Liz Prato, “A Letter to Frederic Lyman and the Plethora of Other Private School Teachers Who Sexually Abused Their Students”

Dear Mr. Lyman,

You might already be thinking how weird it is that we’re referring to you as “Mr. Lyman,” instead of as “Rick.” However, “Mr. Lyman” is the proper way for high school students to refer to their teacher. At small, private schools—boarding and day—students sometimes end up calling teachers by their first names, under certain circumstances. But we now see that the moment you started using your first name with us, signing our graded papers Love, Rick, we were already on a dangerous descent towards inappropriate familiarity. We haven’t been your students for nearly forty years, but this is one small impropriety we can go back and correct.

You were our literature teacher. You wooed us, you preyed on us, you groomed us, you harassed and abused us. You did it at Phillips Andover Summer Academy in 1979 and 1980, you did it at Beaver Country Day from 1979-1980; you did it at Choate Rosemary Hall in 1980-82, you did it at Kent Denver Country Day from 1982-84. Most of us were sixteen when you started in on us. One of us was fourteen.

We can now recognize your modus operandi, especially at the boarding schools. You’d invite us over to your apartment outside of class. You’d serve us wine and rum-spiked tea. You’d help us break curfew and sneak off campus. You’d take us to the library, to concerts, to dinner. You held our hands and walked with your arm around us.

You were so good-looking, with your blond hair and blue eyes, your slightly athletic build, your preppy style. Early on, when you were grooming us at Phillip’s Summer Academy, you were what some might call “a perfect gentleman.” Even amid the poetry and wine and breaking curfew to go off campus, you didn’t try to coerce us into sleeping with you. Not then. We thought we were in love. But we also sensed there was something deeply weird about our relationship, and it frightened us. The benefit of time and maturity helps us see and hold compassion for the battle that was being waged in our heads and our hearts and our bodies, between hormones and gut instinct, our need to be loved and our sense of wrong.

We left Phillips Summer Academy and returned home to start our junior year of high school. You wrote to us there, at our parents’ home. You said you’d love to kidnap us for a weekend or part of our winter break, to wine and dine us, to treat us like a queen. How bold of you to write a letter like this to our parents’ home. We know you were probably just being playful when saying you wanted to “kidnap” us. You weren’t actually threatening physical abduction. But surely you realized it was illegal to give alcohol to minors, to tempt us to go out of town with you (even cross state lines), which inevitably would include sleepovers.

And surely you must have realized that your letter constituted blackmail. You said if we didn’t take you up on your offer, “I’ll be so frustrated I may never forgive you. I’ll write terrible recommendations for you.” You threatened to send us hate mail, to call us at obscure hours (you actually specified, “i.e., 3am”), and “swear a bloody streak.” No, you did not physically abduct us, Mr. Lyman, but you held us emotionally hostage.

We wrote you back, but kept it cursory. Not overly friendly, but not overly distant either. We have all learned how to do this throughout our lives: micro-manage our behaviors to keep predators like you at bay. We know you did not appreciate this reply. You wanted us to be flattered and excited (as we were over the summer, when you were feeding us wine and poetry), so you admonished us in your next letter. You said our obligatory-style response with “far more facts that feeling” dampened the spirit of what was previously shared between us. “Oh well,” you wrote, “so much for feeling the pangs of distance and time.”

When you wrote this letter, you were teaching at Beaver Country Day in Newton, Massachusetts. There, you gave more of us alcohol, you smoked pot with us, you kissed and touched us. You pressured us to have sex with you. We told the administration at Beaver Country Day, the educators responsible for protecting us. They didn’t fire you; they didn’t call the cops. They let you resign. They even gave you a letter of recommendation. Passing the trash, we’d later learn this practice was called.

This is a crime aided by many accomplices. Silence, apathy, and inaction was their crime.

You spent the next summer again teaching at Phillip’s Summer Academy, where you again gave us alcohol and held our hands and walked with your arm around us. You sang to us, and tried to put your lips to ours, your tongue inside our mouth. We didn’t want your lips on our lips, your tongue in our mouth. The only way you could get close to us was when we were sleeping. One night on a camping trip when you were our chaperone, we awoke to find you stroking and kissing our arms. It was all we could do to pretend to be asleep, to hope you would just go away.

