By Marc Fisher (The New Yorker)
April 1, 2013
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.”
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.”
Gene knew Doug’s parents, and soon afterward he got in touch with his mother and told her some of what he had been through. He did not mention that he, too, had often contemplated killing himself. “The suicide,” Gene told me, “is almost to kill the false self that’s so hard to live with.” A few weeks after Doug died, his parents went to see Horace Mann’s headmaster, Inslee Clark, to complain about Berman. Clark, who came to Horace Mann in 1970, from Yale, where he had been director of admissions, expressed his condolences but said there was no proof that Berman had done anything wrong. There was nothing the school could do.
In 1975, after girls were admitted to the school, an English teacher named Joyce Fitzpatrick was offered the department chairmanship. Her first question to the administration was “What do you do with all the parents who say, ‘Get my kid out of Berman’s class’?” Most other teachers taught more than seventy students in a day; Berman, whose students were permitted to drop his classes without prejudice, was down to around forty. Clark told her to do the best she could.
Not long afterward, Michael Lacopo, a fellow English teacher, became head of the upper school. “I called Berman in and I said I wasn’t going to automatically sign off on changes of class,” Lacopo recalled. “He was somewhat taken aback. I said, ‘Bob, you can be intimidating, and I suspect it’s conscious. If you wear dark glasses in the classroom, kids are going to be intimidated.’ He said, ‘What?’ It was an act.”
Berman left the school in 1979. Horace Mann says that it has no records of his departure, because files pertaining to Berman and other faculty members were destroyed in a fire, in 1984. Lacopo, along with several former teachers and administrators, told me that Berman was pushed out, because he had so few students. But, according to Fife, William Clinton, the dean of guidance, told him that there were so many accusations of inappropriate behavior that the school was forced to let Berman go. This fall, when an alumnus asked Tom Kelly, who has been the head of Horace Mann since 2005, about Berman’s departure, he said that he had heard it was related to allegations of abuse. Last October, Kelly spoke at a small reunion of alumni, at the Conrad New York hotel. Joel Melamed, a physician and a member of the Class of 1967, said that Kelly told him about the pattern of sexual abuse at the school: “He said that boys had been sexually abused, boys had had intercourse in our classrooms and on Horace Mann trips.” Kelly also told the group at the reunion that he “would like to punch Berman in the nose,” Melamed said. “He said he believes completely the story of the survivors. He has a very low opinion of Robert J. Berman.”
In 1983, Berman left Manhattan and moved to a nineteenth-century house on an acre and a half in Tuxedo Park, a gated community in Orange County. The house was bought by former students of his: Robert Simon and another young man, a bond trader. They moved in, along with another Berman alumnus, Edward Leiter.
The four men, Leiter said, were a “group of sympathetic individuals who had become committed friends.” They had grown tired of city life, and “it seemed that the only practicable means of acquiring a country house would be by a pooling of efforts and resources.” They named their new home Satis House, after Miss Havisham’s estate in “Great Expectations,” about which Dickens wrote, “Whoever had this house, could want nothing else.” The house, which according to property reports was recently valued at $1.8 million, was comfortable for a group living intermingled lives. The younger men had bedrooms upstairs; Berman had his room on the first floor.
Leiter describes the house as a place of reverent cultural inquiry. In the mid-sixties, when he was a student of Berman’s, the two spent time together after class, and visited museums together. They kept in touch when Leiter went to Columbia, and, half a century later, they remain close. Leiter says that Berman’s impact on him was “profound, and the concept of learning for the sake of learning has endured a lifetime.” Simon, who had completed his doctorate in art history at Columbia, began a career as an art appraiser and dealer, specializing in European Old Masters. His years-long study of a portrait of Jesus called “Salvator Mundi” persuaded many historians that it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The painting, which sold for seventy dollars in 1958, was recently valued at approximately a hundred and ninety million.
