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Toxic Teachers and Pesky Protégés in Fiction, Film, and Theatre

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There’s nothing quite like a messed up student-teacher relationship when it comes to stirring up drama. 

First of all, it’s relatable. Most of us have been a student or a teacher at some point, so we understand the inherent dynamics. Even if we’ve never filled those roles officially, you’d have to be a serious loner not to have interacted with someone either as a mentor or a mentee.

Second, it’s loaded. The desire to emulate someone we admire is fraught with tension, and the urge to mentor can be just as complicated. Mix some deep-seated parent/child pathos with the struggle to prove one’s self and…voila! You have an irresistible recipe for drama.

Novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights have exploited this trope again and again. It’s a rich vein to tap, after all, rife with taboo and possibility.

As a professor myself and the daughter of two teachers, I’ve long been fascinated by the nuances of student/teacher relationships; the more twisted and dysfunctional, the more they fascinate me. I explored just such a relationship in my first suspense novel, Watch Me. Apparently, the dynamic still has its hooks in me, because I’ve tackled it again in my latest novel, The Protégé.

If you, like me, find dysfunctional mentors and problematic students captivating, this list is for you. Here are a few of my favorite examples from fiction, film, and theatre.




Dare Me Megan Abbott

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

The inimitable Megan Abbott is one of my favorite authors, and Dare Me is her most addictive novel to date. In a small midwestern town, a high school cheerleading coach brings her own messy life to her role as teacher and mentor. Her students follow her with slavish admiration into a volatile world of shadows and secrets. Only Megan Abbott can make small town cheerleading feel this edgy and sinister.


The Truants by Kate Weinberg

Set at an obscure university in England, this beautifully written debut novel explores a group of students mesmerized by their charismatic professor. Our protagonist, Jess, has come to East Anglia University specifically to study with Dr. Lorna Clay, a scholar who has written extensively about Agatha Christie. As Jess becomes increasingly close with a tight circle of students in Dr. Clay’s orbit, love triangles, scandals, and raw betrayal provide her with an education more thorough than the one she signed up for.

If you love the atmospheric density of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, you’ll find much of the same pleasures here. 


The Likeness by Tana French

I can’t create a list of favorite novels without including at least one by Tana French. The Likeness isn’t a campus novel, per se, unlike the others I’ve mentioned so far. It’s the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, though it holds its own as a stand-alone.

The protagonist, Cassie Maddox, gets pulled back into her previous job as an undercover cop when her doppelganger is murdered. Her mentor, Frank, is a fascinating undercover detective who taught her everything she knows; later in the series Frank serves as the narrator of Faithful Place. His slippery morals and one-of-a-kind voice make him one of French’s most memorable characters.

In spite of a deeply implausible central premise, this novel is complicated, lush, and (as always with French) linguistically delicious.





All About Eve premiered in 1950, with Bette Davis as Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star, and Anne Baxter as Eve, her conniving young protégé. Eve manipulates her way into Margo’s world, first as an adoring fan, then as her personal secretary, before ultimately usurping her on the stage and screen.

While the plotline of women pitted against women in a cutthroat industry may feel slightly dated, what may strike you on viewing it is not how much things have changed, but how disturbingly relevant those themes still feel seventy-odd years later.





Oleanna by David Mamet

This two-character play from the early 90s focuses on the power struggle between John, a male professor, and Carol, one of his female students. When Carol accuses John of sexual harassment, the vagueness about whether said harassment actually took place casts the play in a morally ambiguous light that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Mamet’s ear for messy, terse dialogue and complex characters gives the play a propulsive, can’t-look-away intensity.  


The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp

Another two-person play, this time with genders reversed (a female professor and a male student), Adam Rapp’s script is heady and a little bleak, but totally worth the ride. It premiered in 2018, and later received an Audible Original production starring the original Broadway cast members, Marie-Louise Parker and Will Hochman. 

The Sound Inside tells the story of Bella Baird, a​ ​writer and Ivy League English professor who is dedicated to preserving her solitude and lives almost exclusively inside her own head. When a socially awkward and mysterious student attempts to connect with her, she finds herself letting him into her life under extraordinary circumstances. I’m terrified of spoilers here, so I won’t reveal any more about the plot, but observing these two odd, lonely, brilliant souls inch closer is both riveting and moving.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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