ONE DAY RICHARD BERENDZEN WAS AMERICAN UNIVERSITY'S CELEBRITY PRESIDENT. THE NEXT DAY HE'D RESIGNED IN DISGRACE-AND STARTED SEARCHING FOR THE REASONS WHY.
After the fall -- after he resigned his job as president of American University, after he spent 25 days at a clinic for sexual disorders, after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of making obscene telephone calls -- Richard Berendzen started picking through the wreckage of his life.
One June weekend, he and his wife, Gail, went to his office at AU and began digging through the things he'd accumulated in 10 years as president. He had planned to be brutal, to purge relentlessly, to throw out as much as possible. But it wasn't easy. Packing up the papers, books and mementos released a flood of memories, nostalgia and sadness.
"It all adds up to a lot of pain," he said a few days later, "a lot of pain."
He was sitting now in his living room, gazing at some of the things he couldn't bear to toss out. He picked up a scrapbook that his AU colleagues gave him last January, at a celebration of his 10th anniversary as president. The first picture showed him in academic robes, standing beside Walter Cronkite. "This is my inauguration." He flipped through the pages, to pictures of himself with students, with parents, with alumni, with his daughter Natasha, with three Supreme Court justices, with Jeane Kirkpatrick, with the Dalai Lama.
"This was very moving for me to dig out the other day," he said.
He put the scrapbook back on the coffee table, then picked up another 10th-anniversary souvenir -- a proclamation from the Faculty Senate in beautiful calligraphy. "It's very nice," he said, and he started reading aloud from it, skimming quickly, hitting the high points: " '. . . distinguished president of American University . . . serving with balance, energy, keen intelligence . . . high vision of excellence . . . to raise American University's status . . . world-class academic institution . . . high standards . . .' and so on and so on. I just thought this was exceptionally gracious of them to do . . ."
He put the proclamation down. His voice was flat and unemotional, but his eyes were wet. "Excuse me," he said as he dabbed them with a forefinger.
"Oh, the accolades were coming very thick a few months ago with the 10th anniversary . . ."
ACCOLADES AND APPLAUSE, TRIBUTES and gifts: Berendzen's 10th-anniversary celebration was a heady affair.
"Praise flowed freely," reported the Eagle, AU's student newspaper, describing the official reception in Bender Arena. A thousand guests watched a slide show on the president's accomplishments and then listened as he delivered a witty, modest, charming speech, the kind of speech that had led some people to say he was the best orator they'd ever heard. Afterward, the receiving line stretched right out the door, as hundreds of students, faculty and alumni waited to shake his hand. This was on January 19, the day after Mayor Marion Barry was arrested, and several people suggested as they shook Berendzen's hand that he ought to run for mayor.
Berendzen laughed and said he wasn't interested, of course, but the suggestion was not competely absurd. For years there had been speculation -- at AU, around town and in the press -- that he wanted to become secretary of the Smithsonian or secretary of education. It certainly seemed as if he was running for something. A fixture on the Washington party circuit, Berendzen could work a room with the best of them, shaking hands, charming strangers, making contacts. He hit the hustings like a politician, speaking all over the country, to teachers, to students, to anybody who wanted to hear him -- 1,200 speeches during his presidency. He was ubiquitous in the media, writing dozens of articles and appearing on more than 1,000 TV and radio talk shows -- chatting with everybody from Ted Koppel and David Brinkley to Phil Donahue and Robin Leach. He was a joiner too, a member of literally dozens of professional groups, boards of directors, social clubs, commissions and
Meanwhile, all the speeches, all the media appearances, all the organizational affiliations were
recorded in mind-numbing detail in a bound volume titled "Professional Resume for Richard Berendzen," a fat document that grew ever more absurdly obese -- from 45 pages in 1980 to 83 pages in 1985 to more than 150 pages by 1990.
The man in the re'sume', the public Richard Berendzen, was a brilliant teacher, a tireless administrator, an inspiring orator, a hard-driving crusader for educational reform. But there was another Richard Berendzen, as yet unknown to anyone, a tormented man with a secret he never told a soul, a man driven to telephone people who advertised that they provided child care in their homes, to lead them into detailed discussions of incest and child abuse and grotesque fantasies of the fictitious sex slave he claimed he
kept caged in his basement.
Then -- about 11 weeks after that glorious anniversary celebration -- Fairfax County police traced the calls placed by the second Richard Berendzen to the office of the first Richard Berendzen. Confronted with the proof of his double life, Berendzen resigned. Scared, confused and desperate, he checked himself
in to the Sexual Disorders Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"As we were driving to Johns Hopkins," his wife recalls, "he kept saying, 'I don't understand. I'm so sorry. I
don't understand.' "
At Hopkins, he remembers telling the doctors: "I will
do absolutely anything you ask. I'll take any test, if you'll just help me." "61 . . . 60 . . . 59 . . . 58 . . . 50?"
Richard Berendzen had lost control. Counting down from 100, he could not remember what number came next. Eyes shut, he was lying in a darkened room at Hopkins with an intravenous line dripping 500 milligrams of sodium amytal -- the so-called truth serum -- into his arm.
