Mr. X

The current issue of The New Yorker contains a very long article by Marc Fisher entitled “The Master.” It is a remarkable, scrupulous, and devastating account of many reprehensible actions of Robert Berman, a former English teacher at Horace Mann, a private school in New York City. The article alleges that in his career at the school, which started in the mid-1960s and ended in 1979, Berman sexually abused at least four of his male students. The parents of a fifth student, who committed suicide, have made similar allegations regarding their son. (The school only began admitting girls in 1975.) Berman, who is in his late 70s, denies the allegations. But the students independently told Fisher credible and strikingly similar accounts, and I cannot see any reason not to believe them.

I went to Horace Mann and Mr. Berman was my teacher. The student who committed suicide and one of the students who spoke to Fisher were my classmates. To tell you the truth, Berman was more than a teacher to me. It was nothing sexual, I hasten to say. To explain what “it” was, a good place to start is a passage in the New Yorker article. Fisher (who graduated from the school in 1976, five years after I did) writes:

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.”

Yes, but on the other hand no. I remember the omnipresent dark glasses (as well as the shaved head and the extremely imitatable monotone); I remember the great-man theory of art and literature, and the bordering-on-absurd pronouncements and rankings. I do not remember the chalk-grinding or the cruel disdain it seems to represent in Fisher’s tableau. In my recollection, Berman delivered his dicta with at least a little humor, some awareness of the hyperbole of it all. He had an unexplained hatred for Yale, which, as with his other eccentricities, we spun elaborate tales to account for. I applied there anyway, and I remember him once telling me (imagine a robot voice), “Mr. Yagoda, I would rather have you run over by a Mack truck than go to Yale.”

Mr. Berman’s schtick—kind of a Walter Pater-100-years-on-with-detour-into-late-Salinger kind of thing—was perfectly pitched to his audience. He told us to disdain any edition of Moby-Dick that didn’t include the hyphen, to avoid any edition of a Russian novel translated by “Constance Gar-nett” (the robot voice), to apply a specific brand of library tape to the binding of our Penguin paperbacks, that Leonardo (never to be referred to as “Da Vinci”) couldn’t be included on his mimeographed list of the 1,000 greatest humans in history because he was “off the human scale.” He happened to be right about all those items, but they basically represented a fan-boy’s view of literature. It resonated with a lot of us because we were right in the fan-boy demographic.

My classmate Rob Watson, now a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is quoted in the New Yorker piece, was smart enough to see through Mr. Berman while we were still in school. “Berman’s ‘greatest’ lists were fascinating at first,” he wrote me in an e-mail, “but they also seemed to start seeming an awfully crude and jejune way to respond to art.” Rob aptly calls Berman a “con man.” But I didn’t realize that, realize it fully, until reading Fisher’s article.

Instead, after graduating, I came to think of him as a kind of a Wizard of Oz showman, who, when it came down to it, didn’t have a great deal of substance to offer and covered up this lack with smoke and mirrors. This first hit home at the end of my freshman year—at Yale, as it turned out. I learned that Mr. Berman was about to publish a book on Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.” A whole book on a single poem! I put in an advance order at the Yale Bookstore, and remember picking it up with great anticipation. But Browning’s Duke was more or less a vanity publishing venture which, I quickly realized, wasn’t brilliant. In fact, it was ponderous and dull. (I still have my copy, though.)

The following year, for an “Introduction to Folklore” class taught by Bill Ferris, I wrote a paper called “The Folklore of Mr. X.” I tracked down a number of Horace Mann graduates from different years, and charted the (impressively varied) tales they had heard about Mr. Berman. One that came up a number of times was that his wife had been killed in a car accident on his wedding night, and that he had worn the sunglasses ever after in memoriam.

Nobody mentioned anything about sexual abuse, or sex. Nor did I have any inkling  of these transgressions till Fisher’s shocking revelations. Now, I have to reconcile the Berman who was an important and mostly positive influence on me with the predator portrayed in Fisher’s piece.

I think my path to doing so starts with absorbing the fact that, far from being brilliant, Mr. Berman was of no more than ordinary intelligence, exceptional only in the mystique he succeeded in creating around himself, and his shrewd and wicked manipulation of vulnerable kids. He wrote to Fisher:

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.

There you have the charlatan laid bare. The man who claimed to be the standard-bearer of greatness, the acolyte of Milton, Shakespeare, Browning: when he is called on to express himself in words, that man is opaque, pretentious, and banal.

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