We didn’t all attend Phillips Summer Academy that year. After the letter you sent to our parents’ house declaring you wanted to kidnap us, we instead attended Harvard summer session for high schoolers. You wrote us at Cambridge, starting with I miss you so much. You urged us to come out for a night on the town, or for an “adventure” to Ashby. Ashby is a small Massachusetts town on the New Hampshire border, forty-two miles east of Andover, and fifty miles northeast of Harvard. It is not in-between, or even close to the two towns. It is distinctly out of the way. Ashby has about 3,000 residents, one public library (you did like taking us to libraries!), no museums, and limited restaurants. We can only guess what your intended “adventure” included.

We did what women have always done with men like you: we tried to keep from making you angry and following through on your threats to stalk us and swear a bloody streak. We said we’d meet up with you, hoping to get you off our back. Later, we reneged, saying our parents were in town. And alas, Mr. Lyman, you did exactly what you threatened: you called us at all hours of the day and night, harassing us. Eventually we put a note on the phone in our Harvard dorm that said: “If Rick calls, we died.”

The last letter you wrote us at Harvard summer session—before our senior year of high school—was dated July 17, 1980. (We kept these letters. Did you not think we would?) You typed out your disappointment on lined yellow paper. “I can’t believe your attitude,” you started. “What did I do to deserve silence and the cold shoulder?”

We will tell you what you did, Mr. Lyman, since you seem to be . . . “baffled,” was the word you used. You threatened us and stalked us and punished us for not engaging in a relationship with you. We’d also like to point out what a fucking weird question this is for a twenty-eight-year-old man to ask of a teenage girl he’d known for a year. We didn’t know this then, but we do now: teenagers—students—don’t owe their teachers anything other than studying. Showing up for class. Taking tests. Speaking respectfully. We are not responsible for your loneliness, fear, desires, and other intimate pathos.

In that last letter, you told us: “If you think I wanted any sort of love relationship, you’re way off target.” You actually claimed that you never desired anything other than friendship, and that our rejection of said friendship left you “truly pierced.”

Mr. Lyman, you certainly wouldn’t be the last man to try to gaslight us in the face of our rejection.

I was just kidding.

You’re overreacting.

I’m happily married.

You’re so sensitive.

You’re crazy.

It’s always confusing when men do this, regardless of our age, or their age. We want you to know that because you were an adult in a position of authority, it really messed with our reality. It left us deeply unsettled for years.

Because Beaver Country Day didn’t fire you and they gave you a letter of recommendation after learning of your improprieties, you went on to teach at Choate Rosemary Hall for two years. Choate is a boarding school, so we didn’t have our parents to look out for us. We only had our teachers and each other. That was your responsibility, Mr. Lyman, to protect us, and you did precisely the opposite.

During your first year at Choate, you slipped creepy notes under our doors. You were touchy-feely and clingy with us. One night we woke to find you in our dorm room, spinning in circles (no, after all these decades, we still don’t understand why). We were so freaked out that we begged to switch out of your class, although we didn’t tell the administration our true reason for doing so.

You invited us to your apartment for music, poetry, dinners, drinks. And sex. Sex in your apartment, sex in your car, sex in your parents’ house during a ski vacation. Sex with more than one of us—you had (at least) two of us in rotation. We heard rumors about each other but didn’t know for sure.  Our relationships were supposed to be secret—that was part of the thrill, the romance of it all.

You might have been able to continue your seductions/violations/crimes indefinitely at Choate, except in March of 1982, we ended up in the emergency room of Yale New Haven Hospital with a herpes infection contracted from you. Our parents became aware of our so-called “relationship” with you. They insisted that you be fired. But what did Choate—our school, who we trusted, who our parents trusted—do? They didn’t report you to the police. They let you finish out the school year. They let you resign, and they gave you a letter of recommendation for your next job at Kent Denver Country Day in Colorado. 