A few years after moving to Tuxedo Park, Simon met a woman who shared his interest in English mastiffs. She was breaking up with her husband, and Simon suggested that she come and live at Satis House. The woman, who asked me to refer to her as M., stayed for almost a year. During that time, she and Simon, then in their early thirties, became lovers. She soon realized that having a relationship with Simon meant abiding by the rules of a highly regimented household. “If Daddy said we all had to go to bed at 5 P.M., we all did,” she said, referring to Berman. “If he said we all need to get up at 2 A.M., so we did.” Berman decided the dinner hour and the menu, and gathered the group each evening for strong, tall drinks, which he called “woolies,” for the psychological state they induced.
Berman did not often leave Satis House; he spent his days listening to classical music, sculpting, reading, and writing. On a couple of occasions, he and Simon drove into Manhattan with M. to meet Mimi Sheraton, the former Times restaurant critic. Sheraton says that Berman was a treasured dinner companion, “a marvellous man.” She enjoyed his lists of great people, and she counts Berman and Simon “among my Green Beret eaters. They’d go anywhere, anytime.”
In the first years after Simon graduated from high school, his parents had accepted their son’s friendship with Berman as merely odd. But in time they concluded that the relationship was unhealthy and involuntary. At one point, a family member approached a Horace Mann administrator at a fund-raising dinner and complained that Simon was being “brainwashed” by a teacher. “You mean Berman?” the administrator replied.
M. considered Simon learned, sensitive, and kind. But she, too, came to see him as captive to Berman. When “the boys,” as she called the three younger men, went into the city for work, Berman required them to call in to report. “On the stroke of four, or whatever time, Robert had to call Daddy,” M. says. “He’d say, ‘I need to call him now.’ ”
M. tried to convince Simon that Berman was stoking his anxieties and his anger. But she could not shake his belief that “if Berman is happy, the entire house is happy.” How, she asked, would he ever deal with life after Berman died? Simon replied, “Well, I would ask myself, What would Robert do?”
Eventually, M. grew frustrated enough to leave. She wrote Simon a long letter, explaining what she saw as an intractable situation. “Because of his lack of financial support, he needed the boys,” she wrote of Berman. “The boys needed a leader, because for some reason or another, the boys all hated their parents.” She added, “Berman does love you, Robert, but has to control you in order to love you. . . . I love you, Robert, unconditionally.” Simon responded with a letter lamenting the day he’d met her.
Leiter, who lived at Satis House from 1983 to 1998, says that M. left because she didn’t fit in. “As much as she was initially a welcome addition to the household—a woman’s touch, and all that—she quickly became unhappy at the distance she felt from the activities of the house, her inability (or unwillingness) to become a part of any practical or intellectual activity,” he wrote. “Given human nature, one imagines she felt the fault was not her own and lay wholly elsewhere—a facile and painless explanation for personal misery and the refusal to recognize or address personal issues.”
Not long after M. left the house, Simon’s family hired Kevin Garvey, a counsellor who specialized in extracting people from groups like est and the Unification Church. They invited Simon to a relative’s apartment, where Garvey argued that Berman had steered him away from those who loved him. When Garvey read aloud from Doug’s Oberlin paper about Berman, Simon dismissed it as “fantasy.” Simon told relatives that he was honored to be able to give Berman the life he deserved. The next day, he told his family that if they made any further efforts to interfere in his life he would never speak to them again.
In a 1995 letter to a family member, Simon wrote, “I am neither a cult member, nor a money grubber, neither a skull-worshiper, nor a Catholic, nor a queer—nothing quite so interesting. I am completely unapologetic about my actions.” At a school reunion in 2009, Simon’s classmates talked about Berman and the rumors they’d heard about sexual relationships. Simon later told a classmate, “I hate to burst your bubble, but I was never sexually involved with Berman and I’m not even gay.”
The other original owner of the house, the bond trader, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said that he first encountered Berman in tenth grade, when his relationship with his parents was crumbling. “I didn’t know it, but I was looking for someone like Berman, who had authority, who was a leader,” he says. “In a school that made everyone think he was special, this was the hardest guy to have approve of you. I needed somebody to talk to and he offered himself as a counsellor.”
