At a moment when #MeToo allegations are coming at a seemingly incessant clip, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by, and maybe even desensitized to, the barrage of stories. Take the recent news of alleged sexual misconduct by faculty at the artsy, elite St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn: We’re simply no longer shocked to see male authority figures cross the line, even when minors are involved.
Rachel Cline’s new novel, “The Question Authority,” is prescient for its setting: a fictional artsy private school in Brooklyn Heights. Unlike the real-world school scandal, however, Cline’s book seems designed to shake us from our #MeToo malaise. The story follows Nora Buchbinder, a middle-aged woman whose girlhood peers experienced shocking sexual abuse at the hands of their teacher. That offending man was Bob Rasmussen, then 26, a charismatic pedophile who manipulated a cabal of 13-year-olds, including Nora’s best friend, Beth, into competing for his sexual affection. The abuse, which Rasmussen convinced his victims was consensual, happened almost in plain sight. (Cline puts Rasmussen’s house, which the girls treat as a second home, within eyeshot of their school.) His wife, Naomi, though herself young and vulnerable, acts as his enabler; one of the girls remembers Naomi holding her hand as Rasmussen raped her.
Thankfully, Cline does not require readers to experience these events in real time; we learn about them via remembered conversation. Yet the book’s premise — a teacher who molests half a dozen eighth-graders in rotation, with his wife in the same bed — strains credulity. It certainly distracts from the novel’s real strength: its affecting portrait of a lonely woman who must grapple with childhood trauma.
Forty years later, Nora is back in Brooklyn Heights and working for the Department of Education, where she pays misbehaving union-entrenched teachers to leave their posts. When the book opens, she has been asked to offer a financial settlement to an alleged molester whom the department has decided it lacks the evidence to fire. When Nora learns that the teacher’s lawyer is none other than her old friend Beth, she is forced to confront her unresolved guilt over failing to save Beth from Rasmussen’s clutches. For decades, Nora believed the past did not mark her — that she was “fine, unharmed, normal.” We know better, of course, and Cline convincingly brings Nora out of her delusion.
As for #MeToo, it’s the mundane injustices in “The Question Authority” that ultimately reignite our outrage. Nora wants to build a case against the offending teacher, but the city displays little interest. (Case in point: Nora’s boss wins the lottery in the middle of the settlement process and quits.) It’s truly infuriating to watch such bureaucratic indifference — to know that the city’s supposed educational authority refuses to question anything. But local government isn’t the only culpable party. In Rasmussen’s time, neither the parents nor the school pressed charges when his crimes came to light.
When Nora dares to bring up the subject of Rasmussen during a negotiation, Beth chastises her, “Get over it. . .You can’t get away with s--- like that anymore.” But Nora knows that men can. She knows that we let them.
Jennifer Miller is the author of four books including, most recently, “Mr. Nice Guy.”
By Rachel Cline
Red Hen Press. 224 pp. Paperback, $15.95