This is the story of how I finally figured out how to be a grown-up by going back to my old high school. No, I wasn’t playing a role in some sort of real-life Never Been Kissed situation. I didn’t go undercover as a journalist and inappropriately seduce an English teacher who thought I was 17.
I went back to my high school to teach there.
I graduated from Branksome Hall, an all-girls preparatory school in Toronto, seven years before I received the offer to work there. I’m one of those rare snowflakes who actually liked high school, but I never thought of them as glory days that I wished I could relive. After I graduated, I walked into university and didn’t look back. I focused on reading Foucault in undergrad, and then I read Foucault again in grad school, where I devoted myself to gender studies. Sometimes, though, life knows what you need better than you do.
When I went back to high school at the age of 25, it was to be a public speaking and debating teacher. I had recently begun a PhD in gender studies at Toronto’s York University, and was unsure of basically everything. Academia did not speak to me the way I’d hoped it would, disappointing me with its often inaccessible and elitist tone. I read countless theorists, from Judith Butler to Homi Bhabha, but while I appreciated the importance of their work, it didn’t inspire me to write my own essays.
I didn’t want to write theory. I wanted to write fiction.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved telling stories. I made up things that seemed truer than the truth I knew, and I derived strength from them. Back then, I was confident that my stories deserved to be told. By age 14, I had finished my own juvenile attempt at a novel, and I felt certain writing was my future.
Then I grew up, and, as so often happens, I grew insecure.
By university, making up stories seemed ridiculously aspirational. I decided it was a childish dream, like becoming a princess or a prima ballerina. Writing fiction was hard, and I was fortunate enough that school had always come easily. I gave up on my desire to write fiction and decided to analyse other people’s writing instead. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it felt safer to hide behind my critiques of others’ stories than to share my own with the world.
By the time I started my PhD, I was an angry person. Years of stifling my creative spirit made me tired and hopeless. I dated bad men who hurt me, I drank too much when I went out, and every time I sat down to write a new academic paper, I asked myself, “Is this my destiny?” Each night, before falling asleep, I fantasized about publishing novels and short stories. But I did nothing substantive to achieve these dreams. I treated them as dead relatives I thought of wistfully on occasion but knew I would never see again.
By my mid-20s, I was mired in extended adolescence. I felt afraid to take responsibility for myself — to get my life together and become the person I wanted to be. I called my mother in tears regularly, unfairly declaring that my state of unhappiness was all her fault. I stayed with boyfriends who cheated on me and forgot to get me birthday presents. I couldn’t feel joy because I wasn’t following my dreams, so I filled the void with bitterness.
Then my old high school offered me a teaching position out of the blue and everything changed.
When I was a teen, I had been a competitive debater and public speaker, and it just so happened my alma mater needed someone to teach these subjects. They had heard I was back in Toronto for my doctorate and approached me about the job. My PhD was fully funded, and I didn’t need the money. Nor had I ever really seen myself teaching high school students. And yet, the part of me that was desperate for a distraction said yes. It was the best decision I ever made.
When I arrived at my old high school for my first day of work, I wore black leggings because I was unaware they did not constitute business casual attire. I then mistook a high-tech projector that probably cost thousands of dollars for a dry-erase board and stained it with red marker while preparing students for a debate about climate change. It was not an auspicious beginning.
Despite the awkward start, something made me stick it out, and that was my students. While most of my 20-something peers had already retreated into a jaded cynicism, the girls I taught wanted to believe in a better world. They believed we could change society in both big and small ways, from banning plastic water bottles to ending economic inequality. They were lofty dreams, but their optimism renewed me. It made me remember that a pathological sense of positivity is often what it takes to make history. Their optimism made me love my work, and it made me love them.
As I got to know my students better, I began to see my work at my old high school as something more than a job. Sure, the money was nice, but it was the young women I taught who motivated me to get up in the morning. I had never intended to become a high school teacher, but teaching proved to be exactly what I needed.
The turning point occurred one day when I was preparing a supremely brilliant student for a prestigious international debate tournament she was set to attend. In our practices, she was one of the most poised and polished speakers I’d ever seen, but for some reason, in competition, she never seemed to live up to her potential.