The doctors had told him that sodium amytal would remove the natural inhibitions of his conscious mind. They told him that it would feel like being very, very drunk. But in his entire life, Berendzen says, he had never been drunk. The total amount of alcohol he'd consumed in his 51 years would not fill a beer mug. He didn't like the taste, and, besides, he didn't want to get high: "I wanted," he says, "to be in total control of my own feelings."
But now he had lost it. He was sweaty and woozy and groggy. All he wanted to do was sleep, but a voice kept saying, "Wake up!" And the psychiatrists who surrounded his bed kept bombarding him with questions. Days earlier, after countless hours of interrogation, he had told the doctors the secret he'd sworn to himself he'd never tell anyone, the secret about how he'd been sexually abused as a child. Now, they were battering him with questions about it, demanding all the details, probing, trying to determine if he was telling the truth. He wept as he answered, and the voice he heard coming out of his mouth didn't sound like his. It was sloooooooow and thiiiiickkk,
like a record played at the wrong speed. And from the darkness around his
bed, the questions kept
coming . . .
Finally, the questions stopped. He conked out. He slept for a few hours, and then a nurse woke him and
told him it was time for group therapy. Still groggy, he staggered down the hallway and slumped into a seat among the child molesters and the rapists and the exhibitionists who were his fellow patients.
"And this doctor suddenly riveted me to the wall -- wham! -- with these questions and everybody's staring at me and he's going back to all these things when I was a kid. And the first thing that jolted me was: How the hell does he know that? How does he know it? And then I realized that four or five hours earlier he must have asked me about that during the sodium amytal interview. And I must have said something. But I couldn't remember it."
Later, the doctors let him listen to a tape of the amytal interview, and he realized that not only had he told them about events that he would never have revealed undrugged, but he'd also told them about events that he'd totally forgotten.
"God, that was an amazing experience," he says, sounding as if he is still slightly stunned. "I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I was more of a hostage to my own past than I'd ever dreamed."
HE WAS A SICKLY BOY, STRICKEN WITH rheumatic fever and asthma.
The asthma was bad enough that a doctor in Portland, Ore., told his parents that he'd never improve until they moved to a hot, dry climate. So the family -- it was just Richard and his parents, Earl and June -- moved to Dallas, where Earl got a job as manager of a hardware store. Too sick to go to kindergarten or first grade, Richard spent three years in bed, listening to the radio, or to stories his mother read him, or staring at the ceiling, pretending that the shadows were people or buildings or trees. This was the early 1940s, the war years, and in his imagination the sheet draped over his knee became a mountainous battlefield for his toy soldiers.
Once a week, his mother summoned the neighborhood kids to play in her front yard and permitted Richard to get out of bed and spend half an hour sitting in his pajamas on the sofa watching them. It sounds pathetic now, he says, but at the time he looked forward to those days, to the fun of watching other kids have fun.
He also loved to watch the stars. There were thousands of them in the huge Texas sky and he'd lie on his back in the grass and stare out, wondering, Is the sky endless or is there a boundary out there somewhere? Are we the only beings who are, or ever were? He'd rush inside to ask his parents, but they didn't know.
At 8, he went to school for the first time, starting his education in the second grade. It was a confusing time. One day the teacher said, Okay, all the Redbirds go over to this side of the room and the Bluejays go over there. And he sat there wondering which he was. He was neither, of course; he was a newcomer, and he felt as if he were miles behind all the other kids. How could he ever catch up? How could he compete? He'd have to work twice as hard, he decided, and he did just that. But he never really felt confident until he was in high school.
The sexual abuse began when he was 8, he says, and became more intense when he was 11. It was, says Paul McHugh, the doctor who headed the psychiatric team that treated him at Hopkins, "as severe a sexual abuse as you can suffer for a limited amount of time -- a couple of years of his life -- as bad as it can get."
Berendzen won't publicly identify his abuser; he'll only say that she was a woman who was "very close" to him, and that the abuse occurred in his own home. He didn't know what was happening to him. Not one word was said during the whole process, not before, during or after. "It was troubling, confusing, humiliating, exciting, baffling, all at the same time," he says. " . . . I was puzzled, I was hurt, I was excited, I was traumatized. I cried . . ."
He didn't know who to turn to, so he turned to no one. He hid his secret inside him, and replayed the events over and over in his mind, trying to make sense of them. Why is this happening? he wondered. Why me? Why did this start? Does this happen to other people? Am I the only one? Is this the only house in America where this occurs? But these questions, like his questions about the stars, remained unanswered, unanswerable.
And then the events ceased, as abruptly and puzzlingly as they had begun. But the questioning went on. For years he'd spend hours wondering about it, asking himself questions he couldn't answer. Finally, he decided to stop worrying, to just forget it, to pretend it had never happened. That worked, more or less, at least for a time. "Then I decided that I would work terribly hard," he says. "If you work very hard, somehow you don't remember it anymore. And I learned after a while that if you work 60, 80, 90 hours a week, 100, you don't remember it."