Here we have another accomplice, Charles Twichell, the dean of faculty at Choate. He wrote a positive recommendation for you, with this veiled caveat: “Rick likes to meet his students on even terms, to mix with them as colleagues.” He said that you had an “easy familiarity” with students and a “reluctance” to accept appropriate conventions in the student-teacher relationship. Mr. Twichell hoped that one day you “would learn the professional advantages of keeping a little more distance in the ranks.” It’s all so oblique—especially in a letter, over the phone, where the headmaster at Kent Denver Country Day couldn’t see Mr. Twichell raise an eyebrow or tilt his head in a way that would convey, “I’m not saying it, but you know what I’m saying, right?”

There’s also the possibility that Mr. Twichell didn’t care. This kind of abuse had been part of the culture of Choate and other private schools for decades. That’s the other reason you thought this was all acceptable. There were so many men before you, alongside you, after you, at so many private schools who’d done the same: Brian Davidson, David Cobb, Richard Keller, Stephen Wicks, Alexander Theroux, H. Schuyler Royce, John Joseph, Bill Maillet, Kenneth Mills, Chip Lowery, Adam Hardej, Jean-Marc Dautrey, Angus Mairs, Bjorn Runquist, Bill Cobbett, Jaime Rivera-Murillo, Chuck Timlin, Rick Schubart, Peter Hindle, Bryce Lambert, Dick Shoemaker, Bob Ashe, Mark Petersen, Samuel Crawley, Deonte Huff…we could go on but we can’t go on, because there are over a hundred. Over one hundred that we know of, over a hundred sexual predators at private schools who’ve been exposed in the last ten years.

We, the writers of this letter, were girls when our trust was shattered, but we hold hands with—we hold hearts with—our brothers, the boys, who were abused by men like you. Yes, like you. The sex, the gender, the genitalia is irrelevant. The piercing of our souls is what matters. The breaking of our lives.

In your resignation letter, you said that you were leaving “for the sake of Choate Rosemary Hall and for me.” You did not say you were leaving for our sake, us girls on the verge of womanhood who would be forever affected by your manipulations. You said during your remaining time at Choate, “I promise not to be the source of any new rumors or incidents.” As if that’s all that had occurred, that you’d been snagged in some ugly rumor mill. You didn’t get it, and why would you? No one forced you to face the severity of your actions.

We wonder why you decided to move halfway across the country to Colorado. Did you hope that a change of scenery would put you back on the straight and narrow? Kent Denver Country Day isn’t a boarding school, so parents are involved in students’ lives. You applied for a job teaching middle school. We were 12 and 13 and 14 years old, so maybe you thought you’d be less tempted by such young girls living at home? Or, maybe, you moved away from the scenes of your crimes and towards younger girls—less worldly girls—because you thought it would be easier to manipulate us.

We were in eighth grade and you were our thirty-year-old English teacher when you started writing personal notes on our graded papers, signed with your first name. Your notes eventually became flirtatious. At the end of the year, you wrote in our yearbook: “A pretty exposed place to write…all that I’d like…but I think you know how very special you are to me.”

To someone reading this for the first time, your brazenness is probably mind-boggling. Flirting on our papers, in our yearbook. But we know what you were doing. You were testing the waters with us, and you were testing the waters of the entire environment. What could you get away with?

We didn’t respond to your yearbook note—or any of your notes on our papers—and didn’t tell anyone in a position of authority. Our parents never saw those graded English papers, they never read our yearbook and said, “What the holy hell is this?” We commenced from eighth grade to ninth grade, to a different part of campus than where you taught. We had almost no contact with you for the first part of freshman year, just seeing you across the dining hall from time-to-time.

