerts together, I remember going to a Los Lobos concert with a bunch of kids. I used to go down by the river with G. and a six-pack of beer. I just got too involved. I went overboard. I got carried away. I just got too close to the kids. I was really good at my job. I just got stupid. Fat. But it was a different world. I was in a bar recently and ran into a guy who teaches snowboarding, and he was telling me that they get a rap about sexual harassment. That never happened back then. But it’s a good thing. But I shouldn’t have been drinking with them. I let it get ahead of me. It went too far. And that is what I regret.”
Although the conversation was relaxed and friendly, Blagden seemed to be a bundle of conflicting and ever-changing emotions — regretful, defensive, guilty, passive, angry, contrite, and aggressive. Given the circumstances, I was surprised he’d agreed to meet me at all. He told me that his wife wondered what good could come of talking to me. It was a legitimate question — one I’d heard hundreds of times in various forms.
So I put the question to Blagden himself: “Why did you agree to speak to me?”
“I can’t change what happened at Horace Mann, Amos. That was two lifetimes ago. There’s nothing I can do to make what happened at HMany better. If speaking to you is a tiny little step in the right direction, then it’s worth doing. I had to tell you. I know you. I would have said ‘fuck you’ if it were anyone else.”
When I suggested that he seemed almost relieved to be speaking with me, he agreed.
“‘Relief’ is a good word. I feel relief. I knew you were straight and trying to do something important. I strongly believe it’s worth doing it. I’m glad I spoke to you.”
“Are you angry with me?”
“Not at all. I wish you well, man. You did the right thing. I feel like I accomplished a little bit. It’s good to say it. I think you’ll be fair. It will help some of these people. It’s not gonna be a book that sells. But I expect a free copy.”
He wasn’t joking.
As I packed up my things, I asked about the house we were in. He said it belonged to Lynn. “I could never afford a house,” he said. “I’ve lived in a lot of basements.”
We walked to my car, shook hands, and exchanged good-byes. Blagden guided me as I backed out of his snowy driveway. I drove a mile down the road and pulled over to stare at the picture-postcard rolling white hills of the valley.
I called my wife, Madeline, and as we discussed where to meet, I noticed a car pulled over about thirty yards ahead. An older man approached my car. I rolled down the window and realized it was Blagden, wondering if I was lost.
“Just trying to figure out a good spot to meet my wife and kids.”
“Follow me,” he said. “I’m going to Mister Up’s in Middlebury. It’s a great bakery.”
As much as I was intrigued by the notion of sharing breakfast with Blagden and my wife and our two teenage daughters, I declined.
I called Andrew not long after my encounter with Blagden. Andrew had been a student of his and today is a psychologist who works with abused and neglected children. Andrew called me back a few days later to tell me that he’d been thinking a great deal about what I told him.
“The one line that kept coming back to me was ‘I didn’t rape nobody,’” he said. “It has three levels of meaning for me. First and most obvious, it’s a pretty ironic grammatically incorrect construction for a former English teacher. Second is that it’s consistent with my memory of the image Crawford liked to put forward of himself to us in high school — the outsider and anti-establishment rebel who’d been kicked around by life; the guy who didn’t play by the rules. At a third level, and as a psychologist, I couldn’t help noticing the literal meaning of his double negative, ‘didn’t rape nobody.’ One way that you can read ‘I didn’t rape nobody’ is ‘I did rape somebody.’ I don’t really buy into the whole Freudian-slip thing. But just like when I read Tek Lin’s words in the New York Times interview last year [“In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong,” Mr. Lin, said in reference to his sexual relations with boys during his years at HM], or when Bill Clinton famously said, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman,’ I am struck by the contorted language that perpetrators employ when referring to their behavior. It’s often quite disturbing and revealing.”
Andrew told me another memory of Blagden from when he was a student at Horace Mann. “I think it was in his classroom on the first floor of Tillinghast [Hall]. Blagden asked a group of us, ‘Boys, have you ever fucked a girl in the ass? At first you push and push and nothing happens. And then, boom! It’s like sucking air.’ We cracked up. I mean, we were like sixteen — most of us had never even had sex. We joked about it afterwards — it seemed like Blagden being one of the boys. But as I became an adult, it became clear how incredibly inappropriate that interaction was, how misogynistic, and how much it exemplified the unhealthy, sexualized culture of teachers at the school at that time. As a parent of teenagers, I can’t even imagine how angry I’d be if I learned that a teacher was talking to my son in that way.”