Frustrated with her history of underperforming, she declared to me one October afternoon, “There’s no point in practicing anymore. I’m not going to succeed. It doesn’t matter.” I was shocked. I couldn’t understand why someone I thought was so fabulous couldn’t believe in herself.
Suddenly, as I sat in a plastic chair in a classroom where I, too, had once been a student, I knew what was holding her back. I recognized her story because it was mine too. “Do you think part of you is afraid of trying? Are you worried that, even if you do your best, it won’t be good enough?”
“Yes!” My student answered without hesitation. Her tone suggested she was completely freaked out that I had guessed her secret.
“Well, you don’t have to be afraid to try anymore, because I know you can do this.” And in that moment, I did know. I knew it as plainly as I know my name is Sarah or that the earth revolves around the sun. My belief in her was simply fact.
A few days later, I got a phone call from that same student. “Sarah, I won the tournament! You were right. I did it!” It was simultaneously the best and most ironic moment of my life. If I could get a teenage girl to believe in her dreams, why couldn’t I believe in my own? What was holding me back from pursuing my creative passions?
That was the day I returned to my dream of writing. Motivated by all the engaged, intelligent teens I worked with, my friend Shalta and I decided to write a feminist-friendly young adult novel about girls like them. We wanted to tell the story of young women who cared about politics and international relations as much as they cared about whom to take to prom. Multiple stories, actually — we wanted it to be a series of books about two very different young women who wind up as debate partners while attending an all-girls school in Boston. (Yes, I decided to write what I know.)
Shalta and I spent 13 months on the first draft, then six more months editing it. The day I finally emailed the manuscript to a publisher for consideration was the most terrifying day of my life. Here was a book my writing partner and I had written — a story I loved and wanted to share with the world — and what if it wasn’t good enough? What if my dream died when I finally tried to realize it? Would it not be easier just to keep the book to ourselves? After all, you can’t fail if you don’t try.
As my cursor hovered over the send button the day I got up the gumption to share our novel with a potential publishing house, I remembered my students. I remembered how I told them to believe in themselves. I knew that if I was going to inspire them to take chances, I had to call BS on my own cowardice. So I hit send, and then I vomited from nervousness for the next three hours.
That was 18 months ago, and today I am thrilled to report that I am a published author. Our novel, Good Girls, isn’t a perfect story. I know as I grow into myself as a writer, my prose may become more elegant, my characters more realized.
Still, I try to remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good. I believe the story our novel tells is a good one. And I’m glad we found the confidence to tell it.
When the book came out, I dedicated it to the teenage girls who changed my life. The inscription reads: “For my students. Always remember that you are strong, capable, professional women.”
Sometimes you teach the lessons you needed to learn. I don’t care if that’s cheesy, because it’s true.
When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers. There was an English teacher who slipped precepts from the Tao Te Ching into his classes on the Bible and occasionally urged us to subvert standardized tests by answering every question with the word “five.” There was a much loved language teacher who would pelt distracted students with a SuperBall. There was a history instructor who, in a lecture on how the difficulty of delivering mail in the early days of the republic helped shape Federalist ideas, would drop his trousers to reveal patterned boxer shorts.
My class, the Class of 1976, was the last to exclude girls, and, inside the ivy-covered stone and brick buildings, the social upheavals of the seventies were wearing away some of Horace Mann’s British-boarding-school trappings. Jacket and tie were no longer mandatory, hair could be as long as we dared, and seventh and eighth graders were no longer known as first and second formers. But we still called our teachers “Sir,” and they called us “Mr.” Horace Mann was, in the way that prestigious schools often are, something of a benevolent cult. The teachers devoted their lives to us—they were with us from eight-forty in the morning until seven at night, drove us to school each day, took us on vacation trips. There were about a hundred boys in each class, and, with notable exceptions, we loved the place. We competed so keenly that when the school stopped ranking us some industrious students set up a table in the cafeteria where classmates could report their grades. We divided ourselves into subcultures: boys found their joy on the stage, or at the weekly newspaper, or on the baseball team, whose coach—our headmaster—contracted with the Yankees’ grounds crew to groom the diamond.
