Sexism and Slime in the Psychology Department
By Anne Bernays
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
$18.95, 277 pp.
MY roommate's stepfather Marty has a favorite piece of advice for young women: All men are slime until proven otherwise. After helping my roommate move her things into our first-year dorm room, he left us with those ominous words, which we promptly immortalized on our common room bulletin board.
Marty must have expected us to run across a Jacob Barker or two. Barker, the protagonist--if he can be called that--in Anne Bernays' Professor Romeo, is not only the epitome of slime, but he is utterly unaware of his depravity.
Barker is a 40ish Harvard professor who has become a brilliant force in the world of psychology. Nurtured by the top psychologist in the department since his graduate school days, Barker follows in his mentor's footsteps by discarding Freud's psychoanalytic theories in favor of a number-crunching, laboratorystudy approach to psychology.
Lately, however, he's been coasting on his early reputation and his one book, which, in a clever twist of irony by Bernays, woos a feminist following with its suggestion that females' development is superior to males' at several early stages.
Barker has no problem accepting women (which he calls either "girls" or "ladies," depending on the reference) as intelligent and capable. But for someone who looks so disdainfully on the Freudian philosophy, Barker just can't seem to grasp the fact that the world does not revolve around his penis. While his academic work is on the cutting edge of his field, his brain--and his body--are still operating in a 1950s mode.
WE are speaking here of a man who sincerely believes that trading good grades for sex is "a pure, almost abstract example of tit for tat." A man who affectionately refers to his libido as "the Barker machine," characterizes women by their morals and their bodies (i.e., Gloria: lapsed Catholic, enormous boobs) and concludes that two attractive women out together are automatically lesbians (Why else would they choose the company of another woman over that of a man?).
After more than a decade of schmoozing his way through the ranks of undergraduate women, Barker finds himself under fire from the university's new Dean of Women's Affairs, Anita Andrews--who just happens to be his psychology department colleague and ex-lover.
Barker can be--should be--easy to despise. After all, he is the consummate slime. But Bernays does not allow the reader to simply sit back and watch Barker ooze. Instead, she brings you inside his skin, an unpleasant and rather cramped location, but she accomplishes it with much skill and perspective.
While observing the world through Barker's rather narrow range of vision, it is easy to lapse into a Barker-like mentality and lose sight of how despicable he really is. There are moments during his sexual harassment hearing when it is possible to feel sympathy for Barker and indignation at his plight.
It is a frightening feeling--sympathy for the devil--but not nearly as scary as what Bernays does with her women characters. The women of Bernays book, Anita in particular, are just downright unlikable. Bernays skillfully makes Anita into a stereotypical militant feminist--a hippie-turned-professor who uses gender-neutral terms and "carries around a great deal of anger."
DURING the hearing, Anita parades forth her witnesses--all former students who slept with Barker--and deftly attacks Barker, who, not surprisingly, sees her behavior not as efficient and skillful but as lacking the kindness of a "true woman."
"The old soft version of Anita had disappeared entirely; she had been recruited by the Nazi party," writes Bernays, whose narrative voice has now been completely subsumed by Barker's character. Bernays is so skillful at presenting the sexist-male viewpoint that, as the anger builds over such an offensive comparison, it is difficult to remember that these are Barker's opinions, not Bernays."
Bernays, who teaches at the Harvard Extension School, is also deft and amusing in exposing the inside world of academe--the mundane faculty meetings, prima donna behavior and mucked-up administration that is so much a part of what goes on around here.
And, although even the novel's end is colored in Barker's terms, Bernays does not allow him to satisfy all of his desires. But the teacher learns little from his lesson--Barker is content to remain a slime, barely trying to prove himself otherwise.