Secret Life

by Michael Ryan

(1996, Vintage)

In 1981, celebrated poet Michael Ryan was fired from Princeton for having sex with his students. It took the troubled writer several years to let the controversy die down and re-emerge as a man who had dissected his sexual habits.

His autobiography, Secret Life, opens in 1991 as Ryan is preparing to begin his first permanent teaching job since the firing. In chilling frankness, Ryan wonders aloud how he can stop his addiction: Sex. He writes, "One of my partners once said to me, 'You are like another person when we go into sex.' That's how I put it, too: go into sex. Any way I could get there was fine." His acts are driven by shame, and produce more shame, a vicious cycle. He recalls a turning point when he called off plans to seduce a friend's 15-year-old daughter.

In between this stark opening chapter and the book's candid ending, Ryan tells his life story, which starts with his earliest memories of being sexually abused as a five-year-old. The abuser was Bob Stoller, a neighbor just back from the Korean War. Claiming to be an upstart photographer, Stoller invited the young Michael to his house for a series of portraits. For about a year after, Stoller abused Ryan at the modeling sessions, and Ryan buried his secret deep inside him.

Most of Secret Life is about growing up in a Pennsylvania working class family, being an underdog jock, with a father who drank himself to death. Instead of being a provocative book about sex addiction, Ryan's subtle memoir bubbles underneath the surface with tension. His descriptions of characters is strong and when he talks about his gift for seducing students whom he knows were previously abused, his instincts strike like lightning: "We always at least half-hated each other. The half that was a mirror." He never dishes out excuses or looks for sympathy. And that makes him oddly likable in the end when he faces his demons and promises to change.

Ryan has two new books that have come out this year: New and Selected Poems and Baby B. KEVIN SAMPSELL