This was in high school, and the work he threw himself into was school. He studied hard and worked after school shelving books in the public library. In the mid-1950s, Woodrow Wilson High School in East Dallas was a society dominated by quarterbacks and cheerleaders and cliques that didn't include Berendzen. "Richard was interested in academics, and a lot of us weren't," recalls a classmate. Frail, shy and bookish, he kind of "faded into the woodwork," says another. But the quiet boy who once feared he'd never catch up to his classmates was getting A's, earning honors, winning a scholarship that helped pay his way to Southern Methodist University.
What's the hardest subject? he asked the interviewer
Physics, the interviewer replied. That's the one everybody flunks out of.
So Richard Berendzen decided to major in physics.
"If they had said Chinese poetry, I might well have majored in Chinese poetry," he recalls. "It was something about testing myself, seeing what I could do. Some people climb a mountain, but for me it was to take on some sort of academic challenge. It's something about how pressure applied to coal produces diamonds. I felt that if I tried hard enough, I could achieve." IT WAS NOT A CAREFREE COLLEGE CAREER.
By the time Berendzen reached SMU, he had married his high school sweetheart, Barbara Edwards, and was soon to be a father. He was going to school full time, working part time at a hardware store and a library, and trying to raise a family. As if that weren't enough pressure, he was courting another challenge: He decided he wanted to transfer to MIT. That was the best school -- the toughest -- for a physics major. He got an MIT catalogue and tried to approximate the course load of an MIT physics major. Then he hit the books, got the grades and made the switch after his sophomore year.
Arriving at MIT, he felt the way he'd felt on that first day in second grade: Everybody else was way ahead of him. The other students all seemed to have come out of places like Exeter or Andover or the Bronx High School of Science, and Berendzen felt like a hick. If he was going to make it here, he figured, he had to study twice as hard as everybody else. He was also working 20 hours a week, so there was no time for making friends, no time for partying, scarcely time to sleep. But he persisted. And he succeeded. "I found that by staying up late enough," he says, "you can do it."
But the strain showed in his marriage. One afternoon in April 1960, near the end of his junior year, he walked home from class, stepped into his apartment and called out, "Hi!" But nobody was home, just a note from his wife saying that she was leaving and taking their daughter, Debbie, with her.
"Suddenly, I was left totally alone," he recalls. "I cried until I gagged."
He drove to Dallas, seeking a reconciliation, but failed.
Barbara Berendzen, who still lives in Dallas, declines to discuss that incident (or anything else) publicly. But in Berendzen's book, Is My Armor Straight? A Year in the Life of a University President, published in 1986, he recalled the trauma of the divorce:
"With final exams coming in May, I drove back to Boston and threw myself into my work. Because I had spent so much of my time studying, I had few friends. In bouts of melancholy, I sat alone at Revere Beach and watched the sun rise."
Distraught, he put off taking his finals, an act that postponed his graduation by a year. It was the first time -- and the last -- that he ever let anything slow him down.
ON THEIR FIRST DATE, GAIL EDGAR WAS CONVINCED THAT Richard Berendzen was the Boston Strangler.
That morning, the headlines screamed about the Strangler's latest victim, and the stories carried details of the crime: The Strangler wore black leather gloves and used a broom to torture his victims.
That night, Berendzen came to pick her up. He was a Harvard graduate student in astronomy and education. She was an undergrad at Wheelock College in Boston. They'd met briefly outside a Harvard mixer a week earlier, and he'd asked her to go out dancing. But now he didn't want to dance. Instead, he said he needed to go to the Harvard Observatory to study the sky for an astronomy paper due Monday. Did she mind?
She didn't. But as they drove farther from the city, she got suspicious. He turned off the highway and onto a little one-lane road and she noticed he was wearing black leather driving gloves. He turned onto a dirt road in the woods and she noticed that there was a broom in the back seat. Her heart pounded with panic. Should I jump out of the car, she thought, and run into the woods? Finally, they arrived at the observatory. Inside, he pushed a button. The dome opened, the telescope rose, and he showed her the universe.
He wasn't the Boston Strangler after all. He was a fascinating man who could explain the mechanics of starlight and the circuitry of the cosmos. All those questions he'd asked his parents about the stars -- he knew the answers now, and he loved to talk about them in language filled with awe and beauty. Gail was impressed.
"I fell in love with him that first night," she says.
In those days, he was just about broke. As a teaching assistant at Harvard, he was making about $1,500 a year, so they couldn't afford any fancy dates. Sometimes, after wandering around Boston, they'd stop in the Hays-Bickford cafeteria, where they'd stir ketchup into hot water to make a funky tomato soup. A lot of their dates were spent studying together. They'd hit the books, then go out for pizza at 2 in the morning. After that, she'd be ready to drop, but Richard would go right back to work. His energy and drive astounded her.
He wasn't like anybody she'd ever met. He had an amazing vocabulary and he talked about concepts she'd never thought about, like infinity. Petty things didn't bother him. He'd say, "Gail, in the scope of space and time, how important is this?" Not that he wasn't concerned with mere mortals. He was. One Saturday, he took her on a drive through parts of Boston that she'd never seen before, the poor ethnic neighborhoods -- Irish, Italian, black -- and lamented that most of the residents would never get a chance for a good education or the opportunity to see a wider world. Gail was only 20, a sheltered kid, and that was another thing she'd never thought about.
"I was fascinated by him," she says.
