Graduating from misery

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself — Well, how did I get here?

— Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime.”

The one expression that came up again and again at Rana Lee Berman’s college graduation was, “This was something we never expected from you.”

Berman, now 69, rears back and laughs good and hard at the exquisitely backhanded compliment. But for years no one knew what to expect from Berman — except the worst. Showing up to her children’s school events stone drunk, selling and using drugs with a vicious jailbird husband, spending days and weeks on end reeling through life in a narcotic haze — that’s the way it was.

Rana Lee Berman was a victim of the worst life had to offer: rape, incest, violence and more. It kindled a fire of self-hatred, and she turned to booze and drugs to put it out. It was a fire she continuously doused for nearly 50 years.

No, no one expected much from Berman. They certainly didn’t expect her to earn a pair of degrees from San Francisco State — in Jewish and African American studies — which is just what she did Saturday, May 28.

Five of Berman’s nine grandchildren are black, which played a large part in her decision to major in African American studies. But as for Jewish studies, it’s not so obvious, even to her.

“It seemed like something I needed to do. I wanted my identity back. It was my culture, what I had been running from. It felt like home.”

Berman had been away from home for a long, long time. And, really, no one would have been surprised if she’d turned up dead — beaten to death, smashed behind the wheel of an automobile, or simply overdosed. It would have been so easy. It could have happened so many times.

But Rana Lee didn’t die. She graduated.

Berman’s uncle always told her he loved her. He did those things because he loved her. Grown men who loved 3-year-old girls touched them, touched them all over. Berman’s father didn’t touch her that way. Berman’s father must not have loved her.

Berman shakes her head, places her hands over both ears and pulls backward, a gesture she tends to employ when reliving her life’s darker moments.

“They’re all gone, and thank God they’re not reading this.”

Berman’s uncle forever altered the trajectory of her life. At 3, she had no idea how wrong things were, but before too long, she figured it out.

“I thought God was mad at me for letting my uncle touch me,” she admits. And though it was a notion formulated in early childhood, it never really left her until quite recently. By young adulthood she had become completely alienated from Judaism, and quit going to synagogue at 16 — and her father was the synagogue’s president, so people did notice.

Berman grew up near Boston an awkward and reserved child. No one understood her visceral reaction to being touched by boys, and she didn’t care to explain. She just couldn’t seem to focus, and school was impossible. Everyone told her she was stupid, and she didn’t see a reason to disagree. So when her parents insisted she go to college and become a teacher, she didn’t see any point in even trying to study.

She had a blast at Boston’s Northeastern University (10,000 male undergraduates, 500 female), flunked out after a semester, and headed to California.

It was in Los Angeles that Berman finally did something she thought her parents would be proud of: She met a Jewish boy. He took her to see Sammy Davis Jr. — on consecutive nights — and eight weeks later they were married. She had 60 relatives already living in California, so it was a huge wedding. And when Berman’s father took her arm and walked her down the aisle, he leaned over and whispered into his eldest daughter’s ear.

“He said, ‘This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.’ I’ll never forget that,” she recalls.

“And he was right.”

When Berman brought home men who would pay for sex — “I brought them to the home where my three kids were” — it wasn’t really about the money.

“I just wanted someone to love me,” she says, a pained expression on her face, her hands squarely over her ears.

Berman started with a little Pepsi on the rocks and a splash of rum — “to help me sleep.” In time, the ice cubes disappeared. And then the Pepsi dwindled down to nothing as well. And then the rum wasn’t doing it either, so she substituted it with Bacardi 151 — which, at 75.5 percent alcohol, will actually catch fire.

“I still love him. I just couldn’t live with him,” says Berman of her ex-husband, Isaac, whom she describes as verbally — though never physically — abusive.

“We married in ’58 and divorced in ’76 and by the time I left him, I was a full drunk.”

To accommodate her burgeoning alcoholism, Berman displayed an incredible degree of inventiveness. When she realized she was drinking to the point of memory blackouts, she started taking copious notes about all of her interactions.

Her detailed records helped her serve as president of the parent-teacher association despite being seriously drunk much of the time.

But by the end of her marriage, even note-taking couldn’t prop her up.

“I parked the car on the front lawn. I’d look out the window and ask the kids what happened and they’d say, ‘Mom, you put it there.’ My daughter told me I danced on the table at a neighborhood party,” she says.

“And they never told my parents. When my parents came over, we put on an act you wouldn’t believe.”

