“I’m not saying that I’m a victim. I’m not even saying that I don’t deserve criticism for how much of an idiot I was. But it was too much, what I got. I used to feel bad about thinking that, but it’s true. What happened to me was unfair, plain and simple.”
As with Kyle Ranch, Sophie Bailey was not initially interested in speaking with me. Considering her personal history and connection to the Williams case, that’s more than understandable.
Still, similar to Ranch, she agreed to speak (albeit reluctantly) once I revealed to her the person who’d asked me to write the article in the first place. When I told her that a large part of the reason that she’d wanted it written was on her behalf, she seemed surprised, if not grateful.
We spoke on the phone together for around three hours, and she recounted to me how she’d ended up becoming Melly’s violin teacher.
“I was never that spectacular of a musician myself, honestly. My parents made me take up an instrument when I started elementary school, and I just sort of never stopped practicing. By the time I got to college, I wasn’t anywhere close to where I would’ve needed to be in order to seriously pursue a career in music, but it wasn’t like I had ever wanted to. I still kept it up for fun, and when I hit junior year and got sick of paying for textbooks by burger-flipping I figured I was decent enough to try my hand at giving lessons.”
Barring some hiccups and oddities that many in the profession frequently report dealing with, Bailey mostly recalled her first forays into the world of teaching music as a success.
“I liked it, up until what happened happened. I thought I’d end up teaching kids at first, but there were a decent chunk of adults and the elderly with an interest in learning, and I generally gravitated towards them. Most people who decide to pick up something new at the age of seventy aren’t doing it because someone forced them to; the same isn’t quite true for most seven year olds. Age makes for better students.”
“Kids, though. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s stressful. Not because of the kids themselves, like everybody always says. When there was a problem — and I’m not talking about the Williams situation here, although that definitely applies — it was almost always the parents. Most of them were fine, but a decent chunk were these stressed out, depressing upper-middle class types who seemed to get off on putting unnecessary pressure on everything. Some of these people were downright delusional. One couple hands me a sheet of paper on the first lesson, tells me it’s a schedule of ‘progress expectations’. They wanted their kid playing a concerto by the four month mark. He’d never even touched an instrument before.”
After getting into it, Bailey seemed to enjoy telling me various anecdotes about overbearing parents. As soon as I tried transitioning the conversation to the Williamses in particular, any cheer present in her voice was quick to dissipate.
“I only met Gard twice in-person, actually; Salina was the one who I was always talking to. I knew she was weird from the moment I first met her, but again, so were so many of these people, you gotta understand. Just another wealthy antisocial asshole in a big gated community who wanted to be able to brag about having a kid who could play a fancy instrument, I figured. But shit got weird fast.”
The first time Bailey went to the Williams residence in order to have a lesson, she was pulled aside by Salina prior to the start, who informed her that Melly had a growth condition.
“She fed me some BS line about her younger daughter having some medically diagnosed size thing. That it was only physical, and that she was a little smaller than her peers as a result. That she was six. I believed it until I saw her, obviously. Who the hell would lie about that? She led me upstairs, and we walked by Clementine’s room, and I naturally assumed that it was her, so I introduced myself. Salina corrected me at that point — ‘Not that one, Sophie’ — and we keep going, and we walk into the last room-”
“And then you saw her.”
“Yup. A two year old. Not a kid with a growth condition, just, you know, a toddler. I remember looking at the mom; I didn’t think she was joking per se, judging by her demeanor, but I thought she was going to have some good explanation for me. But she didn’t. She tells me that she’ll be back in an hour and for us to have fun.”
“What did you do? Did you really try teaching her?”
“I didn’t, not at first. I went right back to her before she made it down the hallway and as politely as possible told her that there was no way I’d be able to do anything with her. It wasn’t a matter of pride as a tutor; but, from a solely pragmatic point-of-view, what could I possibly teach a kid that age? If you don’t have the cognitive ability to count to twelve, you can’t play the violin. That’s just how it is. And that’s what I told her, as nicely as I could.”
“And her response?”
“She pulled out a wad of cash.”
“That’s all it took?”
“What do you mean by that? Of course it was. I didn’t know she and her husband were beating her kids when I met them. The question wasn’t if I was willing to facilitate abuse; it was if, for what was a lot of money for me back then, I’d go ahead and humor her delusions about her kid being special enough to learn scales at the same as potty training. It was ridiculous, but so what? After that conversation, she was offering me one-hundred and fifty dollars for one-hour lessons. Daily, including weekends! I usually charged thirty! And most people only wanted lessons once, maybe twice a week. I was a broke college kid; hearing numbers like that, you can’t imagine. Anything to get away from more rice and beans…”
“And you never thought about how suspicious it was that she was giving you so much for so little in return?”
“No, I did. I reasoned out — and I technically turned out to be right about this — that she had tried and failed to get other people before me, and that they’d all refused. It fit with everything else: why she lied about the growth disorder, why she was paying as much as she was, why she had gone with a less experienced teacher like me instead of someone worth the amounts of money she was willing to shell out. I thought it was weird and stupid, but I didn’t see any reason to think that it was immoral. So I just… rolled with it.”
“And what did you do with her? I know you’ve said that her skill didn’t come from anything that you taught her, but you must of had some hand in it. What was it like?”