He was equally fascinated. "She was exceptional: pleasant, smiling and happy; attractive and sensitive; bright and challenging; and a bit shy," he wrote in Armor. "She was exactly right for me." In September 1964, after about a year of dating, he asked her to marry him.
They held their engagement party in the Harvard Observatory.
THE LIGHTS DIMMED AND THE MUSIC ROSE: "THIS IS THE dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age of Aquarius. Aquariuuuuuuuuuuuuus . . ."
College classes could get pretty strange at Boston University in the late 1960s, but this was really weird. Was this AS 101? Astronomy? With Berendzen?
The music dimmed and the lights rose, revealing Berendzen standing at the podium with a cone-shaped sorcerer's hat covered with astrological symbols. He turned off the music, took off the hat and launched into his annual lecture debunking astrology.
"He basically ripped astrology apart," recalls Murray Rosenblith, who took Berendzen's astronomy class in 1969. Astrology was superstition, Berendzen said, astronomy was science. And he made that science come alive. "Berendzen was a good lecturer, very humorous, very light-hearted," Rosenblith recalls, "but in terms of science he knew his stuff."
He loved teaching. At Harvard, where he earned a joint PhD in astronomy and education in 1968, he was, says retired professor William Liller, "without question the best teaching assistant I've ever had." At BU, where he joined the faculty in 1967, he was among the most popular professors. Flamboyant and theatrical, he infected his students with enthusiasm, even students like Rosenblith who merely wanted to fulfill a science requirement. Berendzen loved to take students to BU's little rooftop observatory, where he would wow them with the universe, just as he'd done on his date with Gail. He also wrote irreverent articles on the space program for the student paper, the News, which billed him as "News Astro-Prof."
In 1969, a group of BU students published a book evaluating every course at the school. It was an iconoclastic age, and the reviews got pretty scathing, but for Berendzen there was only praise:
"Professor Berendzen is a brilliant lecturer and makes the course. He is exciting, interesting and enjoyable to listen to . . . Don't take AS 101 with Professor Berendzen unless you are prepared to see all your preconceived notions about cold, calculating scientists dissolve . . ."
Years later, that review, like everything else in Berendzen's professional life, appeared as an item in Berendzen's incredible, expanding re'sume': "Recipient of some of the highest evaluations by students on quality of teaching ever collected at Harvard University, Boston University or The American University."
"IS IT THE HAZE," RICHARD BERENDZEN asked, "or is my mind growing foggy tonight?"
He was talking to his tape recorder. He did that every night after he finished work, usually at 1 or 2 in the morning. He was creating the diary that would later become his book, Is My Armor Straight? On this night, in January 1984, the president of American University was in a San Francisco hotel room, in the middle of a week of radio and TV interviews. Lonely, homesick and bored, he'd begun to doubt the dream that drove him to work day and night, weekends, holidays and what should have been vacations but weren't.
"I went to AU because I was attracted by the dream of a great national university in the capital city," he told his tape recorder. "But is the dream practical? Why devote my professional life to this singular pursuit? . . . I find it increasingly difficult to separate what is AU from what is me . . . Except for my family, I live for little else than the institution . . ."
Ever since he'd arrived in 1974, to take the job of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Berendzen had been a man obsessed with transforming AU. And, by all accounts, the place needed transforming. It was a college known more for its parties than its professors. Easy to get into and easy to slip through, it was a school attractive to students who wanted to earn a degree without much heavy lifting. The spirit on campus was pretty much summed up by a sweat shirt that featured a picture of the Zig Zag man -- symbol of pot smoking -- and the phrase "Camp AU."
"People were really ashamed about aspects of AU -- the parties, the drugs, the Frisbees," history professor Terence Murphy told the student paper last January. "It was a joke: 'Oh, you teach at AU? Ha ha ha.' "
"A lot of students felt AU was not a school to be taken
BERENDZEN continued from page 17 seriously," recalls alumnus David Eisner, who served in student government in the '70s and later worked as an aide to Berendzen. That blase attitude, he recalls, was "uniquely distasteful to Richard Berendzen."
Berendzen arrived with his dream of excellence and an amazing energy that kept him going 16 hours a day, and he charged right up the ladder -- dean in 1974, provost in 1976, president in 1980. Along the way, he shook the place up. He brought back formal requirements and mandatory competency exams for all students. He campaigned against grade inflation. He recruited prominent faculty. He eliminated departments he considered unsuccessful -- like the nursing school -- and expanded those he considered excellent.
"He convinced us, 'You just follow me and it'll happen,' " Valerie Morris, former chairman of AU's Faculty Senate, told Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein. "And one thing at a time, it happened."
One of Berendzen's reforms was a calculated gamble: In the early '80s, at a time when the pool of college-age Americans was shrinking, he raised admission standards, forcing administrators to turn away an unprecedented share of applicants. Many on campus thought it was folly, but Berendzen believed that he could recruit enough students to make up the difference. He did it with a relentless personal PR campaign. He traveled the country speaking to groups of teachers and students and appearing on any interview program that would have him, expounding on education or outer space or anything else that anybody wanted him to talk about.
