Power. That’s what it’s all about, insist the bad-mouthers these days. The abuse of power. At one time they would bang on about the “innocence” of childhood, but that doesn’t play too well when talking about kids into a double-figure age or their early teens.
Bullshit. It’s not about power, it’s about the physical dimension of love, which inspires benevolent and nurturant feelings. That’s always been my response, based mainly on my own introspection and knowledge of really nice guys who are attracted to children, and a few women too.
But a few inconvenient realities have been insinuating themselves into my consciousness lately which have obliged me to concede there is an issue for serious discussion. The clincher for this as a blog topic right now is an article in The New Yorker this week called “The Master”. It is one of those enormous feature-length (nay, novella-length) pieces of prestigious reportage in which this journal specializes: around 13,000 words on the fresh and previously unexplored (hardly!) issue of child sexual abuse.
I groaned inwardly, I must admit, at the thought of having to tackle this “must read” saga, but I’m glad I gritted my teeth and got on with it. And to save you the trouble of doing the same (unless you are particularly masochistic!), here’s the gist. The strap-line is as good a start as any: “A charismatic teacher enthralled his students. Was he abusing them?” The teacher in question, now an old man who (sensibly enough) has declined to talk The New Yorker, wasn’t even mentioned last June when the New York Times Magazine published extensive allegations of sexual abuse at the private, expensive, and very highly rated Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York, by several teachers decades ago, leading to a police investigation. Under state law the offences fell afoul of the time limit for prosecutions, so no charges have been laid. As with the Savile case in Britain, though, publicity resulted in many more “victims” coming forward, armed with lawyers and seeking compensation (what a surprise!) from around a dozen teachers who allegedly perpetrated abuse. The school is said to have agreed terms recently and is ready to offer an apology.
So far, so ordinary. But the career of the “charismatic” teacher on which Marc Fisher’s story for The New Yorker focuses is anything but. Fisher is himself a former student at the school, having been in the Class of 1976, which is when he encountered a teacher of English called Robert Berman, an “odd, secretive man who frightened away many students, yet retired to a house that former students bought for him”. Fisher says, “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…”
What this “extraordinary control” amounted to, as we hear in immense and very convincing detail, is that Berman was a demanding and psychologically domineering teacher. Some boys at what was then an all-boys school, steered clear of the guy: they were allowed to opt out of his class, and Fisher was one of those. But others, the so-called “Bermanites”, were mesmerized by his inspirational teaching: he inspired fear, but also immense respect and loyalty. Berman was unconventional: think Dead Poets Society, a film in which teacher John Keating dangerously urged his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Berman, like Mr Keating in the film, played so memorably by Robin Williams, was looked upon by the boys as a genius and a hero: “O Captain! My Captain!” they called Keating, and Berman inspired just that sort of sentiment.
Fisher’s allegation, of course, is that Berman became sexually involved with some of his boys. No great ethical problem in itself for us heretics, I would have thought: who better to be a boy’s lover, after all, than an inspirational teacher? Isn’t this the very ideal of mentorship in the “Greek love” model of pederasty? Except that Berman allegedly seized not only the day but the boys as well, often quite forcefully and without waiting for any sign of consent. He would make their compliance with his advances a test of loyalty: those who would not submit were deemed unworthy, fit only for disgrace, humiliation and rejection.
The really interesting point here, though, is that many of these boys did choose to submit, and kept going back for more. They might have had misgivings about the sex, but their worship of Berman outweighed any moral reservations or physical distaste. So did these teenagers (not little boys) become consenting participants, or were they truly victims of Berman’s power abuse? They could have chosen to leave Berman’s class, as many did. But many others stayed, including boys who got love and attention from Berman they did not necessarily get from their parents or anyone else, at a time when they needed it. So shouldn’t their choice to “go for it” be respected?
Even those who now, in middle-age, claim they were Berman’s victims seem ambivalent. Berman gave a boy called Gene a small bronze sculpture. Despite everything, Gene holds onto it to this day. “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.” Significantly, it is said that Gene only came to “realize” he had been abused after a therapist “helped him understand that he had never had a real relationship with Berman.”
Berman, not surprisingly, has denied that any of this happened. He may be telling the truth, but that not the issue here. The issue for us is what we think is right and good in such a situation. To my mind, by the way, this is not like Penn State, with which the Horace Mann School revelations have been compared. The “charismatic” figure in that case, football coach Jerry Sandusky, turns out not at all to have been the brutal abuser the prosecution sought to portray: he got a long sentence on the back of public outrage, but there was no evidence of rape in a shower room, as originally alleged, and even the “victims” had many good things to say about him.
Berman, by contrast, was plausibly a bit of a bastard; an inspired bastard but a bastard nonetheless. His cult-leader style had arguably produced the sort of fear-based loyalty we associate with Stockholm syndrome. But consider this: Berman and his ilk would be just as sinister even if there had been nothing sexual going on at all! We probably all remember nasty teachers of that sort: bullies, simply. Such people are not considered candidates for jail at all, so let’s keep a sense of proportion.
I do think there is a serious issue here, though, for those who cleave to the elitist Greek love model of the mentor, and the mentor’s unquestioned power: elitist pursuit of pedagogical excellence can be a marvellous thing, and one we have to some extent lost in the more egalitarian atmosphere of modern education, especially in the UK. But perhaps it needs to be blended with another concept borrowed, along with that of the mentor, from the Ancient Greeks: the philosophy of moderation in all things.
An element of leadership, and hero worship, can be tremendously positive, and none the worse for being sexually realized. But no one should monopolize a child’s life; there should be light and air in the classroom, both metaphorically and actually: it is more than coincidental that Berman papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through into his exclusive sphere of influence.
Another intense, dark, forcing-house of young minds is relevant here, another example from cinema: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from the novel by Muriel Spark. The eponymous Miss Brodie, played by Maggie Smith, is an inspirational teacher (motto: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life”) in the 1930s, who romanticizes fascist leaders such as Mussolini and Franco, with ultimately disastrous consequences for one of her girls. Miss Brodie is hugely manipulative, and there is lots of sexual intrigue, but not in terms of Miss Brodie’s interest in the girls: she has adult lovers. The point here is that the really dangerous thing is not sex but the excessive influence (the word power misses the mark) of an essentially reckless woman over her young charges. This is a danger for all adults who have close relationships with children, but perhaps it is a particular issue for advocates of intense personal mentorship, whether erotically charged and realized or not.