Abused by a teacher? Decades later, what does justice look like?

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Horace Mann School
  • Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons
  • Horace Mann School
The time-honored way of writing a New Yorker exposé is to never raise your voice. Instead, pile one specific quietly on another until the reader is silently screaming.

In just this fashion, "The Master," the lead article in the April 1 New Yorker, considers the accusations made by former prep students at the Bronx's Horace Mann school that back in the 1960s and '70s they were sexually seduced by their English teacher. According to the accounts reported by the New Yorker's Marc Fisher, the teacher, Robert Berman, would pick out boys from unstable families, tell them they were brilliant and must live for their gifts, begin inviting them to his home, and at some point suggest they take their clothes off. Some of the relationships allegedly formed in this way lasted for years.

Fisher's story followed recent accounts of sexual abuse by other Horace Mann teachers during the same era. One of those teachers, Tek Young Lin, told the New York Times last year, "In those days it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong." It does now. The school is confronting its past, and the local district attorney has established a hot line for receiving confidential tips on staff improprieties.

Fisher was himself a Horace Mann student, class of 1976. He remembers Lin as "one of my favorite teachers," but Berman was another matter. Fisher tells us he was assigned Berman in tenth grade, sat through one class in which Berman compared the students to the piece of dropped chalk his heel was grinding into the floorboards, and transferred out. So did plenty of other students at the then all-male school. Yet many students who didn't bail remember Berman's class as transformative. Berman himself, still alive but long retired, denied to Fisher that any of the sexual misconduct he's accused of happened, and Fisher leaves us with room to doubt if we choose to. Few readers will choose to.

I read enthralled. Say what you will about the rebelliousness of adolescents, they can be putty in the hands of an adult who sniffs out their insecurities. I snickered as I read the following passage:

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"?'

He's contradicting himself! I told myself. How can a wrong be absolute yet not as wrong today as it was yesterday? And how does the unforgivable become more forgivable simply because time has passed? Time is always passing. Time doesn't reduce sin to anecdote.

Then again, was my catching Fine in this lapse more clever than smart? Fine teaches at Northwestern, just up the road. If I didn't like what he had to say, I could call him. And if I called him I should have something to challenge him with beyond don't be ridiculous! So I thought a little harder about what Fine said to Fisher, and came to the interesting conclusion that he had a point.

"Let it rest," or "let it go," isn't fashionable advice. Nobody likes giving a pass to someone who doesn't deserve one. But every day it seems we hear about victims of psychological abuse who we wish to God could somehow find a way to get on with their lives. To begin with, there's that vast pool of traumatized veterans of our most recent foreign wars. And what about disaffected Scientologists? The April 25 New York Review of Books carries Diane Johnson’s review of Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. "Wright includes numerous accounts of broken health, mental breakdown, and suicides among members and former members," Johnson tells us. "Many speak of feeling permanently damaged, or of needing years to 'heal.' . . . Many have made videotapes. . . .Their stories are strangely similar, a certain flat affect in itself testimony to the lasting effects of indoctrination and the effects of fear."

Marc Fisher offers his own examples from the Horace Mann student body. One is "Gene," a former Berman favorite who for the past five years has been going to weekly meetings of adult survivors of childhood abuse. He's one of several Horace Mann alumni who have hired attorneys to help them seek compensation from their alma mater. Yet Fisher notes Gene's ongoing confusion. For instance, he still hangs on to a small bronze piglet from Italy that Berman gave him in tenth grade. "This meant that somebody loved me," Gene explained, "And nobody had ever shown me that before. . . . It's part of me, part of my life, I guess." On Gene's iTunes playlist is a Mahler symphony that was one of Berman's favorites. On his apartment wall is a painting by an artist Berman admired.

Don’t wallow in the past is risky advice because when it isn't the right thing to say it could be harmfully wrong. One thing I'm pretty sure of is that when new syndromes are described and named they become contagions. Neurasthenia, fashionable in the early 20th century, passed out of vogue as depression swept in, and for a time in the 1980s and '90s depression was widely held to be a telltale sign of sexual abuse during childhood that had been totally repressed. Sympathetic therapists went to work on discontented patients, notably women who could not put a finger on their sadness, certain that the teasing out of buried memories of abuse was sound science and could and should lead to legal action and criminal penalties. Countless families were destroyed and reputations disgraced before reason gained the upper hand and that tide went out. I wrote sympathetically (for instance, here and here and here) about anyone who challenged the doctrine of repressed memory. To me it was pernicious madness.