Like the other boys, he was invited to Berman’s apartment, in eleventh grade. “We didn’t think of ourselves as gay, and I never was, though I engaged in homosexual activities, obviously,” the bond trader says. Berman would describe the sex as a natural part of the teacher-student relationship, dating back to ancient Greece. “We might spend a night and then go home to our parents, and other kids would come in,” he says. “He took great pleasure in stealing kids from the parents he hated.”
The trader also says that, while he lived at Satis House, Berman kept him on a restricted diet, to hold his weight at about twenty-five pounds below the level at which he had played football in college. In the early years of their relationship, he says, Berman regularly beat him with a belt buckle. Berman wrote to me that this wasn’t true: “I do not recall ever striking anyone with a belt buckle; I guess I’d remember if I had. (Excellent idea, though.)”
After four years at Satis House, the trader left, and he has spent the subsequent decades trying to figure out why he stayed so long. “There was always the threat of excommunication, lack of approval, castigation,” he told me. “We weren’t even allowed not to like the food he made—and it was awful. And there was always alcohol, lots of it. You drank one woolie and you were relatively pliable after that. I never knew I was part of a cult till I got out.”
When the trader was considering leaving Satis House, he says, Berman warned him of the consequences: failure, mediocrity, depression, even suicide. “I’ve tried,” the trader told me, but he no longer thinks of killing himself. “There have been times when I wanted to, but I wouldn’t because I didn’t want him to outlive me. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who got everything he wanted.”
When I first called Berman at Satis House, a young man answered: “Mr. Berman does not speak on the phone. You may fax him.” I did, noting the allegations that his former students have made. In the next few months, I received a series of single-spaced, typewritten replies from Berman. In the first one, he wrote, “I regret that such ‘accusations’ as you mention have reached the level that necessitates my complete denial of their validity or recognition of any accuracy whatsoever. (However, as we all know, proving a negative would always be difficult.) I can comprehend that sundry people are (were, will ever be) both insensately vindictive and—not wholly unrelated—unhappy with what they perceive in rare encounters with the mirror as failed lives, and are commensurately eager to compose or pursue tangible causes for that in the form of other people with whom they might have had tangential contact a long while since.
“Whether I personally was an ‘inspiration’ (your word) for a life of artistic ‘pursuits,’ or a continuing bête noire for a want of same, I strongly doubt; I just do not believe that I was ever that important, let alone vital, to any formal student with whom I might have shared a classroom for a brief period of his life.”
Berman wrote that he was never attracted to any of his students, and that at Horace Mann he “concentrated almost exclusively” on literature and rhetoric. “I was paid for instruction in formal subjects and stayed with the program,” he said. He left Horace Mann because the school offered him only part-time work, which was financially unacceptable, he said. He denied ever having spoken to Fife about his family or his relationships. “I had no sexual desire for Mr. Fife—or any student, for that matter,” he said. “I never ‘kissed’ him, neither did my hands stray to his ‘lower back.’ This is extremely repulsive to me; Mr. Fife has problems.” He said that Fife never visited his apartment, and dismissed his account as “inventions . . . a manner of desperation born of a self-perceived failed life.”
Berman said he was aware that a former student had committed suicide but considered it “highly doubtful” that his reasons for killing himself “concerned me.” As for Gene, Berman called him a “problematic, confused, humorless young man” who “presented no especial talent or solid intelligence.” Berman wrote that there was no physical contact between them (“My interest was, and is, in women”) and that Gene never lived in his apartment: “Gene, in a word, lies.”
Leiter, too, denied that Berman had any sexual interest in his students. In a letter, he wrote, “Not only was I not aware of any students who had a physical or sexual relationship with him either during my time at Horace Mann or at Columbia, but the entertainment of this concept is antithetical to the man I know now for almost half a century.” When I asked why students from nearly all parts of Berman’s tenure at the school would make such claims, Leiter replied, “I suspect that at some point these souls have stared at themselves and felt the failure and unhappiness of their life and, through a convoluted misremembering or conflation of details, have constructed a desperately conceived reason, alignment of the stars—whatever—that explains and ameliorates the failure, emptiness, and misery they see before them; but who can know?”