Some professors complained that he was an egomaniac, a shameless self-promoter and publicity hound. And they were right: The man obviously enjoyed hearing himself talk. But this was the '80s, the golden age of shameless self-promotion. Besides, it apparently worked. As Berendzen became famous, so did AU. The applications rolled in, and the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen rose from 1,006 to 1,145. "The students got better and better," says Robert Beisner, former chairman of AU's history department, "and that had to do with Berendzen making himself a public figure. Berendzen on the stump is terrific. He's a great orator."
He was also great at working a party. Ironically, his campaign to erase AU's "party school" image caused Berendzen, a congenital wallflower and veteran teetotaler, to become a party animal himself. He and Gail dove into the Washington party circuit, frequently hitting two or three a night, trolling for people who might speak at AU, or serve on AU's boards, or, most importantly, donate money to AU. He met Georgie Anne Geyer, the syndicated columnist, on the coat-check line at an embassy party, and by the time he'd retrieved his raincoat, he'd dazzled her with his dream of a great university. Later, he persuaded her to serve on AU's board. He wooed Saudi wheeler-dealer Adnan Khashoggi at several parties, then flew to New York on Khashoggi's private jet to deliver a command-performance astronomy lecture for the billionaire. Berendzen named Khashoggi to AU's Board of Trustees, which caused controversy on campus, where some professors charged that it was immoral to take money from an arms dealer. But this was the '80s: Money talked and morality squawked. Besides, it worked. Khashoggi agreed to donate $5 million to build a sports and convocation center at AU -- a building named, needless to say, the Adnan Khashoggi Sports and Convocation Center.
Berendzen always said he hated the parties, that he dreaded walking into a gaggle of strangers. But he certainly loved to drop names of the rich and famous he'd met -- everybody from Ronald Reagan and Sandra Day O'Connor to Ed Meese and Mike Deaver to Farrah Fawcett and Phyllis Diller. "You've got to go where the wealthy people are," he told a reporter in 1986. And then he added what he always added: "But it is work."
Work obsessed him. Typically, he toiled from 9 to 6 or so, went home for dinner with his wife and their daughter, Natasha, then hit a few parties before returning to his office to work until well after midnight -- and he did that nearly every day. Subordinates grew accustomed to receiving memos dated December 25 or January 1. He almost never took a sick day or a vacation. One year, Gail took him to Rehoboth for a few days to a place with no phone, only to discover him in a laundromat, sitting atop a washing machine, making business calls. He was obsessed with time. He liked to explain it this way: The universe is 18 billion years old, the Earth is 5 billion, and he only had a few decades -- "a twinkling of time" -- to make his impact on it. "The question is: In your final days, can you say to yourself, 'I made a difference'?"
"He's just a workaholic," Gail says. He'd been that way as long as she'd known him, but in recent years, he'd gotten worse. She worried about him, and tried to get him to ease up. "I'd say, 'You're working too hard. Why don't you not go to this?' And he'd say, 'No, I can't do that. I have to go. I promised to go.' "
Most of the time, Berendzen was too busy to reflect upon his increasingly frenetic life, but sometimes, when he had a few spare moments, he worried about what he was becoming. Like that lonely night in the hotel room in San Francisco.
"I must maintain objective distance," he told himself and his tape recorder. "I must have a life beyond my job."
Somehow, though, he never got around to it.
IN JUNE OF 1988, BERENDZEN'S FATHER died.
Diabetic and nearly deaf, Earl Berendzen had been ailing for years, and his wife, June, was increasingly incapable of caring for him. "She floats in and out of understanding things," says Richard Berendzen, who asked that his mother not be interviewed for this story. Once, summoned by a relative who wrote that the old man wasn't doing well, Berendzen had flown down to help out. Now, he returned to Dallas to help make arrangements for the funeral.
Back in his childhood home, he stepped into the room where his father had suffered his fatal heart attack, which was, he says, the same room where he'd been abused as a boy.
"I just walked through the doorway and I looked," Berendzen says. "Six feet in front of me, I visualized him lying there alone at an early morning hour, dying, and somehow the young me there -- and it was like a 2-by-4 to the head."
The rush of painful memories flattened him against the wall. He stood there, stunned, reliving what had happened to him as a boy. These memories had come back periodically earlier, he says, but they'd never hit him with this visceral intensity. He stood there for a few minutes, sucking in air, then composed himself and staggered into the bathroom to throw some cold water on his face.
"He looked awful," Gail recalls, as pale as if he'd pulled a stopper out of his foot and let all his blood run out.
He didn't tell her what had happened, but in the next few weeks she noticed that something was bothering him. "He was in very big trouble," she says. "It was kind of like something bubbling in him and it wasn't going away." She worried that he hadn't really come to grips with his dad's death. Back home in Washington, she displayed some pictures of his father around the house, in the hope that they might help him to grieve. But he never had a catharsis. He just kept working harder and harder. "He was just filling his time with stuff," she says. "He started getting involved in more boards and more things, and a couple of times he said to me, 'I have so many things to do that I feel like my head is exploding.' "
What he didn't tell her was that he had started making some strange phone calls to people who had advertised that they provided child care in their homes. He'd call, pretend to be a potential customer and lead the conversation around to the subject of incest and sex with children. He had no idea why he was doing it, he says. "It was not a thought-out situation. It was sort of a compulsion, some deep, exceedingly deep drive, curiosity, yearning for an answer . . ."