One group of boys stood apart; they insisted on wearing jackets and ties and shades, and they stuck to themselves, reciting poetry and often sneering at the rest of us. A few of them shaved their heads. We called them Bermanites, after their intellectual and sartorial model, an English teacher named Robert Berman: a small, thin, unsmiling man who papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through.
Assigned to Berman for tenth-grade English, I took a seat one September morning alongside sixteen or seventeen other boys. We waited in silence as he sat at his desk, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and watching us from behind dark glasses. Finally, Mr. Berman stood up, took a fresh stick of chalk, climbed onto his chair, and reached above the blackboard to draw a horizontal line on the paint. “This,” he said, after a theatrical pause, “is Milton.” He let his hand fall a few inches, drew another line, and said, “This is Shakespeare.” Another line, lower, on the blackboard: “This is Mahler.” And, just below, “Here is Browning.” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette, dropped the chalk onto the floor, and, using the heel of his black leather loafer, ground it into the wooden floorboards. “And this, gentlemen,” he said, “is you.”
The next day, I asked to be transferred. I was not alone. By the end of the week, Berman’s class had shrunk by about half. The same thing happened every year; his classes often ended up as intimate gatherings of six to eight. Many students found Berman forbidding, but some of the teachers referred to him as a genius. Boys competed to learn tidbits about him. It was said, with little or no evidence, that he was an artist and a sculptor, that he knew Sanskrit, Russian, and Urdu, and that his wife and child had been killed in a horrific car crash. Though he was only in his mid-thirties, a graduate of the University of Michigan, it was rumored that he had been a paleontologist and had taught at Yale. Administrators told students and their parents that Horace Mann was incredibly lucky to have him, however odd he might be. The boys who remained in his classes were often caught up in his love of art, music, and literature, and in his belief that every moment of life should be spent reaching for the transcendence of the Elgin Marbles, of a fresco by Fra Angelico, even of an ordinary sunset. The boys absorbed the lists he made. “Take this down,” he’d say. “The ten greatest racehorses of all time.” Or, “This is the list of the ten greatest movies ever made—but you won’t find ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on it, because it’s off the charts!” One day, he mounted a rearview mirror on the far wall of the classroom so that he could stare at the portrait of Milton behind his back.
Berman could be mercilessly critical. He called boys “fools” and “peons” and scoffed at their vulgar interests in pop culture, girls, and material things. He was a fastidious reader of students’ work and a tough, sometimes capricious grader. He noted carefully who accepted his authority and who resisted. After he overheard one boy imitating him in the hallway, he covered the boy’s next paper with lacerating comments: “You used to be better.” On the rare occasion when a student earned his praise, he would be celebrated. Now and then, Berman would ask for a copy of a particularly well-wrought paper, which the boys took as the highest compliment; they called it “hitting the wow.”
One afternoon in 1969, Berman announced that a tenth grader named Stephen Fife had written a paper that indicated he could be the next Dickens. Soon afterward, Berman asked Fife to see him after class. This was the ultimate invitation: personal attention from the master, who would go over a student’s writing line by line, inquire about problems with his parents, and perhaps tutor him privately in art history or Russian.
Like other teachers, Berman took students on long field trips, and one spring break he invited Fife to join him and ten other boys on a trip to Washington, to visit the National Gallery of Art. On the first day, as the boys unpacked at a hotel, Fife was alone in his room when Berman entered. It was the first time Fife had ever seen him without jacket and tie. “Berman came up behind me,” Fife recalls. “I was twirled around and he had his tongue literally inside my mouth. It was like a muscle, thick and forceful to the point I couldn’t breathe. He didn’t say a word. I remember that sensation of choking and seeing his black glasses up against my nose. He was very forceful, one hand on the small of my back, and he put that hand down the rear of my pants and I remember being frozen, paralyzed. He was the person I admired more than anyone else in the world.”
Fife pulled away, and, he recalls, Berman grew angry. (Berman maintains that the entire scene never happened.) “Why are you being willful, Mr. Fife?” the teacher said.
