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His Darkest Chapter : Sleeping with students cost Michael Ryan his job at Princeton. Now, the UCI teacher and award-winning poet, who is on the road to recovery, explores his compulsive 'loyalty to sex' in an autobiography, 'Secret Life.'

July 04, 1995|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he was flying to Orange County to assume his teaching jobat UC Irvine, poet Michael Ryan, then 44, wrote down some resolutions.

No sex with students.

No teen-agers.

No anonymous sex.

No secret touching.

He made these resolutions for a less-than-noble reason. Propositioning and sleeping with his students had cost him his job at Princeton nine years earlier. Getting caught again, he figured, would end his teaching career.

Ryan knew this was not going to be easy, because he was, by his own diagnosis, addicted to sex. He says he was amazed that some outraged father, husband, male or female sexual partner or AIDS had not already killed him.

We know this and a lot more about Ryan's life because of his new autobiography, "Secret Life," which is due in bookstores July 11. In it he recounts his growing up, from age 5, when he was molested more or less continually for a year by a neighbor, to age 22, when he graduated from Notre Dame and his compulsion for sex was fully rooted.

Pantheon Books expects "Secret Life" to be a big seller and has made a larger-than-usual first printing. But Ryan says his primary motive for writing the book was therapeutic. He had finally reached the point where he could no longer deny or defend his behavior to himself, he says.

A few months before his arrival at UCI, in 1991, he set out to visit a friend in upstate New York with the conscious goal of seducing the friend's 15-year-old daughter. Though he had had persistent fantasies about sex with younger teen-age girls, this was the first time he had set out to seduce a child.

"I knew I could be arrested, her mother would hate me, and her father might kill me," he writes, "but I did not think for a moment of the emotional damage to the girl, and at no time did I realize that I was about to go molest a child."

But the turning point had come, literally. He turned back.

"I was experiencing the intense fusion of desire and moral repugnance," he says. "It just seemed that if this is what I wanted to do, then there was something undeniably and terribly wrong with me and I had to do something about that."

Part of doing something about it was writing "Secret Life," which at times is jarringly explicit about uncomfortable topics--the mechanics of a little boy's seduction, of masturbation, of pickups in gay bars.

Yet much of it is filled with familiar boyhood scenarios. This about dating a girl from a newly immigrated Lithuanian family: "[It] was the first time she had ever gone out unsupervised with a boy in a car--her first American date. Her father acted like he was being forced to trust his life savings to an imbecile, which, of course, he was."

But it wasn't typical coming-of-age stuff, Ryan says. "There's a different turn on all of this given the secret life that underlies it. In my case, that secret, that molestation and later on the secret of my father's alcoholism, put a different spin on everything I experienced.

"So on the one hand my experience could hardly be more Middle America, straight down the line, hot dogs and apple pie, '50s and '60s, growing up in an [Eastern] industrial town.

"On the other hand, everything I experienced was colored by that unfillable need that I had which came from the secrets that I was carrying."

*

The No. 1 secret was what happened next door in 1951. The young man who lived there with his mother had asked to use 5-year-old Ryan as a photographic model.

The seduction and secret sex acts began immediately, Ryan writes. Though he suddenly couldn't sleep in the dark and was having fantasies that his parents were not his real mother and father, he protected "our secret." He considered his molester his friend and was sneaking to his house whenever possible.

"Maybe this is why I believe the most insidious part of sexual abuse is in the creation of desire in the molested child, the way it forms a shape for desire that can never again be fulfilled," Ryan writes.

From his teens almost to the present, "what I got were approximations and compromises--students, strangers, almost anyone who was attracted to me. . . . My primary loyalty was to sex. No human relationship took precedence over it. Not marriage, not friendship and certainly not ethics."

The growing Ryan behaved much as other boys did. He picked fights, played sports, cultivated what was cool, disdained what was dorky, got fat then thinned out, got lazy then worked out, felt up the girls who would let him and, for a while, ran away from the girls who wanted more. He alternately brought his Catholic-school teachers delight and despair.

But in all these ordinary things, the young Ryan behaved like a six-volt boy running on a 12-volt battery. The intensity was turned up, especially when it came to lust. All the boys wanted to go to Ocean City and pick up girls, but he wanted it literally more than anything , he writes.

*

By the time he graduated from Notre Dame, headed for a teaching career, the intensity knob had been turned all the way up, he says.

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