I wrote Professor Fine and said I was interested in learning more about his views on changing moral standards and letting the past go. "Is ex post facto intolerance the price we pay for our moral evolution?" I wondered.

Fine wrote back to say he'd been "bombarded with comments" on the New Yorker article, "some favorable, others not." He'd written a short essay that he believed clarified his position, and he sent it along to me.

1) Instances of sexual contact between adults and minors, particularly when located within institutions, are inevitably acts of power. It may be that the adult convinces himself (or herself) that it is truly equal love, but that belief is false and wrong.

2) Attitudes towards social relations (and, in this case, crimes) change over time. Perhaps the most dramatic example concerns homosexuality. At the time we are talking about homosexual acts were criminal, today a majority of citizens support marriage equality. And attitudes toward sexual relations between adults and adolescents have changed. They were always wrong, but in the past several decades, we have become much more sensitive to the harm caused by these relations. Surely our attitudes to particular crimes change over time (marijuana? drunk driving?) No one understands this better than Catholic priests. Mr. Fisher points to scandals at other private schools, and one wonders in how many parishes did similar scandals occur. But they were not reported because it was believed that those in power did not consider them important or if they were reported nothing was done. This has changed. Of course, these actions were perpetrated by a minority of teachers and priests, but their institutions were willing to tolerate the actions and turn away from investigating. It was never 'OK', but it is taken much more seriously today. To me this is so obvious as to be an embarrassingly mundane comment. And I have no doubt that attitudes will continue to evolve in ways that I cannot predict. However I imagine that in 2050 there will be issues that are generally seen one way that we now see another. And our grandchildren will be quite certain of their beliefs as we are of ours. Perhaps in some absolute sense the actions remain as right or wrong, but they are treated in particular ways because of our changing beliefs.

3) We institute statutes of limitations on crimes for a reason. Memories fade. And Fisher makes clear that some of the things that these men believe are factually wrong. And of course Robert Berman vigorously denies the charges (I was not aware of that when I spoke with Mr. Fisher). I pointed out that I don't doubt the charges, but by the same token I have no knowledge of what actually transpired. After 40 years, well after the statute of limitations, we are unlikely to find a definitive answer. However, on Easter afternoon [when I wrote this], perhaps we can agree that soon enough St. Peter will sort it out if Robert Berman belongs purgatory or further down. For now I believe that these men should recognize the good that they [Berman's targets] themselves have done and, as I said, let it rest. Most of us have had moments of pain in our lives—abusive fathers, alcoholic mothers, a sister killed on 9/11, a brother paralyzed in Iraq. These pains—or those of these students—cannot be forgotten, but we must try not to define ourselves by the most painful things in our lives.

4) There was a fourth point, not in my section of the article. This is the fact that it is entirely appropriate to investigate the Horace Mann School. The school has responsibility for protecting its students. If they had reason to know of these activities (of any of the teachers) and did not act in a morally and legally appropriate action, their responsibility remains. Parents and children believed that the administration was operating with due diligence. There is a charge that a headmaster (now deceased) engaged in some forms of sexual abuse. If true, this is important, not because I would want to persecute a deeply flawed person, but because he represented the school as an institution. We should not focus on these old men, but on the actions of the school.

I wrote back with a few more questions, and Fine called me. We briefly went over the ground this post has covered so far. He's also a repressed-memory skeptic, though not quite as skeptical as I am. And when repressed memory stopped being the explanation du jour for all that ails us, he offered his thoughts on what succeeded it. "It was replaced by food allergies," said Fine.

But as for retroactive intolerance . . .