“He accused me of denying what I wanted,” Fife told me. “I said, ‘I’m sorry if I sent out the wrong signals.’ I was more embarrassed than anything else.”
Fife says Berman told him that “I was apparently not the person he thought I was” and left the room. Fife told no one of the incident. The next school year, he signed up for every elective Berman taught—Russian literature, Milton, and Melville.
Like many Horace Mann graduates, I spent years telling anecdotes about my school’s teachers. From the earliest days of college, I found that stories about the teacher who massaged boys’ necks as he lectured on the corruption of Tammany Hall, or the teacher who urged boys to swim naked in the school pool, were guaranteed to amaze and appall.
Last June, the Times Magazine published a wrenching story detailing allegations of sexual abuse by two beloved Horace Mann teachers of my era. The article, written by Amos Kamil, a 1982 graduate of the school, also reported on inappropriate behavior by a third teacher, and pointed out that, even though complaints had persisted from the nineteen-sixties into the nineties, the headmaster for much of that time, R. Inslee Clark, Jr., and the school’s board of trustees had largely failed to address them. The Times story, along with a subsequent front-page article, in which one of my favorite teachers, Tek Young Lin, admitted having sex with several students, broke decades of silence. “Everything I did was in warmth and affection and not a power play,” Lin told the Times. “In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong.” It seemed profoundly wrong to many alumni, however; graduates filled Facebook group pages and message boards with thousands of comments, struggling to understand what had happened. By this January, according to alumni who are serving as counsellors and advocates for victims, eighteen teachers had been accused of abusing more than thirty-five students over four decades. On March 11th, many of those students gathered with their lawyers, insurers for the school, and five trustees, appointed by Horace Mann as a settlement committee, for a two-week mediation. The alumni hoped that the school would agree to compensate those who had been abused, and perhaps to commission an independent investigation of abuse at Horace Mann.
Whatever the result of that mediation, the school’s alumni continue to wrestle with discomfiting questions. How had we, in our collective silence, allowed this to occur? At some level, we now said, we all knew. But what, exactly, did we know? One of my classmates sometimes came in on Mondays telling us how cool it was to stay at Mr. Lin’s house, sleeping on mats in his glass-walled living room. We’d heard that the music teacher, Johannes Somary, had kissed a couple of the best-looking boys. Did that constitute abuse?
And what about Mr. Berman—this odd, secretive man who frightened away many students, yet retired to a house that former students bought for him? He wasn’t mentioned in the Times stories, but he may have been the greatest enigma of all. I talked to more than a hundred alumni, to many teachers who worked with him in the sixties and seventies, and to administrators who dealt with complaints about teachers. Berman stood out for his extraordinary control over boys’ lives. Several of his former students have spent decades trying to grasp why they yearned to be close to him, and why they remained silent for so long after, by their accounts, he abused them. “Berman counted on everyone’s silence,” one of the men who lived with him after graduating from Horace Mann told me. Like some of the others, he asked not to be named. “He assumed that our own humiliation would keep us quiet,” he said.
Horace Mann was, and remains, one of New York’s most rigorous and respected private schools, with the power to lift students from one world to another. In the decades before the nineteen-eighties, when the school’s base of families became markedly wealthier, a Horace Mann education could make children of immigrants eligible to enter Ivy League colleges, or join white-shoe law firms and Wall Street banks and brokerage houses. William Clinton, a history teacher for more than three decades, and for much of that time the dean of guidance, often spelled out for us a preferred path: “Harvard, maybe a Rhodes, read law, make partner.”
Our parents paid steep tuition bills, because of the intensive curriculum and the stellar record of college placement, but also because the classes were small and the teachers inspiring. “I loved the kids—they were so bright and funny that every day held big, enlightening surprises,” Richard Warren, an English teacher at the school from 1965 to 1979, said. “The faculty were left to do whatever they wanted, within subject limits, in the classroom.” To students, the teachers were like gods: amusing, imperious, sometimes strangely punitive. We were forever being ordered to take laps around the field or to sit on “the green bench,” an imaginary seat along the wall that tormented our leg muscles. And yet we loved these men, even when they assigned us four hours a night of biology homework or required us to memorize hundreds of facts about the Cleveland Administration. For most of us, the notion that some of our teachers might be monsters simply never crossed our minds.