At first, the calls were rare, he says, "very sporadic." Then, last winter, during a particularly stressful period when Gail was hospitalized for a hysterectomy, his compulsion got stronger, and he made more and more of his secret phone calls, which became increasingly bizarre.
"It was just some compulsion that said to me, 'Well, make a call. You've got 25 minutes free here before you have a meeting.' And it just happened."
After hanging up, he'd sit there in his Burberry suit, surrounded by books and documents, thinking, 'Why on earth did I do that? What does that have to do with my life? It's disgusting. I don't understand this.' And then he'd look at his schedule, and rush off to a meeting or an interview, too frenetically busy to try to make sense of his strange behavior.
"If somebody had put a gun to my head and said, 'Explain it,' I could not have done so."
SUSAN ALLEN GOT THE FIRST CALL ON MARCH 23, SHORTLY after her day-care ad appeared in The Washington Post.
Berendzen called himself John or Bob, she says. He claimed he was a gynecologist, that his wife was a psychiatrist, that they lived in McLean, that they had a 2-year-old son -- none of which was true. Then he started asking Allen if she had an "open family" . . . if she let her children sleep with her . . . if she allowed her children to see her naked.
"All of a sudden," she says, "it clicked: I have an obscene phone caller."
It wasn't the first time she'd had problems with a caller. A decade earlier, she'd received a series of threatening calls that had frightened her badly. Now 33 and married to a Fairfax County policeman, she immediately decided what she'd do: Instead of just hanging up, she'd play along, encourage him to call back and keep him talking long enough for the police to catch him.
"I answered his questions in the way I knew he wanted them answered," she says, "so that he would be satisfied, so that he would think he'd found his true love in this world and he would call back. And he did. He fell for it, hook, line and sinker. And he said, Would we include his child in our sexual goings-on in the house? And I said, Well, my husband's the head of the household, and he makes those decisions, and I'll have to talk to him. Next time I talk to you, I'll let you know."
By the time Berendzen called back, the next day, Fairfax police had installed a tape recorder and a call-tracing device on her phone. Over the next two weeks, the calls kept coming -- he talked to both Allen and her husband -- and the conversations, which sometimes lasted half an hour, got increasingly grotesque. He talked about child pornography, she says, about incest, about auctions of sex slaves, about a 4-year-old girl he claimed he kept caged in his basement.
"Filthy beyond your most horrible nightmares," she describes the conversations, "and 99 percent of it centered around children."
They were not your average obscene phone calls, says Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan, who studied the tapes. Most obscene callers get their kicks by spitting out a string of obscenities, Horan says, but Berendzen used very few. "I don't want to dignify the calls by saying they were sort of cerebral, but they were sort of cerebral," he says. "They were probing. They were essentially, 'We do a lot of togetherness, do you?' It was painful in hindsight to see him trying to get something out of the Allens. He obviously wanted them to throw a little fantasy his way. The conversations got stalled because he wanted them to talk about their experiences and they gave him a series of vague responses. He'd say, 'Did you ever do such and such?' And they'd say, 'Oh, yeah, yeah.' "
By early April, police had traced the calls to American University, and AU officials agreed to help, finally tracing the calls to the president's office. On April 6, AU attorneys listened to the tapes but did not identify Berendzen to the police. The next day, Berendzen was summoned to a meeting of AU trustees, who told him, in effect, that he'd been caught red-handed. Berendzen admitted that he'd made the calls and offered to resign.
Later that day, Berendzen made one final phone call to Susan Allen, a call that was not taped, Allen says, because the recording device had been removed from the phone. "He wished me a lot of luck because I was going to need it," she says. She interpreted that as a threat. The police disagreed, according to Horan. "Threat wasn't the term I'd use," says the prosecutor, who read the police report on the call. "But it was a very unusual phone call. He seemed to express his chagrin that their conversation would be reported . . . He seemed upset that anybody would call the police about something like this."
Berendzen, citing a lawsuit still pending on the case, declines to comment on the specifics of the call.
AT JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL, BERENDZEN KISSED GAIL goodbye and moved into a small, spartan room on the ward for patients with sexual disorders. At night he heard screaming down the hall, and he remembered, fearfully, that his door had no lock. He'd collapse into troubled sleep for an hour or two, then abruptly wake up and lie in bed, unable to to calm his churning mind.
He was bombarded by thoughts, all of them bleak. He'd ruined his life, he'd humiliated Gail and Natasha, he'd brought shame to the school he had worked tirelessly to transform. So many people had trusted him -- his family, his colleagues, the students at AU -- and he'd betrayed that trust. He'd let them all down. What would happen now? Would Gail leave him? Would Natasha hate him? What about AU? April is the month when next year's freshmen send in their deposits. Would they decide to go somewhere else, some school where the president wasn't a pervert? What would that do to the budget? The questions were endless, and endlessly depressing. His life seemed worthless, pointless, hopeless. All the work he'd done, all those hours he'd put in -- they were wasted. And why? Why did he make those calls? What was this bizarre compulsion? He couldn't figure it out. It had never occurred to him, he says, that the calls had anything to do with his abuse as a child. The thought had not even crossed his mind. So the whole episode left him baffled. What did it mean?
