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A Secret Life : In his new book, poet and professor Michael Ryan leads us down the dark path of his sexaddiction . . . and back.

July 18, 1995|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he was flying to California to assume his teaching job at 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. In the intervening years, the award-winning poet had part-time and temporary teaching jobs, received some grants and wrote. Getting caught again at Irvine, 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 or 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," out this month from Pantheon Books. In it he recounts his growing up--from age 5, when he was molested for a year by a neighbor, to age 22, when he graduated from Notre Dame University and his compulsion for sex was fully rooted.

The publisher 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 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 writes, he set out to visit a friend in Upstate New York with the goal of seducing the friend's 15-year-old daughter. Although he had had persistent fantasies about sex with younger teen-age girls, this was the first time he had planned to do it.

"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 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 bars.

Much of it is filled with familiar boyhood scenarios. 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 asked to use 5-year-old Ryan as a photographic model.

The seduction and sex acts began immediately, Ryan writes. Even 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."

During his years in Catholic high school, the young Ryan behaved like a 6-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 \o7 anything\f7 , he writes.

*

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

Teaching English classes at Princeton, his mind would go blank when distracted by the look or mannerisms of good-looking female students, he writes. To cover, he'd call on someone to read a poem to the class, then undergo "full-blown panic attacks."

By that time, he was intimate with a 20-year-old senior, one of a string of his students with whom he had sex. He felt powerful, "the sex king," but was puzzled when a promotion he considered in the bag went to someone else. He had made no great effort to conceal his conspicuous dating habits.

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