Berman still lives at Satis House. Leiter moved out—“I had met a woman and we decided that we would like to make our own house,” he told me—but Simon is still there, too. When I asked Berman, who is now seventy-eight, to talk with me, he wrote that he was “very near death” and that he saw no point in meeting: “All you would discover is a rather halt old man in deteriorating health. What you most likely would not perceive is such a person who never in his long life intentionally injured anyone.” He added, “All that I can request of anyone—friend, stranger, enemy—is to be left alone.”
Fife eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he works as a screenwriter and playwright. In 1994, on a visit to New York, he went to see William Clinton, Horace Mann’s longtime dean of guidance. According to Fife, Clinton (who died in 2010) pulled a bottle of Dewar’s out of his desk drawer, poured two drinks, and listened to Fife’s story.
Clinton acknowledged that boys had come to him over the years with allegations about Berman. He said that he thought Berman was among the most brilliant people he’d ever met, and that the complaints were simply a response to his eccentricity. Eventually, though, he heard similar tales often enough so that he came to believe them. The next time Fife saw Clinton, in 1996, he noted in his journals that Clinton told him, “I remember what you said—I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward. It was a strange, funny world we had here.”
From the nineteen-sixties into the nineteen-nineties, students, parents, and teachers—each believing his story of abuse to be unique—brought complaints about teachers to Horace Mann’s administrators and board members. In 1993, a mother told the head of the school and several trustees about a sexual assault on her son. A teacher warned superiors that he’d been hearing about improper behavior by colleagues. Fife’s mother complained to trustees that Berman was exercising “a cult-like influence” on her son. In each case, the answer was similar: What can you prove? Do you really want to drag your child’s name into this when it’s one person’s word against another’s?
In 2004, Gene began reading more about abuse by teachers. He had become a lawyer, and he consulted a series of attorneys about compensation for victims. In March of 2005, he sent a note to Robert Simon, asking to see Berman and seeking the return of books and clothing he had left at the apartment a quarter century before.
“I do not know what you are really after,” Simon wrote back, adding, “Somehow the retrieval of long-ago abandoned personal goods seems a bizarre and irrational quest.”
Gene replied, “I was a much younger person when my relationship ended and I want to take whatever step, symbolic or not, to arrange an ending that is more healing.” When Simon agreed to pass a note to Berman, Gene wrote asking to meet, to “bring some closure to our relationship.” He requested the return of a volume of Robert Frost’s poetry, inscribed by the author, that Berman had given him.
Two weeks later, Berman sent Gene a short note. Addressing him by his full name, with middle initial, he said that Simon had sent along whatever books could be found, but that “ ‘clothing’ and ‘anything else’ of yours, most like, has been lost in the intervening decades. As to ‘closure,’ said intervening decades will have to suffice. In these times I do not see many people. I hope that your life has been and continues to be a good and successful (whatever that might mean to you now) one and . . . may you come to your place in peace.”
Gene wrote again: “Our history mandates that we meet once more in our lifetime. This request is not coming from a person you do not know, but from me. One to whom you owe an hour of your time.” There was no response. That May, Gene says, he drove to Tuxedo Park. He recalled that a young man greeted him at the door, relayed a message to Berman, and returned to say, “He will not see you.”
A few months afterward, Gene’s attorney wrote to Robert Katz, a senior director at Goldman Sachs and the chairman of Horace Mann’s board of trustees. Gene had learned that other alumni had complained to the school about Berman, and he wanted the school to acknowledge to him that students had been abused and to compensate him for his injuries. His life had been a series of short circuits, he told me: legal positions from which he was fired or asked to leave, a marriage that fell apart. “I’ve never cracked the code,” he said. “I’m a nice guy who has a problem with subservience.”
