Creepy but fascinating Marc Fisher piece from The New Yorker about a retired teacher at the elite Horace Mann School who molested male students there. The unnerving thing about it was that this man, Mr. Berman, was a nut treated like a guru by the boys he favored — and it was no particular secret among the school’s management that there was something very strange about Mr. Berman and the way he treated boys. The whole story reads like the same psychological dynamic seen in the Catholic abuse scandal, but this was a private school. Excerpts:
Newton told me that Berman could sense which boys to invite into the inner circle, either because their parents were splitting up or because they were struggling in school. “Berman was preternaturally gifted at remolding people at the vulnerable, liminal moment in adolescence,” he said. “He had this insidious way of making you feel absolutely singular when he was actually doing this to many people.”
Berman rarely spoke at faculty meetings, and teachers tended to avoid him in the lunchroom. Some teachers thought that he was merely eccentric. Others saw him as dangerous, although those I spoke to said that the complaints they heard stopped short of alleging sexual abuse. In the late seventies, an English teacher named Gary Tharp had an advisee who failed Berman’s course. The boy and his mother said that Berman had told him, “If you cannot be my boy, I don’t want you to come to class.” The boy stopped attending, and Berman flunked him. The boy’s parents were furious and threatened to report the incident to the Times. Tharp notified the head of the upper school, and the boy was asked to write a paper, which would erase the F from his academic record. Berman’s role was never discussed at length, Tharp said.
Daniel Alexander, a longtime economics teacher and administrator at Horace Mann, says of Berman and his followers, “He tended to pick people who were vulnerable, who he knew wouldn’t speak out. The sister of one called me after her brother graduated and said, ‘Isn’t there something the school can do?’ I said, ‘There’s nothing we can do, since he graduated, and Berman is no longer employed here.’ But, whatever happened, parents were reluctant to complain, because of what it would mean about college or grades.”
“At the heart of all this was a weak administration,” Richard Warren, the English teacher, told me. “There was no visiting of classes by administrators. There was no review process, no supervision.”
Notice too, though, that the parents wouldn’t make a big stink because they didn’t want to rock the boat. They wanted their kids to get into the right colleges. Here’s more about how Berman worked:
Berman kept up a steady campaign to control him, Doug wrote. “ ‘If only you will let me, I will guide you,’ ” he said. “ ‘Ah, how many great ones I’ve seen fail. . . . It would kill me to see you, of all the others, not make it. I love you. Please.’ ”
When Doug insisted that he should make his own judgments, Berman called him a fool. “ ‘You are no longer a possible Milton, you are a sure Doug,’ ” he said. “ ‘The door is closed. You are happy with the death that you have chosen, are you not? . . . You are nothing.’ ”
Doug returned depressed, suffering crying jags. “Doug was never the same after the Florence trip,” his mother said. She and his father asked if Berman had tried to rape him; Doug said no. But they were disturbed by Berman’s effect on him. “The boys signed a loyalty oath in blood—not figuratively, really!—to Berman,” his mother said. According to friends and family members, Doug told one of Horace Mann’s most admired administrators, Harry Allison, about Berman’s inappropriate behavior. Allison, who has since died, told him to forget about it.
After completing his degree at Oberlin, Doug began a graduate program in art history at Harvard, then took some time off. On March 10, 1976, he hanged himself in the basement of his parents’ house. His family found letters that he had written shortly before the suicide, in which he said that he had become a nonentity, and had “lost the philosopher’s way.” In Doug’s last letter to his older sister, she told me, he wrote about his feeling of failure: “I don’t know how to deal with my disappointments, disappointing Berman.”
It gets even freakier. After Berman retired, some of his former students bought a big fancy house for him, and moved in to live in community. He controlled their lives to an astonishing degree, even though he was not necessarily sexually involved with them.
By now, this story is all too familiar: charismatic sexual deviant charms minors, takes sexual advantage of them, while institution looks the other way, and parents stay silent. Seeing it happen outside of a specifically religious context — but with an abusive teacher in a role that’s rather like a religious leader or mentor — makes me realize how important submissive trust is to the teacher-student relationship. A good teacher will inspire the kind of trust from his or her students that makes them eager to please, and to please by learning. But it can easily turn abusive, because the teacher has so much power over a young person’s imagination. This Berman character didn’t have the power of God (so to speak) to wield over his victims, nor did he have the power to punish them in school — kids could request transfers from his class, and many did. What he had was the power of charisma, turned to malign purposes.
What if he had been a good man, and used that charisma to instill a love for art, literature, and learning, into his students? Some of them say he did. Even one of his victims admits as much.
Personally, my experience reading for so many years about the church abuse scandal, and now reading stories like this, make it very, very difficult for me to trust an elder, to submit to his authority in an emotional and spiritual way, out of fear of where that could take me. On the other hand, isn’t that what falling in love requires? The ability to trust, to let go enough to be transformed by the relationship with one’s partner? Can you be transformed as a student by your teacher if you don’t let go at some deep level? Is that the risk one has to take in order to be changed for the better — either by love, as in a romantic relationship, or by learning one’s subject (academic), learning one’s métier (in a craftsmanship sense), or learning how to become holy (spiritual and religious)? I mean, doesn’t one have to fall in order to be lifted higher than one can stand on one’s own?