Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Frauds and Phonies, Cult Leaders and Abusers



There's a scene in the novel Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield is taken in by a teacher who appears to be trying to comfort him and offer him refuge, when in fact this teacher tries to molest him.  There are more than a few real life characters like that, men who can only be described (as Caulfield describes them) as phonies.

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This long New Yorker article on a man named Berman who is alleged to have been a sexual abuser and a kind of cult leader is hard to read.  It's hard to read because I had a mentor who, in the 1970's, was also a kind of cult leader and who was said to have abused a number of girls over the course of his career, and who, like the English teacher described in the New Yorker article, used his charismatic personality and a penchant for mind games to fascinate and manipulate his fawning followers.

But it's helpful to read things like this for at least one reason.

Some men are simply frauds.  Sometimes it's good to realize that certain authority figures are not the least bit interested in exercising their authority for the good of others, but for their own sordid and sick interests.  This can be true with priests and bishops, and it can be true for English teachers and cult leaders.  In the same way that some abusive priests don't give a fig about God except in so far as He can serve as a cover for their behavior, some dilettantes don't give a fig about art or literature except in so far as it can make them feel superior to others and control them.

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 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 help us understand the art, the people who made it, or the world." 

To write to a student named Rosenberg the comment, "Why did Hamlet not regret the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?" is a way of saying, "You mean nothing to me.  You are a minor player.  I am a genius and a genuine and authentic man, one of the leaders, a prince.  You are a petty bourgeois twit.  You are worthless and in the great plot of life where only great men thrive and penetrate one another's greatness (in more ways than one), you deserve to die."

Worse than that, Berman's response to the devastation he is alleged to have left in his wake is to blame the victims.  When they look in the mirror and see how they've failed as human beings, they claim that Berman sexually abused them so as to take the sting out of their miserable second-rate existences and the shameful failures they have become.  Or so he claims.

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The young men at Berman's high school were not unlike the victims of sexually abusive priests and enabling bishops.  The students were hungry for meaning, for authority figures who could guide them, and they were eager to find father-figures, older and allegedly wiser men who seemed to have the keys to the mysteries of life.  The most vulnerable among the students were, they claim, preyed upon by the school's priestly caste, by Berman and other faculty members, who then blamed them for their own abuse.

And it is not the abuse of the body that hurts as much as the abuse of the soul.  Berman may or may not have gotten inside the bodies of his students, but he certainly got inside their heads, sometimes for a lifetime, and while he may have excited an interest in art or literature, he did not channel that excitement toward the end for which it is designed: an understanding of and an appreciation of life and love, man and God.  Instead, art and literature are used as a weapon against others, a gate to keep the rest of the world out, a tool to mislead and seduce, a closed circle for circle-jerks.  Many of us use God in the very same way.