Katz agreed to meet, and brought along another trustee. Gene told his story for half an hour, and at the end Katz said that he believed him, but that the school could not be held responsible, because it didn’t know its employee was doing anything wrong. “It’s not Horace Mann’s bill to pay,” he said, according to Gene.
At the meeting, Katz says, he asked Gene for evidence of the school’s negligence, but he never received anything. Gene argues that only the school could have had records showing a failure to respond to complaints of abuse. Last summer, after the Times story appeared, alumni began to come together on Facebook and on Horacemannsurvivor.org, a site created for abuse victims. Gene spoke to a retired administrator, who told him that there had been a file, passed from headmaster to headmaster, with complaints of transgressions by teachers. A spokesman for Horace Mann says that Kelly searched for such a file and found nothing. Still, Gene insists, “people knew. They knew and they did nothing.”
Since last summer, the New York City Police Department and the Bronx District Attorney’s office have been investigating charges of sex abuse at Horace Mann. Investigators have interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses, including Jon Seiger, a 1979 graduate whose experience with Berman mirrored others’ in many details. Berman asked him to stay after class, told him that he was different from the other boys, and gave him a special assignment: to write a paper on “Tonio Kroger,” by Thomas Mann. Seiger, confused by the relationship between two high-school boys in the novel, didn’t know what to write. After a few weeks, Berman called him in and said, “I can either give you an F or punish you.” Seiger says Berman grabbed a wooden pointer, instructed him to pull down his pants, and struck him a dozen times. Then he told Seiger to give him oral sex. Seiger complied, and Berman repeated his demand every few weeks for the rest of that year—between seven and ten times in all, according to Seiger. “From that moment on, I was ‘Jonny’ in class—the only one he called by his first name,” Seiger said. “That was the worst part, because I thought it meant everyone in class knew, though of course they didn’t.” (Berman wrote to me that he had “no recollection whatsoever” of Seiger, and had never called any student by his given name. “This address was employed both to keep matters formal, distant, and to concentrate on the text alone,” he said.)
In high school and, later, as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music, Seiger worked as an escort at a gay bar and acted in pornographic movies. After a suicide attempt and several stints in rehab, he moved to upstate New York, where he works as a jazz bandleader. Not long after the Times story appeared, Seiger got in touch with the police and with Jill Starishevsky, the Bronx assistant district attorney who was leading the investigation, and told them that he was abused by Berman and by other teachers, including Inslee Clark, the former headmaster. (Clark died in 1999.) When Seiger mentioned that a family friend had molested him when he was a child, Starishevsky explained to him that abused children are often sought out by other abusers.
Police and prosecutors interviewed Seiger more than a dozen times, and flew him to the city so that he could point out bars he had visited with Clark and other teachers. The investigation faced intrinsic limits: under state law, charges must be filed no more than five years after the victim becomes a legal adult. Police hoped to find an alternative legal theory under which to pursue a prosecution, but apparently they have not succeeded. An official who worked on the case, though appalled by the abuses that the investigators found, indicated that there would likely be no criminal action.
Horace Mann’s motto is “Magna est veritas et praevalet”: “Great is the truth and it prevails.” Since last summer, the school has seemed divided over how to live up to that ideal, with some board members and administrators arguing that the focus should be on current students and parents, and others insisting that the school has an obligation to its alumni to delve more deeply into what happened. Kelly did not respond to my requests for an interview. After I left several messages for him, I got a call from Micheline Tang, at the school’s public-relations firm, Kekst & Company, who said that she could only confirm the date of Berman’s departure. “That’s the only information I was given,” she said. But Kelly has stayed in contact with many concerned alumni, meeting with them in small groups, joining some for long dinners, and writing to many to answer their questions. In a letter sent to alumni in June, he wrote, “Conversations need to continue with candor. . . . Ultimately, we need to work together to understand what may have happened and why.”