In 1976, Berman crossed a line and became a fall-down drunk, stumbling over her teenaged son. She ruptured a disc in her back, and was soon, in her sardonic words, “put on all these wonderful medications!”

“So now I was taking Valium — that was the thing back then — and drinking rum. There are parts of it I just don’t remember.”

She was drinking, taking drugs, selling drugs and taking men home for sex in exchange for money or, more expediently, just for the drugs. And the darker her life got, the “more I thought I deserved what happened.” She could live, she could die. She was indifferent. So, what the hell? They’d be better off without her.

Berman sighs and gets up from her small kitchen table. She’s a short, grandmotherly woman, and the jaw-dropping tales that pour out of her don’t seem to jibe with the smiling, active woman with a banner reading “Ageless Wonder” hanging from her doorknob.

She shoos her massive cat, Rosie Greer, away from the chicken and green beans she insisted, as a Jewish mother, on feeding a reporter, and sits back down at the table in her San Pablo apartment.

She smiles, but it’s not a happy smile.

“Now I’m getting to the bad part.”

In 1977, a friend of Berman’s was arrested for selling drugs, and she went and visited him in prison. And he introduced her to his cellmate, Jimbo.

She says Jimbo became her drug dealer, but he had his eye on more. He was a charmer. He knew just what to say. He told Berman that if he were a free man he’d take care of her and her kids. She’d never need to worry again.

“And that’s what my drunken head was craving to hear,” she said, still smiling that cruel smile.

When Jimbo got out of prison, Berman was waiting for him.

“I brought him a six-pack and a joint and me. A year later, we were married.”

She pauses.

“He beat me for three and a half years, and terrorized my children.”

When asked what put Jimbo in prison in the first place, she can only laugh.

“Assault!” she replies with a wan chuckle.

Jimbo and Berman worked as bail bondsmen — “I was drunk and stoned and bailing people out of jail.” She declines to reveal exactly which small Southern California town they called home because some of her best drug customers — “good ol’ boys” — also happened to be prominent members of the local police force.

Berman’s self-loathing accommodated Jimbo’s abusive behavior all too well, but she told him she’d leave him if he hit her children. Sure enough, he did. When she told him that was it, she was beaten up one last time before fleeing to Northern California in 1980 with little more than the clothes on her back.

She lived, for an entire summer, on the grounds of the Marin Renaissance Faire, where she dressed in Shakespearian garb and sold ale. To this day, she has no idea if Jimbo is alive or dead.

By the time she escaped to Northern California, however, her 13-year-old son had been forcibly removed from her household after Berman was declared an unfit mother (her two adult daughters had already moved out). It’s a wound that burns to this day, and, at the time, led to several suicide attempts. But with the wisdom of age, hindsight and — in no small part — sobriety, Berman realizes it was the only move.

Her son lived with Berman’s sister and her husband, Rabbi Stanley Davids, on the East Coast. He was loved. He got a good education. He had a bar mitzvah at age 16, which Berman attended — “and I went and got drunk the entire time.”

Rana Lee Berman had her last drink in 1986 — but it lasted three days.

She was filming a commercial for the United Way — remember those “I don’t know you, but I love you” spots? — retelling the darker moments in her life and the treatment she received at the Marin Abused Women’s Services.

It took six hours to film that 30-second ad. Six hours of the director imploring her to look meager when retelling her horrific past to better contrast her strength when speaking of the treatment she received. Six hours of shooting and re-shooting scenes in which she spoke of being beaten with a shovel or having a knife held to her throat.

In short, the director treated Berman like an actress. But she wasn’t an actress and it wasn’t acting. The dark memories an actress might recall when playing a woman talking about being beaten by a shovel and held at knifepoint were, in this case, Berman’s actual memories of being beaten by a shovel and held at knifepoint.

“No, he had no clue what he was asking of me. And what it did to me. He broke me down so badly that by the time it was over I was crawling around inside myself,” she recalls.

But it worked. The ad played at halftime of the Super Bowl and resulted in a cavalcade of calls for both the United Way and the Marin center. People even pointed to Berman on the street and yelled, “There’s the battered woman!”

Berman doesn’t remember much about that 72-hour bender she went on after she got out of the studio. But she did recall liking the sweater the director had her wear for the commercial, so he gave it to her. She still has it.

It wasn’t readily apparent to Berman at the time she took her last drink, but her life had been slowly taking a turn for the better. In 1984, a teacher friend had brought her into Berkeley High School to speak about sexual and domestic abuse. She received more than 100 anonymous letters from the students.

