The real lessons are between the lines

September 23, 1993|By Richard E. Vatz | Richard E. Vatz,Contributing Writer

Title: "Come Here: A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse"

Author: Richard Berendzen with Laura Palmer

Publisher: Villard

-! Length, price: 277 pages, $21

What are the lessons of a tragedy?

Richard Berendzen, former president of American University in Washington, was both the perpetrator and the victim of a tragedy. This self-absorbed autobiography, however, as poignant and sympathy-provoking as it is, irresponsibly focuses only on his own tragedy: his mother's sexual abuse of him. It

completely ignores the tragic consequences of the frightening obscene phone calls that he admits making to 10 to 15 women "who had placed ads in newspapers to provide child care."

Although Dr. Berendzen states that the fact that he was a victim of childhood sexual abuse does not excuse his crimes, he nonetheless repeatedly describes the terroristic phone calls as the result of a "compulsion" and "impulse"; moreover, he expresses anger at the implied betrayal of a former protege who had asked why he didn't resist the urge to make the calls. After being discovered, Dr. Berendzen maintains that the calls were made not for prurient purposes, but rather for "data gathering," an explanation that again denies or at least lessens his responsibility for his behavior.

Dr. Berendzen's account describes a horrendous home life in which his parents fought all the time. His mother was a psychotic, filled with wild fantasies and crazy perceptions, who for several years, beginning when he was 8, sexually abused him. Dr. Berendzen describes how she would call him into what (( became a dreaded location, "the middle bedroom," by issuing what became a dreaded demand: "Come here." She would then subject him to sexual abuse, which at first, at least, also included his father. The abuse ended, Dr. Berendzen reasons, at age 12 when he became too old to control.

Flashbacks about abuse

Dr. Berendzen describes the subsequent years in which through single-minded devotion to his studies and career, he both suppressed his past and became the quintessential rising young scholar. Dr. Berendzen describes how he experienced flashbacks of the sexual abuse, triggered by -- or at least correlated with -- his father's death. Additionally, the author contends, he became fascinated with the highly publicized case of the McMartin pre-school case in California in which a mother and son who ran the school were charged with child sexual abuse. Soon after, in 1987 and through to 1990, Dr. Berendzen made his obscene phone calls.

One of the women to whom Dr. Berendzen made repeated calls cooperated with the police to catch him, and his world fell apart. The rest of the book describes his resultant trials, humiliation and grief as he faced his family, members of the American University community, the press and, briefly noted, the criminal justice system.

A perfect psychiatric patient

He describes weeks of therapy at the Johns Hopkins Hospital's Sexual Disorders Clinic, meted out by what he sees as tough but beneficent psychiatrists. He becomes the perfect psychiatric patient as an unspoken quid pro quo for psychiatric exculpation: gains insight into his "mental illness," despairs over the ignorance of those who hold him morally culpable for his terroristic calls, and becomes a "recovered" mental patient who experiences "renewal" -- all of which provides the foundation for a successful life. The lessons he hopes to teach? The public needs to appreciate the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse, the problems and pathological behaviors it creates, and appreciate the need and effectiveness of psychotherapy for its victims.

Perhaps, but these "lessons" have been taught before and beg the critical questions that society must face regarding criminal behavior and personal responsibility. In fact, the most valuable lessons this book offers appear in the subtext, totally unrecognized by the author.

Richard Berendzen agonizes throughout much of this book: He agonizes with self-pitying, but moving pathos over the consequences of his detection to his own life and career. He further agonizes over the effects on his family and on American University, whose growth under his leadership gives him great pride.

But nowhere does he agonize about the effect that terrorizing phone calls detailing child sexual abuse could have on women charged with watching children, women who may have vulnerable children themselves. At times, this obtuseness presents itself as great irony: He becomes enraged at a man who had sex with an adolescent daughter and urged him to "think of the effect you may have had on her in later life." He is incredulous at others' "indifference" to the "long-term consequences" of their actions. Perhaps the greatest irony: When appearing on television, his greatest fear is that he might receive "hate calls."

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