Last summer, alumni began calling on Horace Mann to issue an official apology; to commission an independent investigation of the kind that Pennsylvania State University set up to look into the sex-abuse crimes of Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach; and to compensate victims, many of whom have spent years in therapy. In August, the chairman of the school’s board, Steven M. Friedman, wrote to the Horace Mann community, arguing, “ ‘Doing the right thing’ about the past has vastly different meanings to different members of our community. . . . Our primary fiduciary responsibilities and legal obligations are to the school today and to its 1,800 current students.” Friedman told an alumni group that a probe like Penn State’s would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, the school said, it was “coöperating fully and actively with independent investigations by the Bronx District Attorney and the New York City Police Department. They are in the best position to gather information, interview individuals, and question potential witnesses.”
In November, after Horace Mann’s Alumni Council asked the board to commission an investigation, and the board declined to do so, at least one member of the council, Bill Irwin, withdrew his support for the school. In a letter to Kelly and Friedman, Irwin wrote, “I believe it is important to uncover what happened, including who abused students, as well as who knew about it (at the time, and afterwards) and did not take the proper action.”
In recent years, reports have surfaced of sexual abuse at St. Paul’s, Andover, Exeter, and other prominent private schools, from the nineteen-sixties to the nineties. At St. Paul’s, alumni gathered accounts of abuse by twenty-nine teachers over five decades. Each school has struggled to protect its image and its current students while addressing the victims’ hurt and the other alumni’s anger. Some schools have maintained a public silence. But in 2008 the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, in Cambridge, apologized for failing to act when confronted with evidence of abuse, and offered counselling.
In the past few months, several schools have given the Horace Mann alumni hope that their school will look more deeply into its past. After a federal judge allowed a hearing on whether Poly Prep, in Brooklyn, had covered up abuses by a former football coach, the school settled a lawsuit brought by twelve former students. Penn State said that it was close to a settlement compensating twenty-eight people who made claims stemming from Sandusky’s abuse of minors.
It is only in the past two decades that large-scale studies have been done of sexual misconduct by educators. According to the studies, abusers are disproportionately teachers who have won awards for excellence; they groom their targets, often selecting students who are estranged from their parents and unsure of themselves, then inviting them to get extra help in private sessions. This means, of course, that it can be very difficult to distinguish a superlative teacher from an abuser. Among Horace Mann alumni, especially those who were not directly affected by abuse, there are lingering questions about the legacy of the accused teachers.
Scott Rosenberg, a 1977 graduate who became a co-founder of Salon.com, took Berman’s class and struggled with the contradiction between Berman’s authoritarian approach and his love of art. In an essay for the class, Rosenberg wrote, “I have read a modest amount—not a great deal, but enough to be able to judge works for myself. I enter a class in which the teacher tells me that my opinion is worth nothing. . . . The teacher himself seems to be deciding who the ‘great’ men are, what the ‘great’ works are, and all other matters of ‘greatness.’ ”
Berman returned the paper with a single comment: “Why did Hamlet not regret the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?” Rosenberg rejected the riddle. “That was it for me,” he told me. “Ridiculous. This is a teacher who has some ability to weave a sense of mystery and allure around great works, but beyond that spell he had nothing to offer to help us understand the art, the people who made it, or the world.”
But many professors, writers, artists, and musicians I spoke to credited Berman with inspiring their work. All of them, even those who rejected his teaching, quoted frequently from poems that he had recited to them. They admired the way Berman focussed on the experience of a poem, without getting bogged down in austere analysis. Debora Shuger, the U.C.L.A. professor, said that Berman’s approach to literature has helped shape her work. “I teach big,” she said, “to make the work seem wonderful and important to students and to give them something of what he gave me.”
In college, Adam Zachary Newton, the Yeshiva professor, majored in music theory rather than in English, partly to rebel against Berman’s influence. But he came back to literature and ended up teaching, a choice that he calls “more than ironic—Freud would say uncanny.” He avoids growing close to students “in some priestly way,” he says. “My job is to facilitate vision and hearing, far from Mr. Berman’s extreme and cartoonish way, this pedagogy of adulation and awe and devotion. My entire commitment to the vocation is a sort of rebuttal to his fetishistic, dictatorial brand of pedagogy.” He added, “Mr. Berman was probably the worst English teacher I could have chosen for myself at the most vulnerable of moments. And yet without his influence I do not think I would be where I am now.”