All night he would wrestle with unceasing questions, and then, in the morning, the psychiatrists would come and question him some more. They wanted to know everything about his life, especially his sex life. First there was one psychiatrist, then two, then a handful, and once there was a whole army, maybe 20 of them, all bombarding him with questions. And then there was group therapy, where the patients sat in a circle and questioned each other. At first he was afraid to say anything in group sessions. He didn't want to bare his soul to these strangers, these rapists and child molesters. But when they saw that he was trying to hide, they went right after him, probing unmercifully, asking even tougher questions than the doctors did.
The interrogations were sheer anguish. Sometimes he wept, sometimes he vomited. Gradually, his defenses collapsed and he revealed everything. Slowly, he realized that he wasn't much different from the other patients who'd been molested as kids. They'd all tried the same pathetic coverup mechanisms that he did -- pretending that it hadn't happened, pretending that it didn't matter, blaming themselves, hiding their pain.
The doctors told him that he had to tell Gail what had happened to him as a child. She visited him daily, but for several days he couldn't bring himself to do it. Nervous, he kept putting it off, but the doctors insisted. So he called Gail at home and asked her to come in. She did, and they sat in his little room, Gail on the only chair and Berendzen on the bed.
"They insisted that I go through every single detail I could remember, and I did," he says. "And she sat there very quiet and listened."
"He told me in great detail for a very long time things that had happened to him when he was a child," she says. "It was pretty hard listening to, very hard to see your husband sitting there. And when he got through, he didn't know what my reaction would be. I think he was afraid I'd leave him."
She hugged him, and said she was enraged at what he'd suffered as a kid. She thought he was a victim then and a victim now, she said, and she told him that she still loved him as much as ever, maybe more.
"And when I got through," she says, "it looked as if hundreds of pounds had come off his shoulders. It was like suddenly he was free."
WTIH GAIL AT HIS SIDE, BERENDZEN APPEARED IN Fairfax General District Court on May 23 to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of making obscene phone calls.
In a courtroom packed with reporters, Judge J. Conrad Waters Jr. asked the defendant if he had anything to say. Berendzen hung his head. "I deeply regret all this," he mumbled.
The judge sentenced him to two 30-day jail terms, then suspended the sentence on the condition that Berendzen continue his psychiatric counseling for a year.
That afternoon, Berendzen released a report prepared by Paul McHugh, head of the treatment team and chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins. In it, McHugh concluded that Berendzen was "not a pedophile," that he had been "sexually and emotionally abused severely as a child," that he had "suppressed and controlled" his reaction to that abuse "until his father's death triggered old pain," and that the calls were a confused attempt at "seeking answers to unresolved issues related to his own abuse." Berendzen's prognosis was, he said, "excellent."
"In no way do I offer this report as an excuse for my conduct," Berendzen said in a statement read by his attorney. "Rather, it gives additional information, fills out the story and provides a fuller context for my actions."
That night, Berendzen, McHugh and Susan Allen discussed the case, which had made headlines across America, on "Nightline," the ABC news show. Berendzen, who had appeared on "Nightline" several times earlier -- once debating the origins of the universe with the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- says he agreed to the interview because he felt he owed the AU community an explanation.
The show proved to be quite bizarre. It opened with a taped interview with Allen -- who refused to appear in the same studio with Berendzen -- uttering this sentence: "He discussed graphically that he had a 4-year-old Filipino sex slave locked up in his basement in a dog cage."
When Berendzen appeared, his face was a clenched fist of pain and fear. Haltingly, he told the outlines of the story of his childhood and of his emotional return to the scene of that abuse. And he tried to explain why it had led to the calls: "The person on the other end of the phone turned out to be, essentially, a surrogate for my own victimizer," he said. "It was as if I were having a conversation with the person that I both trusted and loved and hated and despised and was victimized by, all at the same time. It is quite confused, and that's the best answer I can give."
That kind of answer wasn't good enough for Susan Allen, who said that she too had been abused as a child. "I had tremendous childhood trauma of every shape and form and kind," she said. "I am a very normal, healthy adult that does not make obscene phone calls. I do not abuse people . . . That is a coverup, it's an excuse, it's -- I don't know what words I can use on TV. It's just -- it's BS . . ."
The show drew widely differing reactions, especially on the AU campus. Student government president Matt Ward and several professors said they were very moved by Berendzen's story, and by his willingness to tell it on television. But another faculty member, who asked not to be identified, was outraged:
"The man did everything but put an 800 number on the screen for people who wanted to give him a job," he says angrily. "I think it will be added to his 170-page re'sume', under his list of TV appearances -- 'On "Nightline," talking about obscene phone calls.' "
IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS, MCHUGH HEARD MANY skeptical comments about Berendzen, about psychiatry and about his psychiatric explanation of Berendzen's behavior.
"People say, 'Why did you believe him?' " McHugh says, sitting in his office at Johns Hopkins. "Well, we didn't believe him at first. We're not gullible. We've seen hundreds of patients like this, and some of them tell us lies."
