Out of the Darkness

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

JUST BEFORE LABOR DAY FIVE YEARS ago, Michael Ryan sat in his car by the roadside near Albany, N.Y., resting his head on the steering wheel. He had been on his way to visit friends for the weekend; once there, he planned to seduce their 15-year-old daughter. "I knew I could be arrested," writes Ryan in his memoir Secret Life. "Her mother would hate me, her father might kill me, but I did not think for one moment of the emotional damage to the girl." Ryan, 49—who describes the experience as his bottoming out—couldn't go through with his intention. "I went to the edge of becoming what had damaged me," he says. He turned around and drove home.

That trip back to Boston was just the beginning of a much longer journey for the award-winning poet, back to the sources of a sexual addiction he says cost him two marriages, endangered his health and virtually destroyed his career. Secret Life (Pantheon) is a wrenching account of Ryan's life from the age of 5, when he was molested by a neighbor, to 1981, when he was suspended from the Princeton University faculty for having sex with a student. "My life had blown up in my face," he says. "I was in trouble emotionally, and it became clear that I had to write this book. I didn't believe in God when I started it. I do now because I had to in order to write. It was so terrifying."

It's not surprising that Ryan, who grew up Catholic, lost his faith. One of three children, he was raised in the Midwest by a father who was an accountant—and a volatile alcoholic—and a mother who wanted to believe everything was okay. Ryan was 5 when a 22-year-old neighbor he calls "Bob Stoller" (a fictional name), saw him playing on his front lawn and, posing as a photographer, asked Michael's parents if he might take some pictures of their son for a portfolio. They approved.

Hours later, Ryan was standing naked in a bathtub in Stoller's attic "studio," trembling and about to be sexually molested. "If at that moment I had been able to scream and run away, I believe my whole life would have been different," Ryan says. "But he had me and he knew it." The abuse continued for nearly a year, until Stoller's mother discovered the two in her basement. Within days, Stoller left town, and Ryan never saw him again. "He was a sick, sick man," he says. "I understand his compulsion, though, thank God, I don't share his particular form of it."

Ryan told no one that he had been molested. That secret and his traumatic home life left him to create his own world—and his own rules. "I masked my sense of worthlessness with a grandiose belief in my own specialness," he says. Graduating in 1968 from Notre Dame, Ryan discovered his calling as a poet and teacher, and he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa and went on to publish three acclaimed volumes of poetry. Still, he says, "I never felt valued by people unless they would go to bed with me. Sex was a way of not being in pain."

Even through two marriages (one from 1974 to 1979, another from 1984 to 1989), he was often on the prowl for sex—usually with women and, for a while, with men he met in gay bars. "My primary loyalty was to sex," he writes. "No relationship took precedence over it. Not marriage, not friendship, and certainly not ethics."

At Princeton, as a poetry professor in 1980, he began risking his career more and more recklessly as he conspicuously courted coeds. Within a year his behavior became public, and he was suspended. "It still wasn't enough to hit bottom," says Ryan, who went on to liaisons with a flight attendant, a Radcliffe sophomore, his acupuncturist and a pet-store owner, among others, while barely supporting himself by teaching part-time and with a Guggenheim fellowship he had won while still at Princeton. "I didn't get another permanent teaching job for 10 years," he says.

After recognizing that his sex addiction was out of control, Ryan began changing his life. His first step was to start writing Secret Life. Later, in 1990, he joined a 12-step program in Boston for sexual addicts, one of four available in the U.S. for people with similar problems. As with Ryan, most recovering sex addicts "want to start living their lives differently," says M. Deborah Corley, president and cochair of the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, which has invited Ryan to be its keynote speaker next March. "This book is an incredible gift."

Adhering to a recovery program he had set up with his 12-step sponsor—no sex with students, no teenagers, no anonymous sex—and with his compulsions under control for the first time in 30 years, Ryan got a job in 1991 at the University of California-Irvine, where he now teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program. He talks to his 12-step sponsor daily and attends meetings twice weekly near his Laguna Beach home. He has made peace with his family and stays in touch with his mother. Ryan says: "I don't have to blame anyone for who I am anymore because I am not ashamed of who I am."

Besides healing his wounds and salvaging his career, Ryan's recovery has led to a stable relationship with Doreen Gildroy, 33, a poet Ryan married in 1992. "I knew about his life," she says. "I wouldn't be with him if I didn't trust him."

Having found a refuge from his past, Ryan is now talking about having a family. He will continue writing, he says, but Secret Life will be his only venture into autobiography. "I hope never to use the first-person singular again."

ANNE LONGLEY in Truro, Mass.

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