Gary Alan Fine, a 1968 graduate of Horace Mann and a sociologist at Northwestern University, accepts that Berman’s accusers are telling the truth, but worries that the Horace Mann teachers are being judged by the standards of a different time. “This was the late sixties, and what we now think of as rape or sexual assault didn’t quite mean the same thing in that age of sexual awakening,” Fine said. What some teachers did “was wrong, absolutely, but there are degrees of wrongness, and what was wrong in 1966 is today much more wrong. I can’t imagine that in the late nineteen-sixties anyone would have been terribly surprised had they learned that some faculty were having sexual relations with students. Most would not have thought it good, but it was the way of the world.”
Fine said that Berman “probably influenced me more for the better than any other teacher,” sharpening his writing, deepening his thinking, and opening him to beauty. Fine, who devotes his scholarship to scandal and reputation, said that his time in that secluded classroom informed his ideas about influence: “If you’re a powerful person and you do things that others respond to because of your power, you may convince yourself that they really love you and this is between two equals.” Still, he finds himself thinking about Berman and the other teachers as “men in the twilight of their lives,” he said. “Even if they did something wrong, at some point revenge or justice becomes unseemly. At what point do you say, ‘Let it rest’?”
In 1983, around the time that Berman moved to Tuxedo Park, some of his former students received invitations to purchase “a limited subscriber’s edition of a monumental novel.” It was Berman’s magnum opus. For many alumni, the book—a four-hundred-and-eighty-three-page volume, beautifully published by a former Berman student—is the only window they’ve had onto their mysterious teacher. “His whole universe of mishegoss is in there—the art, the music, the literature, the sex,” a college professor who has spent many years trying to figure out Berman says.
The book, titled “Shepherd’s Trade,” is dedicated to “B., whom I love,” a reference to Berman’s housemate Bob Simon. It begins with an “Avviso,” a note to readers: in it, Berman suggests reading one chapter at a time and then rereading it side by side with a thinner volume, “What It’s All About,” that accompanied the novel, in a boxed set. The companion book is a sort of concordance, ninety-seven pages of notes and dozens of plates of art work. Berman warns that an “occasional item . . . might seem . . . pedantic; but, then, pedantry seems only the (ineluctably hazardous) conjunction of one who does try to inform and one who finds or thinks himself already knowing or wishes not at all to know.”
The novel is an encyclopedia of literary and artistic references, to “Hamlet” and Wordsworth, Melville and Dickens, Keats and Rilke, Frost, Dickinson, and Gilbert and Sullivan, too. The narrative begins with a riff on guilt. “Guilty, in the averment of this jury of peers, and of a certainty. . . . To ‘rational’—‘reasonable’—observers doubtlessly he did seem guilty . . . and surely censurable in grand measure.” The protagonist, Robert, is a young man, an odd-looking, rigid colossus who harbors a “vast abundance of love.” He is violently separated from his parents—his father catches his mother with her lover, brutally kills them both, and then slips away in a car—and in their absence he concludes that “nothing matters.” He has an ecstatic encounter with an ancient Greek vase.
Although the book is for the most part incomprehensibly dense, it is at times rich in fantasy and longing, with scenes suggesting transformative sex—a way, the narrative suggests, for Robert to achieve his dream of entering “the titanic other.” In one of its few emotionally resonant scenes, Robert finds his great love in Lawrence, a young man whose victory at an art auction is the climax to a chapter that ends, “For I have loved strangers, and after them I will go.” Berman’s notes explain that the line refers to Jeremiah 2:25, and instruct readers to “know it well.” In the verse, a lapsed believer is chastised for pursuing false gods, and replies that it is too late for him to correct himself. Elsewhere in the book, Robert says, “I love God. And a demon also, a stranger.” He adds, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Those who admired Berman, and those who said that he had abused them, pored through the book in search of clues. “If you’ve created such a mystique about yourself, there’s virtually nothing you can write,” Watson, the U.C.L.A. professor, said. “You almost have to hide in impenetrability. The possibility of being just another human being becomes almost disgraceful.”