He reminds skeptics that Hopkins doctors cross-examined Berendzen in dozens of relentless interviews; they subjected him to a battery of physical and psychological tests; they interviewed people who knew him; they questioned him under the influence of sodium amytal; and they summoned a polygraph expert who administered four "lie detector" tests. "None of those tests is cast-iron," McHugh says, but together they convinced the doctors that Berendzen was not fabricating any facts -- or hiding anything.
McHugh stresses that his report wasn't designed to excuse Berendzen's crimes -- "We think he should be punished" -- but was an attempt to explain them. And only an attempt: "We don't know the answers to these conditions," he says. "We don't think anybody knows the answers."
He does, however, venture an educated guess: "This is a fellow who had this event happen to him and he covered it over. He covered it over with an active life, and as far as anybody could tell, it wasn't influencing him at all. It may have been, in fact, demanding energy from him to hold it back. And he went through life and he wasn't thinking about it, he wasn't talking about it. He just put it aside. And then later on in life, when the event of his father's death and this whole scene of returning to the place where all of that happened, that was the thing -- for reasons that I don't completely know -- that broke the sequestered area and let the infection out again."
At that point, McHugh says, Berendzen began to brood about his own abuse and about child abuse in general, and slowly his interest became an obsessive fascination that led him to phone women who baby-sat children in their homes. "I think it was a kind of curious fascination: What's out there? What could the world be like?" Berendzen got no sexual charge out of the calls, McHugh says, but he did get an asexual thrill. "It was kind of an exciting adventure to be talking to people about these matters. That's why having somebody lead him on would get him to do more and more."
Now, after enduring a public mortification and undergoing a private illumination, Berendzen is not likely to make any more obscene calls, says McHugh. "It's the mortification and the illumination that will keep him, in my opinion, quite unlikely to go on with this anymore," he says.
RICHARD BERENDZEN WALKED THROUGH THE BEAUTIFUL mansion that American University provides its president, and the sound of his footsteps echoed off the bare walls.
It was late July, and he and Gail were in the final stages of moving out of the house they'd occupied for a decade. The bookshelves were barren -- a sad sight, Berendzen said -- and the big room where they'd entertained John Denver, Ed Meese, Adnan Khashoggi and one of the Beach Boys, among many other luminaries, was piled with cardboard boxes and rolled-up rugs. Berendzen walked around them and stepped outside to the patio. There, he pointed out what he would miss most about the place -- two huge willow oaks that tower high above the house. "They're symbols," he said, "of a certain strength and stability and permanence that I find quite essential and joyful."
Stability and permanence are precisely the qualities missing from Berendzen's life now. He's unemployed and facing a $15 million lawsuit from Susan Allen (See Page 16). Recently, he and Gail gave away their family dog, put most of their possessions in storage and moved to an apartment in Arlington. He has, he says, no plans for a new career. He loves academia, but he doesn't want to rush back into it. "I'm still very tender and shaky yet."
He's been taking life easy the last few months, packing boxes, attending weekly therapy sessions at Johns Hopkins, writing letters, enjoying long, meditative strolls. He's even had time for leisurely dinners with Gail and a couple of friends, which is a novel pleasure for him. "The two of us will go out and have dinner with another couple, just four people," he says. "And it has nothing to do with promoting the university or hoping you'll find another trustee, or is this person gonna become a donor? We're just doing it because we like to be with the people. It sounds so elementary, but it's something I was not permitting myself to do for many years."
The first time they went out after his "Nightline" appearance, Berendzen was nervous. He went to an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams-Morgan with Gail and Natasha and one of her friends, and suddenly a man recognized him and said, "Hey!" And Gail thought, "Oh, dear God . . ." The man grabbed Berendzen's arm. "You got a lotta guts," he said. "Hang in there."
Since then it has happened again and again, he says: AU students and people who saw him on "Nightline" stop to say a few kind words. "I cannot go downtown to a restaurant, to a parking lot, to a shopping center, when somebody does not wave or shake hands. People I don't know, cabdrivers, waitresses . . ." He wipes his wet eyes with his finger. "I'm getting emotional here." He apologizes: "I don't mean to do that. I can't stop it. The doctors tell me, 'That's a good thing, not a bad thing. Why do you fight it?' But it's difficult. It's embarrassing."
The ordeal has changed him, Berendzen says. "I find myself more fragile than I was before." And he's learned some lessons too: Working 100 hours a week is crazy. Psychic pain hurts as much as physical pain. And nobody is immune.
"If you're a victim of something," he says, "don't be so foolish or arrogant as to assume that you can invent your own coping mechanisms. You may, and they may even work. But they may also fail. And you don't know when they'll fail. And you don't know how they'll fail. And you don't know what things from long ago can suddenly make it fail, even though you're confident it could never happen . . ."
The professor who once won accolades for his flamboyant lectures is speaking softly, sadly, passing on a lesson he didn't learn from a book. "If you think it won't strike you or yours, you're dead wrong, because you just don't know. I might have thought that six months ago. I now realize it can be you, it can be your loved one, it can be your colleague at work. And it can happen in a twinkling of time . . ."