After months of silence and lawyered-up apologies, Horace Mann finally agreed to enter into a mediation process with thirty-two HMsurvivors and their various legal teams. It had been mutually agreed upon that the mediation would take place at the spacious Manhattan offices of Horace Mann’s legal counsel, Schulte Roth & Zabel, a respected white-shoe law firm that had handled, among many other transactions, the sale of Chrysler Financial to the TD Bank Group.
On March 11, 2013, survivors, represented by three different legal teams, began assembling at the Schulte Roth offices. The largest group — twenty-five survivors including Rebecca — was represented by Gloria Allred, Mariann Wang, and Nathan Goldberg. Kevin Mulhearn, Paul Mones, and Michael Dowd represented six survivors and M., who said he was abused hundreds of times over three years by Johannes Somary, was represented by Rosemarie Arnold.
All insisted the negotiation should not be just about money. They wanted Horace Mann to agree to an independent investigation and to campaign in favor of changing the statute of limitations laws. As the survivors gathered, there was trepidation but also a sense of accomplishment.
On that first day, Horace Mann’s counsel insisted the survivors had no case and the school had no legal liability.
“For those unschooled in the nuances of the law, it was a compelling presentation,” said one lawyer familiar with the case.
Whatever the merit of Schulte Roth’s arguments, all six of Mulhearn, Mones, and Dowd’s clients settled on the first day.
The atmosphere in the conference room where the survivors were gathered was a cross between the anxiety of a hospital waiting room and the exuberance of a high-school reunion. Some survivors, separated by decades, were meeting one another for the first time; others hugged after not seeing each other since graduation. Some had been abused hundreds of times over a period of years while others were made to feel uncomfortable after encounters that were sexual in nature. Some had gone to HM when it was still an all-boys school; others had attended the coed version. Some had labored for decades under the impression they’d been an abuser’s sole target while others had known that they had not been alone. Some had been referring to themselves as survivors for years while others would be sharing their stories for the first time. Some desperately needed the money while others were financially successful and just wanted to have their pain acknowledged in order to move on with their lives.
Whatever their differences, after decades of silence they had brought the mighty Horace Mann to the table. After nearly six months of crystallizing as a group, telling one another their stories, the moment of truth was at hand.
The chatting ceased the moment Allred, Wang, and Goldberg entered the conference room. They were accompanied by two men who looked like linebackers in suits — Paul Finn the CEO and Brian Mone the president of Commonwealth Mediation.
Allred, wearing one of her signature bright-red suits, opened the proceedings by saying that Horace Mann was afraid of the media her presence would generate and that the school wanted it all over very quickly. The feisty feminist attorney and her team appeared confident and ready for battle.
When she finished addressing her clients, Finn seized the floor and introduced himself in a manner that left no mistake about who would be leading the next two weeks’ proceedings.
“How much money would I have to pay you to let me abuse your child?” Finn asked in his booming Boston accent, making eye contact with individuals in the room one by one. “What would it be worth to you?”
Of course there was no correct answer to this rhetorical flourish, but Finn was making a point. “Whatever money we get for you is not repayment,” he continued. “No one can ever repay you for your pain. Or give you your childhood back. So you won’t get what you deserve.”
It was clear from the first moment that Finn was a charismatic, funny storyteller who joked, prodded, cursed like a sailor, and was willing to do whatever he had to do to get both sides to meet somewhere in the middle. As a lead arbitrator, Finn typically mediated between three hundred and four hundred cases per year, and he was an old hand at bashing down expectations.
Some felt that Finn’s remarks were full of promise — emotional healing and cash compensation — while others thought his opening was a clear exercise in lowering expectations. “He never promised us anything,” said one survivor. “If anything, he was trying to get us to come to terms with the important point that the whole notion of monetizing suffering was ridiculous.”
But whatever financial expectations Finn had set up (or knocked down) were soon muddied when the Allred team brought in John McCulloch, a financial professional. McCulloch explained that he specialized in helping plaintiffs figure out how to manage the money they received in a settlement, potentially structuring things to reduce the tax effect. It was like telling people what to expect when they win the lottery — or, as one of the survivors put it, “a clear message that significant money was going to change hands.”
Late that morning, the group marched down to another large conference room on the floor below. Her team had placed around the room large photographs of the victims at the time they were molested. The group grew quiet as the Horace Mann contingent — HMheadmaster Tom Kelly, board chair Steve Friedman, and a crowd of lawyers from the school and its various insurance companies — entered and found their seats.
Rows of victims faced the HM people as if they were two football teams staring across the field prior to kickoff. There was no place to hide.