Last fall, lawyers representing about thirty survivors of abuse, including Gene, Fife, Seiger, and the bond trader, began negotiating with Horace Mann about compensation. On March 11th, a mediator started a two-week session with the alumni, lawyers for both sides, the school’s insurers, and members of Horace Mann’s board of trustees. The board’s chairman, Steven Friedman, told the group that the school would do what it could to express its regret.
The boys are middle-aged men now, thickening and growing bald. As they gave their accounts, the room filled with a heavy silence. Lawyers for the alumni named more than a dozen teachers as abusers, accompanying their presentation with photographs of the alumni as teen-agers at Horace Mann. In the following days, each former student spoke. The experience was at once cleansing and harrowing; the men were turning for help to the same authority that, years before, had spurned their attempts to tell their stories.
Near the end of the second week, Horace Mann offered a financial settlement, with payments ranging from less than ten thousand dollars to more than a hundred thousand, depending on how badly the students had been abused and on whether they had alerted school authorities while they were still teen-agers. Even though some of the accusers were disappointed by the lower offers, which they believed would barely cover their legal fees, a small group, represented by the attorneys Kevin Mulhearn and Michael Dowd, tentatively agreed to settle. Some who received larger, six-figure offers also were leaning toward accepting them. According to several people working with the alumni, the mediation soured for a time when the school, eager for good publicity, disclosed the smaller settlements to the Times, despite a media blackout that both sides had agreed to. (Horace Mann had no comment on the mediation.) Gloria Allred, the lawyer who represented the majority of the accusers, including all of the Berman cases, joined the other attorneys in pushing for an apology and an investigation. Before negotiations ended for the week, on March 22nd, the school agreed to issue a letter of apology, according to two people familiar with the talks, and also to remove a number of emeritus trustees, some of whom had been on the board when abuse was reported. These concessions have to be approved by the full board of trustees, which will meet in April.
Whatever settlement the school and its alumni may ultimately reach, the students Berman singled out for attention say that he will remain a part of them. “For years, I dreamed about him,” Stephen Fife said. “I was terrified of meeting him in a museum.” Fife wrote for theatre and film, finished a novel. He got married and divorced, and then had a child with another woman, but that relationship broke up, too. The memory of Berman was always present. Several times, Fife found himself on a bridge, contemplating death. A couple of years ago, when Fife, driving his 1987 Mercedes on I-10 in L.A., hydroplaned across the lanes and crashed, he felt that he should have died.
Gene, too, still hears echoes of Berman’s voice almost every day. He has Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a favorite of Berman’s, on his iTunes playlist. In his apartment, he has a painting by Robert Kipniss, an artist Berman admired, as well as two boxes full of postcards of Renaissance paintings that Berman encouraged him to collect.
“People don’t understand,” Gene told me. “People think of child abuse as a moment in a shower, like Sandusky. They don’t think of it as essentially abducting and brainwashing. This was a cult of art, literature, and music, a cult that was revered in some circles. And being in a cult is seen as a sign of weakness.” Once a week, Gene goes to a meeting of adult survivors of childhood abuse. Others attend for a few months and move on. Five years later, Gene is still going.
Gene wants Berman to be held accountable. Yet he knows that some mystery will always remain. At one of their first conferences, in tenth grade, Berman gave Gene a small bronze Porcellino, Pietro Tacca’s Baroque sculpture of a piglet, which has become a common souvenir of Florence. Despite everything, Gene holds on to that pig. “This meant that somebody loved me, and nobody had ever shown me that before,” Gene says. “It’s a conundrum. Why don’t I just drop it in the garbage right now? It’s part of me, part of my life. I guess I’ll be done with it when I don’t need somebody’s love.” ?