COME HERE. RICHARD BERENDZEN clearly remembers that command from his childhood, summoning him into a nightmare. On a hot Sunday afternoon in Dallas, 8-year-old Richard, drawn by the strange sounds from his parents’ bedroom, had peered in and seen them having sex. Then, he says, his mother beckoned and ordered him to undress, and the sexual abuse of his boyhood began. Even now, sitting in his antique-filled apartment across the Potomac from Washington, the 55-year-old Berendzen is haunted by his memories. “I still feel a cold shudder whenever I remember those words,” he says.
It was three years ago that Berendzen, president of American University in Washington, resigned in disgrace after admitting to making a series of indecent phone calls. When he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was ordered to continue therapy for his problem, Berendzen would only say publicly that his behavior stemmed from the abuse he received as a child.
But now, in his new book, Come Here: A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse (Villard), the astronomer and former college administrator reveals that the abuser was his own mother, June. He paints a terrifying portrait of his mother’s madness and how it devastated his family. (June Berendzen, now 85 and in fading health, is confined to a Dallas-area nursing home; his father died in 1987.) But Berendzen refuses to discuss in detail the obscene calls he made for three years—and this reticence has drawn fire from critics who say he is insensitive to the pain he caused the women who received them. Berendzen, who returned to AU last year as a physics professor, defends his decision. “I’m not interested in tawdry things or any kind of graphic, grotesque details,” he says.
Born in Walters, Okla., Richard was the only child of June and Earl Berendzen, a hardware-store salesman. The family moved to Texas when Richard was 6, and he remembers his mother as a woman who was increasingly prone to delusions and manic outbursts. She believed that UFOs were landing and that various inanimate objects were controlling her mind, says Berendzen, and once made vegetable juice, poured it into the bathtub and forced her family to drink the green muck. She also beat her son without provocation. “I was her passion—and her prey,” writes Berendzen.
Of that first encounter in the bedroom, he writes only that “my parents were having sex, and so, for the first time, did I.” Berendzen goes on to say that Earl never again participated in the abuse or even ackowledged his behavior. Three years later his mother resumed forcing him into sex. At 12, abruptly and without explanation, the encounters stopped. June was institutionalized in the early 1950s, but after her release she continued the obsession with her son. She moved to Boston while he studied at MIT, earned his doctorate in education and astronomy at Harvard and taught at Boston University. Berendzen says that he avoided contact with June as part of the process of denying their shared sordid past, even when she followed him to American University in 1974, six years before he became the school’s president.
The facade began to crumble in 1987, after Berendzen’s father—who was once again living with June—suffered a fatal heart attack. Walking into the very bedroom where he was first abused, Berendzen was overcome by a flood of memories. “Every emotion I had ever buried, every thought I had ever suppressed, came back with unimaginable force,” he writes. Returning to Washington, he became obsessed with accounts of sex-abuse cases and began scanning newspaper ads offering child care. Then he made the calls. Under the pretense of looking for baby-sitters, Berendzen sought out women with whom he could talk about having sex with children.
He was caught in April 1990, after child-care worker Susan Allen, the wife of a Fairfax County (Va.) policeman, taped some 30 calls he made to her, at times boasting about having a 4-year-old “sex slave” in his basement. Berendzen insists the calls were “information gathering”—an attempt to understand his own horror. “In some sick and confused way, I hoped someone would respond,” he says. “The sick part of me had a compulsion to come to grips with these issues.” Berendzen knows the calls are hard to forgive. “I don’t justify anything and never have,” he says. “It was wrong.”
One person who remains unforgiving is Allen, whom Berendzen never mentions in Come Here. “His calls were beyond obscene. They were vile,” says Allen. (Her $15 million civil suit against Berendzen and American University alleging emotional distress was dismissed by a Washington court and later settled for an undisclosed amount after Allen said she would appeal.)
Having confronted the past. Berendzen is once again looking forward. His return to AU has been generally welcomed by students and colleagues. He is closer than ever to his wife, Gail, 50, and daughters Deborah, 36, and Natasha, 22. “Incest is a hideous concept,” says Gail, who first found out about Richard’s sexual past when he was caught, “but it’s something that must be talked about.” Berendzen will never be able to do that with his mother. “I was once so angry I could have killed her,” he says. “But now I don’t want her hurt. I visited her recently, and she didn’t know me. It was like talking to a cloud.”
PETER MEYER in Washington