For a long time after Fife’s encounter with Berman in the hotel room, he had trouble sleeping. But Fife, who is among those who told their stories to the Horace Mann trustees this month, still thought of Berman as an intellectual mentor. When Berman announced in class that “Moby-Dick” was the greatest novel of all time, Fife read it three times. When he praised Dostoyevsky, Fife undertook to read all his books. As the year progressed, Berman regularly asked to see Fife at the end of the day. They would talk about Fife’s friendships, his doubts about his writing, his parents. Fife recalls Berman’s telling him, “A talent like yours comes along infrequently,” and urging him to spurn unhealthy influences: rock and roll, long hair, his girlfriend. “If you spend time with crap,” Berman would say, “you will write crap.”
Early in Fife’s senior year, Berman invited him to his apartment, on West 110th Street, near Columbia University. One weekend afternoon, Fife nervously entered a dark apartment that smelled like a used bookstore. Berman, welcoming and gentle, told Fife that he looked thin and needed to eat. He made him a roast-beef sandwich, and although Fife was a vegetarian, he ate it, as Berman stood over him. They talked about men who had changed the world. One of Berman’s lists tracked the thousand greatest people who had ever lived, and, Berman confided, he himself had recently reached No. 27, surpassing Herman Melville.
After Fife finished eating, he recalled, Berman leaned over and kissed him on the lips. The boy pushed him away.
“Why do you flinch?” Berman said.
“I’m just not comfortable with it,” Fife replied.
Berman invited Fife into his living room, seated him on a couch, and asked him to demonstrate his loyalty. “I’ve done a lot for you, and you should do something for me,” Fife recalls him saying. Berman told him to remove all his clothes. Then he told the boy to masturbate. “I never felt more naked in my life,” Fife told me. “I was no longer me.”
Berman sat across from his student, classical music on the turntable, a throw rug covering his lap. He watched as Fife did as he was told. Fife left immediately afterward. As he walked out, he says, Berman told him how beautiful he was, like Tadzio, the young object of desire in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” Fife remembers that Berman told him, “Genius makes its own rules.”
Berman, who declined to be interviewed and responded to questions only by faxed letters, said that no such encounter ever happened, with Fife or any other student. Fife’s journals from that fall do not mention a sexual encounter; rather, they contain page after page in which an adolescent struggles with his feelings toward his teacher. At one point, he wrote, “My obedience to Mr. B is absolute. If there is a God, and He descended to inform me that to follow B. were false, I would say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ and continue to pursue the path that B. had set for me.” Elsewhere, he writes of “my aversion to committing myself to Mr. Berman, in which act I would be inherently incorporating all my mortal misgivings as well as immortal longings. . . . I cannot extend myself unconstrainedly to Mr. Berman because of this inhibiting factor in me. This is impossible and intolerable, for it is a woman’s embraces that it needs.”
Four decades later, Fife is fuzzy on some details of his meetings with Berman. At one point, for example, he told me about an incident of abuse in which Berman took him into a bedroom in his apartment. But when Berman insisted that the apartment didn’t have a bedroom, Fife acknowledged that he had misremembered. In a letter to me, he wrote, “There are pieces of memory that I know are true, but they exist as islands in a murky sea.” The period was traumatic. “I was hardly sleeping at all during much of my senior year, and I had angry voices in my head all the time,” he added, and described his journals as an “attempt to put an intellectual spin on terrifying events.”
Joseph Cumming, a 1977 Horace Mann graduate who has served in recent months as a coördinator for alumni who allege abuse, has spoken at length to nearly all the alumni involved, including the handful of men who say that Berman abused them. Cumming, a minister and the former director of Yale University’s Faith and Culture Reconciliation Program, which focussed on improving relations between Muslims and Christians, said, “In each of the Berman cases, he exercised such powerful mind control over them that it took them many years to come to terms with what happened to them. To this day, they feel intimidated by him.”