"I think we need a certain generosity of spirit," he said. "Let's take the case—let's use something historical, maybe not so historical in some ways. Let's talk about traditional slavery. If you go back to the 1750s, slavery is largely taken for granted by white landowners and by the white society in general. By 1850, slavery is still legal but it's increasingly recognized as a moral outrage. In the 1930s and '40s it was taken for granted that young people would smoke cigarettes. In the 1950s we began to have research on smoking. In the '60s we had the surgeon general's report, in the 1970s rules about smoking on airplanes. Onward and onward. It's not that you can choose one date—it's a process. But at a certain point there comes a moral consensus."

As to the matter at hand, teachers seducing students . . . "Of course it's wrong," said Fine. "I'm not defending these kinds of relationships. It was wrong in the 1960s. No one would come out and say 'I'm sleeping with my students.' But society then did not have the same need for rules, regulations, mandatory reporting laws, teacher training, et cetera." In other words—if I may risk putting my words in Fine's mouth—it was a wrong that in the 1960s society did not resist with anything resembling today's urgency. "I was there at Horace Mann and I didn’t know any of this was going on," Fine told me. "There was certainly this culture of silence. I couldn't say whether these individuals have been tormented continually for 40 years—or were they disturbed, upset when it happened and kind of forgot about it? I don't know. For me, Berman was a strange man. He was not the right person for everyone. He was a weird person, but a compelling person in terms of what he was teaching. I can say I'm a much better writer because of being in his class. But I was never one of the Bermanites."

And you knew there were Bermanites?

"Oh, sure."

I suggested to Fine that judging Berman's behavior 40 years ago by today's moral consensus could lead some of us to judge Fine as well for his obliviousness to what Berman allegedly was up to. Parsing the word finely, Fine protested. "It wasn't that I was oblivious back then," he said. He was unaware. He had no reason to know or duty to know. "The obliviousness in the 60s would have been to those people in charge of the school who had the duty to know. If Fisher can be taken seriously—and I assume he can—at various points parents came to the administration and said 'This is going on' and the administration took no action. That's the core issue. The school doesn't become a man in the twilight of his life."

Fine reminded me that Northwestern is also an institution under an obligation to confront its past. John Evans, a founder of the university in 1851 (Evanston is named for him),was governor of the Colorado Territory at the time of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, when more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapahoe, many of them women, children, and the elderly, were slaughtered by Colorado militiamen. Evans was asked to resign as governor in 1865, but he remained chairman of Northwestern's board of trustees until 1894. "The university let him stay on, and accepted his money—a lot of money," said Fine. In February, under pressure from students—pressure Fine applauds—Northwestern formed a committee to study this early chapter in its history and measure its moral culpability.

At this date, what can possibly be done? I wondered. "You can provide a fund for Sand Creek survivors to go to college, or the children of the Arapahoe and Cheyenne," Fine said. "You can have a lecture series on campus. You can hire more native faculty. You can have some kind of annual ceremony. These are all ideas that have come up—because there's no statute of limitations for institutions."

But what about Gene? I said. Horace Mann may have a lot to answer for, but it's not the school that is still messing with his head. It's Robert Berman. "The question is, where do you go for justice?" Fine replied. "Do you go to the door of an 80-year-old, or do you go to the door of an institution that had an obligation to protect you and didn't do it? He deserves justice, and Horace Mann can provide it. I gather the school has made a settlement with a group of plaintiffs, which means they recognize they didn't act properly, or if it went to court they'd lose."

We wondered if this collective action by former students was an unalloyed benefit to them all. Did it reinforce an idea they'd been permanently damaged by predatory teachers at Horace Mann even though some had not previously felt they were? We had no way of knowing.

After hesitating a beat, Fine decided to share something with me. "Berman actually, for a period of time, tutored me in Russian. In his apartment."

And nothing happened?

No, said Fine. Nonetheless, when Berman came under attack from other alums, Fine recognized a financial opportunity. He told himself, "If I say something happened in his apartment, maybe something would come my way."

Fine resisted the temptation. But did your own benign memories make you skeptical of the other students' claims? I asked.

No, he said again. "The argument Fisher is making is that Berman was manipulative and looked for those students who were at difficult points in their family relationships. My dad was a psychiatrist, and my parents were together. I would not have been a good target."

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