Finn stood and gave a brief overview of how the process was going to work before turning the floor over to the Allred team to make their case. Allred, Goldberg, and Wang took turns, using a PowerPoint presentation that featured harrowing quotes pulled from personal written testimonies and a time line of events. It also featured a schematic diagram of the HM campus, with a child’s silhouette placed in the middle; the diagram was riddled with X’s representing every known spot where sexual abuse had taken place. It included the headmaster’s house, the athletic building, buildings with names familiar to anyone who ever attended Horace Mann — Tillinghast, Pforzheimer, Prettyman — all were marked. In this condensed format, the Allred team impressively detailed the history of the sexual abuse that had occurred as far back as 1962 and as recently as 1996.
In the middle of the litany, on the advice of her lawyers, Rebecca got up and quietly left the room. Rebecca’s volatility had been triggered by the events of the past year; she had agreed to absent herself in order to reduce the amount of information flooding her. She had been unstable before and during mediation, sometimes erupting at a fellow survivor who she felt had not endured the same level of suffering she had. “You think that’s bad,” she’d yelled at one Somary survivor during a meeting. “Try being raped on a linoleum floor and being beaten by a psycho! Crawford tried to throw me out of a car a few times!”
When the grisly details were finished, there were twenty-two perpetrators named. Even more staggering than the number of predators roaming the sheltered halls of a single, tiny campus was that victims had repeatedly reported their abuse to both faculty and administrators. The Allred team’s argument also shredded the notion that the current Horace Mann board and administration did not know about abuse before the publication of “Prep-School Predators” in the New York Times. Two Somary survivors had separately reported abuse to Tom Kelly in the spring of 2011, a full year before the Times story.
When the presentation was finally over, the room was shrouded in an exhausted silence. It was one thing to relive the trauma of your own abuse. It was quite another to hear a seemingly endless string of horrific abuse that spanned decades and to realize that if any of the adults in charge of the well-being of students had been doing their jobs and taken the accusations seriously, many of the subsequent acts might never have occurred.
“I literally went home and sat in a dark room for five hours after what I had heard,” said one of the survivors, recalling the day’s testimonies. “Sitting with all those grown-up kids and how they had never recovered, it was devastating.”
The school’s representatives showed little emotion through it all. Whether they had steeled themselves beforehand or were simply skeptical of some of the accusations, they sat clear-eyed during and after the presentation, occasionally taking notes.
After the Allred lawyers were finished, Friedman, the HM board’s chair, stood and read a brief prepared statement. One survivor in attendance paraphrased Friedman’s remarks as, “‘We understand that something bad happened.’ But there was no acceptance of responsibility personally, institutionally, or otherwise. There was a lot of ‘We want to do the right thing but we have responsibilities to the current student body and the current parents.’”
The survivors and their lawyers walked upstairs to a third room, where they would be camped out for most of the next few weeks. The large conference room had a view of Manhattan and a huge table that could accommodate about thirty people. There was a nice buffet with chicken Caesar wraps, pasta salads, fruit platters, fresh baked goods, and hot coffee. They could have been there to discuss a merger or the dissolution of a company.
Although Friedman, Kelly, and the HM lawyers had all been given written accounts of the abuse each survivor had suffered, Nathan Goldberg, Allred’s law partner, wanted them to hear firsthand testimony most specifically about the long-term damage the abuse had had on their lives. He wanted the insurers and the school to see his clients not as faceless claimants but as human beings who had suffered.
Finn and Mone sat at the head of the large conference table. The survivor giving testimony sat on one side of the table between their lawyers. Facing them on the other side of the table were Kelly, the Horace Mann lawyers, and a representative of the board assigned to hear that day’s testimony. Friedman was present for the first day of testimony. The settlement committee, a small group of Horace Mann board members, sat in shifts; this process went on for the rest of the week.
By mutual agreement, the Horace Mann side was not allowed to ask any questions. This mediation rule was implemented by Finn in order to be respectful of the victims’ vulnerability and to avoid the emotional outbreaks some questions might elicit. Everyone realized that it would be painful for the victims to feel like they were being cross-examined.
Despite the good intentions, the silence of the HM side had an unsettling effect. For some of those reliving their trauma, talking to “suits with legal pads taking notes” was a bizarre experience.
At times Finn would say, “How did that make you feel?” or “What was the long-term effect of that on your life?”
“I completely broke down when he did that,” said one. “It was as if everything I’d been holding in for all those years just came pouring out. I was sobbing and I hated that loss of control. On the way out, [Finn] patted me on the back and apologetically told me, ‘Sorry about that, pal. Had to do it. It was starting to feel a little dry. I wanted them to feel the emotions. Nice job.’”