Reports of sexual abuse by teachers often do not emerge until many years after the event. But the core of such memories tends to remain intact, according to Kathy Pezdek, a cognitive psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, who specializes in eyewitness memory. “At the top of the hierarchy of memory is the gist, and farther down are the details,” Pezdek says. “Over time, you lose information from the bottom up.” The passage of time may leave details in victims’ accounts appearing inconsistent or incomplete, but “looking for consistency across the people who are reporting abuse is going to be much more revealing than looking for consistency of details within any one account.”
Cumming got involved with the Horace Mann victims because he was molested by Johannes Somary, the music teacher. (Somary died in 2011.) When Cumming tried to recall the details of his own abuse, he was occasionally uncertain of times, dates, and places. “As I talked with the Berman survivors, I was struck by how much the elements of their stories had in common,” he says. “The specifics of their experiences of being sexually molested by him had remarkable similarities”—a series of after-class meetings, a period of growing intimacy, sharp criticism alternating with abundant praise, and, finally, demands for sexual acts.
Sex was always in the air at Horace Mann—hundreds of adolescent boys kept apart from women—but it was rarely spoken of. Berman frequently said that girls were “time-wasters,” impediments to achievement—a view that stood out in part because few other teachers even acknowledged the boys’ preoccupation with the opposite sex. So the appearance of a girl in class was a sensation. One day, a dark-haired young woman turned up in Berman’s course on Russian literature, and she stayed for the semester, taking copious notes but never saying a word. The boys concocted stories about her identity, calling her “the Dark Lady of the Sonnets.”
Her real name is Debora Shuger. She is now an English professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, a career that she chose in part because of Berman. At Byram Hills High School, in Armonk, in Westchester County, Shuger was a voracious reader who longed for more advanced work. After she met Horace Mann boys at parties and overheard them talking about “The Brothers Karamazov,” she approached her guidance counsellor about working out a deal to audit Berman’s class.
Shuger sat in the back of the room as Berman alternately inspired and slashed at the boys. “Berman reminded you how small you were, and that there were so many things that were bigger,” she told me. “He’d say, ‘When you are as smart as Milton, then you can talk. Now shut up.’ ” Berman’s class, she says, was a “cult of personality,” a place in which the master’s every remark would be examined for layers of meaning. “There was so much desire to please,” she said. “ ‘Will this paper be pleasing to him? This comment?’ All the boys were in love with him, in completely chaste ways.” Shuger recalled only one conversation with Berman. He asked her if she was afraid of him. She said she was.
Rob Watson, one of Shuger’s colleagues in the U.C.L.A. English department, also attended Horace Mann, and he experienced Berman as a talented teacher who could make “a lot of smart-ass kids who were headed for élite jobs see that there might be something else out there.” But he also came to see Berman as the architect of a persona that impressionable adolescents would want to serve. “So much of his technique was belittling, toward the students, toward the mainstream culture,” Watson told me. “It was great to sit there and listen to some Melville, and it still permeates how I read and write. But he was trying to impress us.”
Many other alumni describe Berman as manipulative. “Mr. Berman interfered with my family,” Adam Zachary Newton, a professor of literature and humanities at Yeshiva University and a 1975 Horace Mann graduate, said. When Newton started high school, his father had recently left home. His older brother took Berman’s class, and became enthralled by the art that he endorsed: Renaissance painting, Bach and Mahler, Browning and Frost. The brother shaved his head, and began to dress like Berman. Newton appealed to another English teacher to intervene, but nothing changed.
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.”
For Gene, a sensitive boy from the suburbs, Horace Mann was a bewildering place. Assigned to Berman’s English class in tenth grade, Gene (a pseudonym) sat in terror through the opening-day lecture on the hierarchy of genius. He had been a mediocre student, earning only B’s and C’s for three years. But within a few weeks Berman’s notes on Gene’s papers were describing a special talent. Berman asked him to stay after school, and told him that his writing was remarkable, that he was a poet. One day, Gene told me, Berman showed him a photograph of vacationers at the beach and asked, “Do you want to be like those people, brain-dead? Or do you want to be like Emily in ‘Our Town,’ who asks, ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?’ ”
Gene had grown up in a business-oriented family with a distant, quiet father, and this was a wholly new kind of conversation; he sat through the sessions awkwardly. But he grew fascinated with the poems Berman read to him, and he was elated when his writing was chosen for The Manuscript, the school’s literary magazine, which Berman ran.
