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.'

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.

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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.

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" realizing he'd have to continue lecturing once the reading was done.

By that time, he was already intimate with a 20-year-old senior, one of a string of his students who joined him in bed. 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.

Invited to a White House reception for poets, Ryan spent the evening trolling for single women. Frustrated, he left early and entered "the first phases of a secret ritual."

As usual and in spite of his heterosexuality, Ryan wound up in a gay bar "where I could pick up a man and have anonymous sex," Ryan writes.

"The more beautiful women I had, the better I felt; to have none, and, worse to have sex with men, was my deepest degradation."

"I don't feel that homosexuality is degrading in and of itself," Ryan says. "It was the way I could shame myself most effectively, because I was sexually molested by a man. It's the most shameful thing I could do--not the worst thing I did, but the most shameful."

*

After two of Ryan's students at Princeton complained about his actions, there were administrative hearings resulting in the sort of paid leave that means get another job.

"The saddest thing to me now is that I believed I had done nothing wrong," Ryan writes.

He adds sardonically that while he admitted sleeping with one of the students, he denied propositioning the other. "I did proposition the other student, of course; it was easier to admit 'success' than failure."

The years between Princeton and UCI are not part of the book. "I did part-time and temporary teaching jobs, and I wrote, and I was blessed with a number of grants during that period. And I was poor," he says.

But he declines to elaborate. During that period he married twice, but both marriages were destroyed by his continued sexual prowling.

"Who could put up with that?" he says.

He leaves that period alone so he won't infringe on his former wives' privacy, he says.

In January, 1991, Ryan was on his way to UCI. He had been hired because "I guess enough time had passed" since the Princeton episode.

"We check references," says Michael Clark, chairman of the department of English and comparative literature at UCI. "We were aware there were problems. We do try to give people a second chance when they deserve it."

Ryan by then had published "God Hunger," a book of poems that won the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award in 1989. During his writing career, he had received a Whiting Writers Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. Ryan's poetry, says Clark, "is distinguished by its combination of autobiographic intimacy, intellectual depth and technical precision."

The UCI English department's reaction to his latest work has been favorable, Ryan said. "People at work have been wonderful with the things they've said about the book. People close to me have been generous rather than judgmental."

The department regularly appraises its faculty's published work, Clark says. Ryan's book "was reviewed by the department, and the department admired it very much. I assume it'll be greeted with the same kind of reception as for any significant literary work."

Clark says he does not expect any great adverse reaction to the book "because the account is presented in a very serious way. . . . It's not a sensationalistic listing of events but a serious attempt to understand what causes such behavior and consequences."

Ryan concedes that he was somewhat fearful about publishing the book. But worrying about public reaction is pointless, "since I have no control over it."

So far, the few published reviews "have all been pretty negative," he says.

The New York Times compared the book to TV talk-show confessions--conceding, however, that Ryan "demonstrates a poet's control of language."

Elle magazine voiced its suspicion that Ryan "is not quite telling all." The book gives the reader "the queasy sensation that while it might bring Michael Ryan the acceptance he has longed for, on some level 'Secret Life' is also perhaps the most extended of his seductions."

*

Ryan, who lives in Laguna Beach, says that since making his resolutions, he has rekindled his religious faith, has entered a 12-step recovery program for sexual addicts, has formed a happy and stable marriage, has "learned how to be happy" and continues to take it "one day at a time." He has told all to his family.

He has not violated his resolutions, he says, "not even a lingering look," not even when one of his female students telephoned and propositioned him.

"I told her I was touched by her feelings for me" but that "nothing sexual was ever going to happen between us." When she thanked him, he replied, "Thank you. "

"She had no idea what she had done for me," Ryan writes. "I had felt the pull, and I'd surely feel it again, but the [sexual addiction] had lost some of its power."

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