We have obsessively wondered where you got the idea that any of this was okay. You were a literature teacher, so we assume you’ve read Lolita. We also assume you believed, like many others, that Dolores seduced Humbert Humbert and he was helpless to her wiles. (We refer to her by her given name, Dolores, not the name Humbert Humbert thrust upon her.) We must say, Mr. Lyman, we’re terribly disappointed that you took away such an unsophisticated reading of the text. We all know Humbert is the classic unreliable narrator (he tells us that he’s a murderer and a liar). Nabokov did such a masterful job in creating this unreliable narrator that many readers believed Humbert when he said Dolores, a twelve-year-old, seduced him. But Nabokov also provided cracks through which the astute reader could see Humbert was full of shit. We knew he was a rapist because he had to drug Dolores in order to have sex with her. The next day, pain was evident on her face, in her walk. Dolores called him a brute and threatened to tell the police he’d raped her. Humbert tried to convince himself, to convince us, she was joking. He exploited her mother’s death by telling Dolores she had nowhere to go, no one to go to, ensuring her captivity in his prison.

Mr. Lyman, is this the man you wanted to model yourself after?

In the last few years, more secrets about your tenure at Kent Denver Country Day have been revealed. Even though you were a middle school teacher, you coached upper school boys’ hockey, where we—sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls—were the team managers and fans, and you took full advantage of our proximity. You proposed dates, alcohol, sex. We talked to our friends about you over coffee late at night, contemplating losing our virginity to you.

We also now know that while you were teaching in Colorado, you were still carrying on with the two of us from Choate, the ones you’d had in rotation the previous year. You wrote us love letters and called us frequently, you sent us plane tickets to visit you in Denver during our breaks. We once tried to break up with you, and you threatened to kill yourself.

Our flying to Colorado to sexually gratify you wasn’t enough. Seven months after signing our eighth-grade yearbook at Kent Denver Country Day, you sent us a Christmas card. You knew it was risky, you wrote, but urged us to “take a chance” by getting together with you off campus. You wanted to take us skiing or meet you for dinner and wine. Considering we were fourteen, it’s unlikely we’d be served wine in a restaurant, suggesting that you were inviting us to your apartment.

You were pushing the boundary further than ever before. We wonder, were you just that stupid, that it never occurred to you our parents might discover your card? You must have known it was inappropriate; you’d been warned and let go from your two previous jobs because of your predatory behavior. But you didn’t suffer severe consequences. You were never charged with engaging in sex with minors under your supervision, and you weren’t fired, and you were given letters of recommendation. Perhaps you believed this sort of conduct was merely frowned upon, but not absolutely forbidden. That was the message you were given by people in authority, by your accomplices.

Your Christmas card and its suggestions freaked us out. We didn’t know how to handle it. We can still viscerally feel this liminal place of a girl in her first year of high school. We don’t want to think of ourselves as children. We share everyday space with seniors who drive and drink and have sex, and want to be seen as their peers. We don’t want to run to our parents, but we also don’t have the skills to deal with a sexual predator on our own.

We left your card lying around our house. Our dad found it. He went to the Kent Denver administration and demanded you be fired. Kent Denver did not immediately fire you. They insisted that you get counseling—oh, to be a fly on that therapist’s wall!—and cease interacting with us outside of school hours. They said they wouldn’t renew your contract or give you any sort of recommendation, and suggested you not pursue any more jobs in teaching. But they did let you finish out the school year. This allowed you to glare at us from across the dining room for five months. It made us feel terrible, like we had betrayed you.

You moved back to Boston. You weren’t finished with us girls from Choate. You stalked us at college. You left notes at our dorm, you spoke to our friends. You threatened us. You hit us. The bruise from the black eye still lies deep in our memory. We went to our father’s house for protection, but you tracked us down there. You came to the door. We truly can’t believe your chutzpah/stupidity/it’ll take a team of psychoanalysts to understand why you did this. Our father threatened to call the cops. You promised you’d leave us alone if we returned everything you’d ever given us: the letters, the jewelry, the photos. The evidence. When we complied with your final demand, Mr. Lyman, you finally left us alone.

We’ve lived with all this for two, three, four decades. Some of us told our friends, our partners, our therapists. Some of us told no one. We locked away how you took advantage of our trust, our youth, our inexperience, our need to feel exceptional. But buried secrets have a way of burrowing to the surface. We started talking about you and your ilk. We talked about it on social media, and to lawyers, and to the press. Our schools from long ago, the ones charged with educating and nurturing and protecting us, finally called for our voices. They launched investigations to find out how many voices there are.