One by one, the survivors walked down the hallway to tell their stories. When they came back to the survivors’ conference room, they were met supportively by their fellows and, in some cases, spouses.
Giving personal testimony brought up a whole range of emotions for all those who spoke. For decades most had kept their stories to themselves, and then, as the Survivors’ Group coalesced and defined itself, they shared their stories with one another. And now the moment of truth had come and gone. Many felt relief. Others felt a sense of regret and vulnerability. I said too much. I didn’t say enough. I shouldn’t have cried. Should I have cried more?
Friedman’s and Kelly’s every facial twitch was dissected with Talmudicspecificity. Was Friedman’s impassivity just a calculated negotiating tactic, or did he simply not give a shit? Would Kelly be able to stand up to Friedman and the board’s other hard-liners, who effectively paid his half-a-million-dollars-plus-benefits salary? After one survivor gave his testimony, Kelly approached him with a big grin on his face. “We’ll do the right thing,” he said. It was an expression that Kelly repeated, in one form or another, throughout the mediation process to many of those who testified.
By the end of the first week, the mood was hopeful. The survivors felt they were being taken seriously. Things seemed to be moving in the right direction. Everyone broke for the weekend with the sense that they had overcome their deepest fears and that Horace Mann, in its current form, would reverse decades of cover-up and obfuscation and help make the world right.
“The mood that whole first week was positive, I’d even say healing,” said one survivor.
Allred and her team spent the remainder of Friday evening and Saturday conferring with each individual survivor to arrive at the monetary figure they would submit to the Horace Mann lawyers that Sunday. Many of the survivors were elated, if not surprised, at the high numbers they were asking of Horace Mann. Depending on the level and frequency of the abuse, some of the victims were seeking to be compensated several million dollars.
“That’s when the wheels started coming off the track,” one survivor said. “The figures that they asked for were astronomically high. I had coached myself early not to get too attached to a number, but I have to admit, I did walk around that weekend thinking my life was about to significantly change.”
In fact, many of the victims spent the weekend feeling a few inches taller.
Monday morning was a waiting game as the Horace Mann lawyers met with the Allred and Finn teams to discuss the legal aspects of the case. If the school’s representatives had been all ears the previous week, it was now their turn to do the talking. And when they did, lawyers from Schulte Roth reprised a paragraph they had added to the school’s financial statements on June 30, 2012, two weeks after the scandal broke: “Articles have been published alleging that between the 1960’s and mid 1990’s certain students were sexually abused by former employees of the School,” it read. “Subsequent to such articles being published, a number of former students of the School have retained counsel and have claimed that they were sexually abused while students at the School … The School retains its rights to assert that all such claims and actions are barred by the statute of limitations, and will defend any action vigorously if litigation commenced.”
Schulte Roth essentially told the Allred team that its clients didn’t have a legal leg to stand on — which many thought had been obvious all along. Why then did they bother to go through the painful mediation? “It was an elaborate floor show” was the opinion of one survivor (and probably more). The school’s counteroffers, confidently reflecting that conviction, were extremely low. If Allred asked for $300,000, Horace Mann would counter with $10,000. If Allred’s team asked for $800,000, HM came back with $50,000. If Allred’s team asked for $1.2 million, $75,000 came back from HM.
At mid-morning, Allred, Wang, and Goldberg returned to the conference room to face their clients. The survivors found their A-team of lawyers looking shell-shocked. Finn and Mone, the mediators, didn’t look a whole lot better.
Finn spent most of the remainder of the mediation process shuttling back and forth between the Horace Mann cadre of lawyers and the survivors. Despite the back-and-forth, it was clear the mediators were not going to get Horace Mann to move very far from its original offers.
“We don’t have to give you anything” was how Finn bluntly categorized HM’s position.
“Horace Mann believes they’ve taken the worst hit,” Allred told her group, referring to my article and the ensuing storm. “They’re not afraid anymore.” Wang explained that given the statute of limitations, she was not confident they could do any better if the cases went to court. “I’ve looked at all the precedents and all the judges we might draw, and I just don’t think we have a case,” she told her clients. “The only reason Horace Mann is giving us anything is because they want this behind them. These are only token amounts.”
The survivors and their lawyers had no cards to play. They had come this far on a bluff, and some of the survivors had managed to convince themselves that they had a chance at a large settlement. Now they were devastated. After so many years, this was how Horace Mann was treating them? Horace Mann, a school with alumni and a board that boasted some of the world’s richest hedge-fund managers and heads of real-estate dynasties, was counteroffering adult victims of childhood sexual abuse with pennies on the dollar? This was when people started talking about “retraumatization” — that the victims of sexual abuse and other trauma may relapse when human interactions, sometimes even innocuous ones, bring back the terror, rage, pain, helplessness, and loss of trust triggered by the initial act. The fact that Finn was running back and forth while the survivors had no access to HM may have aggravated those who craved more personal interaction and experience with the school.
