I’ve always loved “The Lives They Lived,” the year-end issue of The New York Times Magazine profiling famous and not-so-famous people who made an impact on the world and died during the previous 12 months.
No, let me correct that. I should say that I’ve loved the issue until now.
This difference is not attributable to the design of this year’s issue (though I can undoubtedly say that it is not my favorite). Rather, it’s because reading “The Lives They Lived” is no longer an edifying coda to my year, a comforting annual tradition allowing me to deepen and broaden my knowledge about the influence of individuals on history.
This year, I knew someone personally in the magazine. And that changed everything.
To be sure, many of those profiled in this year’s issue touched my life in some way. Loops of Whitney Houston songs play in my head when I think of my college and grad school years. Neil Armstrong’s moon landing is my first memory of watching TV. I cannot read the name Vidal Sassoon without recalling the scent of the shampoo I used for years. A worn copy of Maurice Sendak’s “In The Night Kitchen” is one of the only books I made sure to save from my childhood and pass on to my kids.
Like many graduates of the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, I’ve spent the week in consternation over the New York Times Magazine story exposing a tragic history of sexual abuse at my alma mater (also the alma mater of the story’s writer and editor).
Most of the abuse, but not necessarily all, took place before my time, before the current administration, before the school as it is now. Yet its revelation is searing. The conditions appear to have been a perfect storm: a top-tier academy protecting itself, a lingering male-only culture, eccentric teachers and students both granted ample independence, a New York student body that likely fancied itself more sophisticated than it was, and a widespread and perhaps internalized homophobia. All these, plus what appears to be gross negligence on the part of the administration, created a dangerous environment for many students. At least one predator seems to have walked the halls for years, and at least two people involved (one perpetrator, one victim) later killed themselves.
At first, I felt shocked and horrified, but with a patina of head-shaking knowingness. After all, hadn’t I, well before the story broke, summed up Horace Mann to a stranger as not only stellar academically, but “the school most likely to end up on the cover of a magazine” due to scandal?