Some former Berman students recall that every once in a while a new boy would suddenly have poems and drawings published in The Manuscript. Sometimes those boys were particularly striking, even if their writing was not. One of them was Gene—“the most buoyant, happy boy,” Richard Warren says. In the issue from Gene’s senior year, there are thirteen poems, six of them by Gene. In a commentary, Berman called the student works “extraordinary in their profundity, power and poetry—indeed noble.”
One of Gene’s poems begins:
He shut off the sun with a window-shade,
He would have known darkness had he stayed,
And the sadness he had made.
Of what worth, then, were the trees,
That split the sunbeams with such ease,
Which fell so warmly across my knees?
“I didn’t have any special talent,” Gene told me. “But suddenly I was in this class and I stood out. He gave me A’s and talked about being noble, and I wanted that.” In Gene’s junior year, when he was taking two courses with Berman, the teacher invited him to his apartment. Berman didn’t approve of Gene’s parents; he called them mediocre people who wouldn’t understand the pursuit of truth. So, one Saturday afternoon, Gene told his parents that he was going to a museum and went to visit Berman, who had moved to East Seventy-second Street. Arriving at Berman’s apartment, Gene was intimidated; inside, he saw floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a bust of Leonardo. Berman welcomed him, and fed him a tuna sandwich, made with diced apples. Then he invited him into the living room, where he directed Gene to “turn around, pull down your pants.”
Gene was sixteen, and had never had sex. “I’m just standing there, bewildered, but under his control,” Gene recalls. Berman rubbed his own penis, then brought Gene into the bedroom and penetrated him. “I was numb,” Gene says. “It was almost like an initiation. He quoted some line in the Bible about if two lie together, then they have heat; but how can one be warm alone? I thought it was some sort of pathway to this special life. This is what you do if you’re going to be one of his poets.”
Afterward, Gene went home, taking the bus over the George Washington Bridge. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened. About once a month for the remaining year and a half of high school, Gene would take the bus to Manhattan and visit Berman. Berman would insist on oral sex, sometimes bathe him, masturbate him, and at times penetrate him, all in silence. Berman called him Putto, after the small, naked, winged children who appear in Renaissance paintings.
Even though we didn’t dare share with our parents all of our stories about Berman’s behavior in class or his closeness to selected students, we talked among ourselves, passing along bulletins about the boys he had singled out for attention. Sometimes, in class, if a student said something dim-witted, Berman would laugh and say, “I’ll have to tell the boys about that one.” Students wondered what that meant. “I had this sense of gatherings going on that seemed off-putting to me,” Rob Watson says. “I later heard rumors of him living with a couple of men in an apartment that students visited.”
Berman’s apartment was a gathering place for former students who remained under his influence. An alumnus I spoke to recalls going into a supermarket on East Seventy-second Street in the late seventies and seeing a young man who looked remarkably like Berman—same clothes, same B. & H. smokes in the jacket pocket. The next day, the student described to Berman what he’d seen and asked, “Do you have a brother?”
“No, no,” Berman said, offering nothing more.
Among Berman’s acolytes was Robert Simon, a student in the Class of 1969 and one of the original Bermanites. “We called him the clone,” Seth Cooper, a classmate, says. After high school, Simon enrolled at Columbia and, in graduate school there, he moved into an apartment down the hall from Berman’s. Gene recalls that Simon was often at Berman’s apartment when he arrived, along with another former student, a few years older. (Simon declined to speak on the record for this article.)
After Horace Mann, Gene, too, went to Columbia, at Berman’s encouragement. He was assigned a dorm room. But, without telling his parents, he said, he lived mainly at Berman’s apartment, keeping clothes and books there. In the evenings, Berman would talk about art and music, and Simon would join them to watch “Kojak.” “Berman was creating a family for himself,” Gene said. “He wanted to eat dinner with us, watch TV.”