Allred’s team, trying to salvage something, suggested that there was strength in numbers and that perhaps they’d be in a better negotiating position if they bargained with Horace Mann as a unit and asked for a lump sum. But the survivors, with very little discussion, quickly rejected the concept. It was one thing to negotiate one-on-one with the institution. It was quite another to negotiate with one another.
“The reason we had gotten together as a group was because of the strength in numbers,” one survivor said. “But I couldn’t imagine the conversation [over] dividing up a lump sum. It would have gotten really competitive and awful. I mean, how do you decide who had it worse — someone who Tek slept with once should get x and then Jon Seiger, who was passed around to eight different teachers, gets a bigger number? What is the calculus by which you decide how someone is to be compensated?”
The mood changed from that of a high-school cafeteria filled with camaraderie to that of a situation room roiled by anger and instability. The atmosphere was tense, filled with questions and theories.
“Everyone quickly reverted to their most base selves,” said another. “The lawyers among us started talking about disbarring and ethics. Others reverted to whining, screaming, telling jokes, shutting down, or retreating into their headphones. People were calling their mothers, their spouses, their therapists. It was awful.”
Many of the survivors were stunned that the school seemed to be treating them like enemies. Those more knowledgeable of the ups and downs of the mediation process were less stunned.
“You are in a room of people who have all been sexually abused. It’s a form of hell,” recalled one. “Maybe they expected the initial offers to be less lowball than they were. I think it was partly the shock of the reality that this wasn’t going to mean economic comfort for some of the survivors with less stable economic situations. But this is a standard in mediation. It is upsetting but not surprising.”
“The problem is that you conceded the moral high ground to them,” railed one survivor at both the Allred and Finn teams. “Last week it was all about ethics and morals and now you are telling us that it is just about business. You have allowed Horace Mann to define the terms of the discussion. The commodity here is our pain and suffering and HM’s reputation; you have gutted the case.”
Still, eventually people began to negotiate their individual deals. Some, based on their dire financial situation or lack of stamina, negotiated faster than others. Over the next few days, lawyers shuttled in and out of the conference room, one by one, calling their clients aside.
While the lawyers and mediators were haggling, many of the survivors continued to push for an independent investigation and for getting Horace Mann to support changing New York’s statute of limitations laws. But eventually they relented. “What was really infuriating was that Horace Mann said that they had ‘no authority’ to settle on any nonmonetary matters,” one survivor said. “This was absurd, because it was obviously going to come up.”
When the two weeks of mediation were over, twenty-one of the twenty-five survivors represented by the Allred team had settled. Most did so for a fraction of what their lawyers had originally asked for. Most settled out of fatigue and the desire to move on with their lives. Others, given the current statute of limitations laws, figured this was the best they would do. As part of her settlement Rebecca signed a non-disclosure agreement and would not discuss either the specifics of mediation or the settlement amount. Due to the preponderance of evidence, other sources confirmed, her settlement was among the highest.
The school’s total payout was estimated at between $4 million and $5 million. In comparison, the survivors from Poly Prep each got roughly $800,000. Penn State paid an aggregate total of $59.7 million to settle with twenty-six of the victims in the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal. For the fiscal year 2013, which included the mediation, Horace Mann’s lawyers received upwards of $2 million in legal fees.
Rebecca, now a married professional with children, feels a certain sense of relief. “It was healing. I would have been happy with anything. My lawyers were looking at it like a business. But it was healing for me,” she said. “It was like a wound that needed to be opened, then cleaned out. It was a painful process but … beautiful in some ways. [Sobbing] I’m such a better person now. I was a mess for the past few years and it was tough but it was like exposure therapy. It changed my whole way of seeing myself. I feel so healed. I’m happier now. I’m glad. I healed a lot in the last few years.”
Rebecca’s path to healing, however, like so many survivors’, is not a straight one. “I’m scared now Crawford will stab me to death,” she wrote in a long series of texts, minutes after we spoke. “I’m scared he will come after me. Everywhere I went I saw his face and I was terrified he would come to get me. I wish you hadn’t reminded him of me, I’m afraid he will try to kill me.”
Amos Kamil is the author, with Sean Elder, of Great Is the Truth: Secrecy, Scandal and the Quest for Justice at the Horace Mann School(Farrar, Straus & Giroux), to be published November 3, 2015.