“One tried to commit suicide — it was fun trying to trace that one,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“One said, ‘My boyfriend leaves more bruises on me than either one of my parents.’ That’s one I always remember.”

The outpouring of letters led to Berkeley hiring Berman as the first domestic violence consultant for a United States school district. It was such an oddity that she received a call from “The Today Show” — and hung up on them because she thought it was a joke.

When she was finally flown to New York and interviewed by Bryant Gumbel, she explained that she hoped that her story of incest and violence — which wasn’t the kind of thing people talked about in public 20 years ago — would lead children to get help. She also casually admitted she was still using cocaine.

Gumbel “looked me right in the eyes, and I looked right back.”

Berman had had many experiences that could have, in retrospect, led her to quit drinking: beatings, blackouts, drunken automobile accidents. But it was being thrown out of the house by her pregnant daughter in 1986 that finally did the trick.

She went to Alcoholics Anonymous and quit cold turkey. For two weeks she battled vomiting, headaches and the shakes. But the weeks turned into months, and then years. That was her only attempt to quit drugs and alcohol: She’s 1-for-1.

“The first and only time. That shows another part of me that my parents knew. Once I become determined, that’s it.”

Because of her commercial and work on Berkeley’s KPFA radio doing a show about domestic abuse, Berman made connections in the domestic welfare world and landed a series of jobs. She organized and taught a class for first-time drunk-driving offenders and worked at a number of service centers for addicted and/or battered women and their families, including nearly 10 years of living on-site as San Pablo’s Ujima Family Recovery Services’ residential manager. When drug-addled women woke up in the middle of the night and called for their children — who, quite often, were in protective services — it was Berman who emerged from her closet-sized room and comforted them.

Berman worked day shifts and night shifts, teaching, counseling, producing radio shows. But when a therapist suggested she go back to school, she could only laugh.

“I can’t go to school! I’m too stupid to go to school!”

But she wasn’t too stupid to teach and counsel and produce radio shows, and it turned out school was no different. She didn’t know how to use a computer, and was older than most of the professors at Contra Costa College, but that didn’t keep her from doing something she never could as a young person: getting straight A’s.

“I found out I could learn, and I wanted to learn, and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn,” she said, her smile wide and genuine.

Berman had been taking classes just for the sake of taking classes, but with a 3.9 grade-point average after two years at junior college, her advisers began to talk seriously about a four-year institution. She had the grades for U.C. Berkeley, but SFSU charges students over age 60 only $3 a semester.

“Three bucks a semester? Come on!” she shouts. Rana Lee Berman was headed for San Francisco.

Berman has an addictive personality, and she was soon addicted to school. While working part-time at the Ujima Center during the night, Berman, who does not drive, took BART every day to Daly City, then hopped the shuttle to State, many days leaving the house at 6 a.m. In addition to being the only student in class who remembered V-E Day, she always sat in the front row of every class. While many young students sit in the “chalk zone” to build up a rapport with the instructor, Berman’s motives were less calculating — she doesn’t hear so well.

“Oh, it was awesome!” says Berman, who graduated with honors. “When I went up to get my degree, the dean of ethnic studies hugged me. He shook everyone’s hand and they went on, but me, he gave a big hug and kiss. He’s a nice young man. He’s probably in his 40s or 50s, but to me he’s a young man.”

Berman — who is depressed that she has no studying to do for two full months — plans to continue at SFSU toward a master’s in adult education. And then, who knows? A book about her life? A study of the world’s black Jews? Maybe a Ph.D.? Dr. Berman. She likes the sound of that.

At a graduation party last weekend, an eclectic mix of friends and family showed up to celebrate Berman’s big day. Black and Jewish relatives mingled with white, black and Indian students Berman tutors at Contra Costa College, and an equally mixed group from the senior apartment facility where Berman lives. Some of the women she administered to at Ujima were there. Some of them even followed her to Contra Costa College and are working on degrees of their own.

Her brother-in-law, Rabbi Stanley Davids, came all the way from Israel to chant Havdallah. And the rabbi’s retelling of the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years — let’s just say it resonated with Berman. She’s done her wandering. Now she’s home. Now she’s happy.

“My mother always thought I’d be a teacher. And I thought she was crazy. But I’m going to teach people until the day I die. And I have a lot of life left in me. The way things are going, I could make 100. So I’ve got to do something,” she says.

“I’ve come through the wilderness, just like the Israelites. And it was all training for who I became. I was on the path I had to be on to get where I am today. And I’m still on a path.”

She smiles.

“Because I’m not finished.”