“For the first six months, it was literally babysitting. There’s no other way to put it. I pulled up YouTube videos about preschool level music theory and listened to classical music with her. That’s all you could do, and not even that, not really. I kept feeling terrible about how little I was actually able to accomplish, and I tried quitting several times, but she told me that I was doing great and not to bother her worrying about it. So I just kept at it. The money was fantastic, and it wasn’t like I had reason to think that Melly was getting hurt by what I was doing, so…”
“What was she like, back then?”
“I mean, she was a toddler. Not sure how to expound on that. Well… there was the first thing I should’ve noticed at the time, how quiet she was. I didn’t have any experience with kids that young at the time, so there’s no way I could have known about it, but kids that little are usually supposed to be loud, excited. She wasn’t non-verbal — she was actually very articulate, for the times when she did speak — but I always had to pry it out of her.”
“When did she start playing?”
“Five, six months in. That’s the first time I seriously tried getting her to hold the violin and the bow together and play a couple of notes. She managed fine, amazingly enough, and I considered that humongous progress, but I had to take a week’s break right after so I could visit my parents down in Atlanta. And I came back, and she’d… she’d taken her little tablet and taught herself how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All by herself. Hot Cross Buns, too.
“How big of an accomplishment is that?”
“For a two and a half year old without an instructor, who hadn’t held the instrument until a week prior? That’s amazing. But it was the next six months that took it to that inhuman level you saw on the video. I would wager… I’d bet all the money she gave me ten-thousand times over that there has never been another human in history to have reached such an absolute level of mastery in such a tiny span of time. That’s crazy, to say that. But it’s true. Two weeks after that, she’s playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and a cover of a Frank Sinatra song, perfect pitch, excellent vibrato. Everything’s done correctly, it sounds amazing. Her first concerto, another two weeks, Vivaldi. Then she’d learned another Vivaldi the next day, then Bach, then Mozart, then Rieding… two months after she played her first note, she was better than I was. After a certain point, it became me staring at her like a madman while she showed me whatever she’d picked up by ear from listening to random concertos on YouTube. All I could do anymore was occasionally point out tiny little improvements for her to make posture-wise, but she knew what she was doing. If you don’t want to credit her as the real teacher, give it to that iPad, not me.”
“And Salina’s response to all this?”
“She couldn’t have given less of a shit if she tried. I told her multiple times that she needed to get this girl to someone better than me, she needed to be going to Julliard or whatever the hell kind of magic god conservatory you send ultra-prodigies like this… she just gave me more money and told me to keep teaching her. I said that I had nothing left to teach, and she told me to keep going anyway. What the hell was I supposed to do?”
She took a breath.
“And I was losing it at this point. My mom and sister died right around this time in a car accident, and combined with all this shit going on I started losing my grip on reality altogether. I went online a few times and asked people what to do on a bunch of different forums for musicians, and they all banned me for trolling. I felt insane. She was playing scary, scary shit, shit that people paid good, good money in big concert halls for, and I sat and watched, trying not to go crazy. So when I happened to spot Clementine in the hallway one day with a couple of burn marks on her face, yeah, I fucked up by believing what Salina told me about her tripping next to the stove. I’m a fucking idiot. I know that. Every person in America knows what a giant fucking idiot I am, and if they don’t, it’s because they still think I’m a child abuser.”
She paused after that line, and I almost moved in with another question, but she spoke again before I got the chance.
“That all sounds like bullshit, right? You live in the present, and you have access to evidence that basically confirms the fact that I’m not lying, and there’s still a little bit of you that thinks I’m just making the whole thing up, even if it’s in the back of your head. I’m right, right?”
I told her that I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to answer.
“…Imagine what it was like back then, though. When I needed to tell people that. Even people who saw the Paganini video thought I was lying my ass off. That I had to have taught her more than I had, that I must have been living in that house teaching her for twelve hours a day, which meant that I must have seen everything. Or that I did everything. That’s what the defense said, when they tried throwing me under the bus for what those monsters did. But who can blame them? The idea that someone can regularly be around two children for over a year and a half and not be aware of the fact that they were having the snot beaten out of them was unbelievable to most people. You know, right at the start, they tried painting the picture that I was the ringleader of the whole thing, that Salina and Gard were following my orders. That they’d never paid me at all. If I hadn’t had the foresight to pay taxes on the money she was giving me…”
She took another breath, one slightly more staggered.
“…I can’t describe what it’s like, having people after you like that. And I’m not talking about the court stuff; that was disproven quickly on my end, but I still had to deal with months, with years of constant calls, messages, street harassment. That, even if I wasn’t lying, I was the biggest monster in the world for not having figured it out and reported what was happening. That I did know, and that I turned a blind eye for the money. That I was…”
“I never got to finish college because of this. I live in Wyoming, I don’t have many friends, and I work from home as a programmer. I still get emails, sometimes. It’s been a decade and a half and disproven ten million times and I still get the emails. I’ve changed the address so many times, it doesn’t matter. They still come. I realized a long time ago that they were never going to stop. If you fuck up, they send you emails forever. That’s the rule.”
Bailey’s testimony, although short, was deemed one of the key pieces of evidence in ensuring a guilty verdict, following doubts brought up in regards to the legitimacy of the infamous “My Sister’s Concert” video. While Bailey is happy that the Williams received the sentence that they did, she can’t say that it didn’t come without great cost to her personal life.
“Most of us like to pretend that this isn’t true, but when everybody goes to judge you and size you up as an individual, they’re really just looking at all the ways you screwed up in life, sans context. To ninety, maybe ninety-five percent of people, that’s all anyone ever is. A collection of mistakes.”
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Bailey if she still played the violin.