At home, Gene talked about Berman and the books and paintings he loved. His parents could see their son slipping away from them. They were upset when he spent an entire vacation in Florida reading Russian novels; Gene recalled overhearing his mother ask his father to tell him that he was too involved with Berman. Still, Gene remained under Berman’s influence. At Columbia, he majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, largely because Berman urged him to. He hated the major, and he longed for other friendships, but he felt obliged to stay at Berman’s place, afraid to lose the teacher’s approval and his own sense of purpose.
The summer after his junior year, Gene went to Italy to take a class, and he felt liberated. He swam every day, and bought a bicycle to take long rides through Tuscany, thinking about how to escape. He called his father and asked if he could take a semester off. His father consented, but Gene couldn’t make the break. “I chickened out,” he said.
That fall, feeling that he had largely wasted his college years, Gene began to spend more time at his dorm, going to Berman’s apartment only once or twice a week, then not at all. (Berman said that he had no contact with Gene after his freshman year.) Gene saw that “it was all at my discretion. Until then, I guess I still wanted something Berman was selling.” At Columbia, he lived on a coed floor, and he got involved with a woman there. “I started to hang out with regular people,” Gene said. “I graduated from college and just never saw him again.”
Four years later, Gene met the woman who would become his wife, and he began to tell her about Berman. In the course of two difficult decades, a therapist helped him understand that he had never had a real relationship with Berman. “I realized slowly that it was sexual abuse,” he said.
For years, Stephen Fife kept what happened with Berman mostly to himself. He told his mother only that he was depressed and unable to sleep, that he was in trouble and needed to see a therapist. He recalls her saying that in their family one did not tell secrets to strangers. She urged him to take classes with other teachers, and suggested that he transfer to a different school for his senior year. For Fife’s eighteenth birthday, his parents gave him the twenty-four-volume complete works of Sigmund Freud so that he could figure out what was bothering him. During the next several months, he read volume after volume.
After Fife ran away from Berman’s apartment—“You have your parents’ bourgeois morality,” Berman told him as he left—he went to see Philip Lewerth, a gruff but well-liked history teacher who served as the head of Horace Mann’s upper school. Fife told him what Berman had done. According to Fife, Lewerth (who has since died) asked if he had any hard evidence. When Fife said that he did not, Lewerth told him, “That’s a fight you can’t win.” If Fife pursued the matter, he warned, it could impair his efforts to get into a good college.
Even after breaking with Berman, many of the boys who had become close to him found that his voice stayed with them, admonishing them, steering their thoughts and behavior. Doug, a 1971 graduate of Horace Mann, was a Bermanite of the first order. He decorated his bedroom with the Renaissance Madonnas that Berman admired; he dressed like Berman and collected his lists—the ten finest pianists alive, the “world’s foremost art repositories.” After high school, Doug went to Oberlin College, and he wrote a paper for his favorite professor in which he recalled how Berman had come to dominate his life. One afternoon at Horace Mann, Doug wrote, Berman called him in and asked which of three lives he wished to live: “(a) to leave no monument behind (e.g., a store owner), (b) to leave a quickly forgotten monument behind you (e.g., like your father), (c) to live immortal in a creation (e.g., Milton)?” Later, Berman invited him to join a group going on a two-month trip to Europe that summer.
Doug wrote in his paper, “Rumors were circulating that year about the homosexual tendencies of certain teachers. Mr. Berman, for a reason that I could not then imagine, was a prime target for them.” The parent of another student had warned Doug’s family that Berman acted inappropriately with boys, and that he travelled with an uneven number of students so that one would have to share a room with him. Doug’s father, himself a Horace Mann graduate, went to the school one Saturday and met with Berman for two hours. He came home eager for Doug to make the trip.
By the time Doug got to Oberlin, he was angry at his old teacher, and his paper reflected his skepticism. “We visited the greatest cities, saw the greatest paintings, heard the greatest music and discussed the greatest ideas,” he wrote. “Everything was the greatest something or other.” But on the trip he was still tormented by his relationship with Berman. At one point, he thought, “It cannot be correct what this man is trying to do.”