Not all our voices came forward. Some of us didn’t want to speak of what happened. We wanted to keep it buried away. Not all of us heard the call. We also know, in our most tender places, that not all of us are still here, walking this earth, with our voices to be heard. But enough voices spoke that people listened. And while late is better than never, it was too late for you to be held accountable.

Because, Mr. Lyman, by the time all your crimes became very, very public, the statutes of limitations had long expired. You would not be tried for luring minors under your supervision into sex, for coercion, and assault and battery. You would not even admit to the enormity of what you had done. When contacted by the New York Times with and about the letters you’d written to us when we were sixteen—remember the one saying you wanted to kidnap us? Remember the one telling us how we were crazy to think you wanted more than friendship?—you said, “In re-reading these letters nearly 40 years after writing them, I see the ramblings of a lovesick young man who was 27 years old at the time. However, my lapse in judgment was inexcusable. I breached the trust and overstepped the boundaries between student and teacher. Due to my own immaturity, I considered my students to be peers and friends, which was a mistake that I will regret for the rest of my life. I am deeply sorry for any pain or discomfort my actions may have caused.”

Mr. Lyman, we don’t know who you think you’re fooling. Are you even fooling yourself? Lovesick, as if you were powerless to your own emotions and desires. Was your so-called immaturity also the reason you pursued us when we were only fourteen? Why you stroked our arms while we slept, why we woke to find you spinning in our dorm room, why you fucked us? Was it why you gave us herpes and a black eye? We are well aware, Mr. Lyman, that you didn’t comment on any of that. You only commented on the letters—the evidence you didn’t have the foresight to retrieve early in your crimes.

You did not suffer, and you did not pay for what you did to us. Oh sure, after all this became public in 2017, your social media profiles disappeared for a short period of time. But they are now back up. As far as we can tell from your LinkedIn profile, Kent Denver was your last teaching job. You are now the president of an executive coaching firm, and you volunteer as a kids soccer coach. On Facebook, your “likes” are: anything outdoors, skiing, coaching, and kids. We can’t imagine how or why you, a person accused of sexual misconduct against minors, would include “kids” as one of your likes, but there it is. There you are. Like most sexual predators, you’ve gone on to live a relatively unaffected life.

But we are not unaffected—not any of us who you and your ilk abused. We have borne intense shame. We’ve starved ourselves. We’ve pumped our blood full of alcohol and drugs. We spent decades unable to trust others, unable to be intimate. We have been tormented by nightmares. We’ve been harrowed by the constant fear of being attacked or dying at any time. We have struggled with feeling that life is a meaningless void, and perhaps it would be better to die. We have doubted ourselves, what we did and didn’t do—what we did and didn’t have done to us. We thought it was our fault, that we were violated because we were bad people.

We were not bad people. Moralists and ethicists debate if a person is more or less than the sum of their actions, if their crimes can be fully atoned for, if there is ever enough good to make up for the bad a person has done. We don’t claim to hold the definitive answers to these questions. We know this, Frederic Lyman: what you did to us was wrong. You caused fissures deep in the core of our souls. And your apology forty years later—only when confronted with the press and pressure to issue one, not of your own volition—does not reconcile with the enormity of your wrongs, of the guilt and fear and turmoil and dread you instilled in us. And it most certainly does not indicate you’d sought real help to understand your motivations. This is what chills us the most. That by foregoing this examination and insight into your crimes, you were, and are, likely to commit them again.

And if you, and those like you, do, our voices will shout out. We are getting stronger by the minute. Sincerely,

All the Women Who Were Once Girls

Liz Prato is the author of Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai‘i (Overcup Press), a 2019 New York Times Top Summer Read, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Baby’s on Fire: Stories (Press 53); and editor of The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, and was named a Notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing 2018.  Liz’s new book, Kids In America: A Gen X Reckoning,  is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in June 2022.