Horace Mann alum Marc Fisher has written a long, strange, and very sad story for The New Yorker about English teacher Robert Berman, whose decades-long career at the exclusive Riverdale prep school ended in 1979, when he left amid what current headmaster Tom Kelly says he “heard” were claims of molestation and sex with male students. Berman is certainly not the first Horace Mann former educator to have been accused of such behavior: A piece published in The New York Times Magazine last year, in which several alumni came forward with allegations of repeated sexual abuse by three teachers and coaches during the seventies, eighties, and nineties, led to the creation of a website where dozens of alumni shared similar stories about the men named in the article, as well as other past employees of the school — the vast majority of whom are now dead. But Berman (who has gone unmentioned in the Times’ subsequent stories about the new accusations that followed their original report) is still alive. At 78 years old, he lives upstate in a home purchased for him by former students who were part of a”cult” of young men who spent their high school years — and, in many cases, a great deal of time after that — obsessed with gaining his approval.
Fisher spoke to about a hundred alumni and former Horace Mann staff members about Berman, who “stood out for his extraordinary control over boys’ lives.” Described as “a small, thin, unsmiling man who papered over the windows of his classroom door” and wore dark sunglasses indoors, Berman was known as an extremely difficult teacher — an “enigma” and a “genius” whose classes were often only half-full because students tended to become so intimidated by him that they transferred out:
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.”
However, Berman’s emphasis on his supposedly exacting standards was often just a way of drawing in vulnerable kids in need of attention. One former student, Stephen Fife, told Fisher that he began spending one-on-one time with Berman after he told him that a tenth-grade English paper he wrote “indicated he could be the next Dickens.” Though Fife was disturbed when his teacher forcibly kissed him during a school trip, he continued to sign up “for every elective Berman taught.” During Fife’s senior year, Berman invited him to his apartment, where he found himself too scared to resist when Berman ordered him to pull down his pants and masturbate. When the boy became depressed after the encounter, he talked about it with another teacher, now dead, who told him that reporting Berman was “a fight you can’t win” and would endanger his chances of getting into a good college.
Another one of Berman’s victims, identified only as Gene, recalled that he was a B and C student without “any special talent” until “suddenly I was in this class and I stood out. He gave me A’s and talked about being noble, and I wanted that.” Berman soon began regularly inviting Gene to his apartment, where the teacher “would insist on oral sex, sometimes bathe him, masturbate him, and at times penetrate him, all in silence.” After graduating from Horace Mann, Gene started college at Columbia, though he felt “obliged to stay at Berman’s place” instead of his dorm. It wasn’t until his senior year that he “started to hang out with regular people” and abandoned his relationship with his old teacher.
Others never really got away: According to his friends and family, a Berman victim named Doug told a Horace Mann administrator (who has also since died) about the abuse, only to be told “to forget about” it. After graduating from Oberlin, he killed himself, leaving behind a note that said, “I don’t know how to deal with my disappointments, disappointing Berman.” In 1983, the former teacher moved into a $1.8 million house in New York’s Orange County paid for by two Horace Mann alumni, who lived there with him, along with another former student. One, an unnamed bond trader who identifies as straight, told Fisher that he “engaged in homosexual activities” with Berman starting when he was in 11th grade and his relationship with his parents was “crumbling.” While he lived in Tuxedo Park, Berman kept him on a restricted diet and beat him with a belt buckle. The trader left the house after four years, though he says that he’s spent the decades since “trying to figure out why he stayed so long.” He also said that while he’d considered suicide in the past, he’d decided against it “because I didn’t want [Berman] to outlive me. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who got everything he wanted.”
Another one of the housemates, Edward Leiter, didn’t leave until 1998, when he “met a woman and we decided that we would like to make our own house.” However, he’s still in touch with Berman, who he insists never showed sexual interest in his students. According to Leiter, those who have accused him of doing so “have constructed a desperately conceived reason, alignment of the stars — whatever — that explains and ameliorates the failure, emptiness, and misery they see before them.” The third man, a Berman “clone” named Robert Simon whose family believes he is “brainwashed,” still lives there.
When contacted by Fisher, Berman (who would only issue replies via fax because he said he was “very near death”) denied that he had ever abused anyone. Like Leiter, he speculated that his accusers are “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.” In response to a question about whether he believes he had any special influence over the kids he taught, he wrote, “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.” Unfortunately, Fisher’s investigation indicates that that’s anything but true.