Rhoda Berenson’s Plan to Save Lori

LIMA, PERU-Rhoda Berenson’s life is a mockery of what it once was. “Life before,” she said, “is like history.”

Before, Rhoda Berenson was a real New York classic: a physics teacher who took dance lessons at Martha Graham, who had a subscription to the Joyce Theater, who cooked, graded papers and danced under the stars at Lincoln Center with her husband, Mark, a retired statistician who taught at Baruch College.

Now, Rhoda Berenson is something else, something she never planned on becoming. She commutes to Lima, Peru, on Continental Airlines and thinks incessantly about the fate of her 30-year-old daughter Lori, an international celebrity whose current address is solitary confinement in a Peruvian prison.

On Sept. 9, Mrs. Berenson, 57, visited Lori at El Penal de Mujeres, the women’s prison, in Chorrillos–a suburb of Lima. Mrs. Berenson brought her a bag of Ess-a-Bagels. “She takes a bite and it brings her back,” she said.

The prison she visits is a muddy blue structure, low to the ground except for the watchtower rising from its middle, on a busy commercial street. It is currently home to Lori Berenson, the La Guardia High School graduate and M.I.T. dropout who, five years ago, was accused by a hooded Peruvian military tribunal of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, a charge that she denies. In a secret trial, in January 1996, she was found guilty of treason to Peru and was sentenced to life in prison.

Then suddenly, on Aug. 28 of this year, the Peruvian government overturned Ms. Berenson’s life sentence and granted her a new trial in a civilian court, something the U.S. government has repeatedly requested. As a result, Mrs. Berenson and one of the family’s American lawyers, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, were scrambling last week to find Lori a Peruvian lawyer to represent her in the new trial.

If you saw the New York papers, you may have assumed that this was the result of some behind-the-scenes efforts to get Lori back to American soil, and that she’d be found guilty of a lesser crime and deported home. Or that some elaborate diplomatic deal had been worked out through which she’d serve the rest of her term in a U.S. jail, and that when the publicity died down, she’d be quietly released.

“A lot of people called us after this new ruling and said, ‘Great! We don’t have to hand out brochures anymore!'” Rhoda Berenson said. “They don’t understand how bad this is. It’s a political case. The judgment will depend on the week, or the way the wind is blowing. My daughter’s life is somewhat dependent on how Peru and the United States are working together diplomatically on a variety of things.”

According to Mrs. Berenson, this new development is in some ways worse than the first one, when Lori was tried by hooded military judges. The State Department, which has never taken a position on Lori Berenson’s guilt or innocence, has only demanded that there be the appearance of a fair trial, even though it will be extremely difficult for Lori, whom the Peruvian press calls ” la Gringa Terrorista ,” to actually get one.

And although many members of Congress have pressed for her release, and although Jesse Jackson confronted Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in New York last week during the huge U.N. conclave and asked him to consider releasing Ms. Berenson immediately, adding that “it would be a smart thing to do,” the Berensons believe there is no way their daughter can receive a fair trial. “Last week,” said Rhoda Berenson, “was like the first week all over again.”

Every other week, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, who have resigned their academic jobs, take turns flying to Peru; they schlep the Ess-a-Bagels, clothing, yarn and knitting needles. Knitting needles are allowed; books are not. Rhoda Berenson waits, sometimes for two hours, as armed guards inspect each item that enters the building. Last week she brought her daughter a heavy Alpaca sweater, but the guards refused to let Lori have it: the sweater’s pattern included black and green, two colors associated with the MRTA.

Compared to the two other prisons Lori was in during the last five years, which took a full day’s travel from Lima to reach, Chorrillos at least has a reasonable proximity. “The prisons aren’t old or crumbling, but they are built to make life hell,” Mrs. Berenson said as she sat in the dining room of the Holiday Inn Miraflores in Lima, drawing, on a placemat, a map of Yanamayo, Lori’s first prison, a place so terrible that “even the guards get rotated out because the conditions are so bad.”

“The concrete holds the cold,” said Mrs. Berenson. “There is total sensory deprivation. The noise is horrible. The Shining Path prisoners have a certain point during the day when they chant. The place is all concrete and metal, so the noise bounces off the walls. At least in American prisons, there is heat and hot water. Every time I take a hot shower, I think of her.”

Mrs. Berenson has never seen one of Lori’s cells, because the women must always meet in a room called the locotorio , where they are separated by a mesh partition. “There is one long counter, and from the tabletop to the ceiling are screens with small holes that you can’t stick your fingers through–you can’t even touch fingers. It’s a whole mesh of small holes, like the mesh on a schoolyard. The stools you sit on are unmovable. The noise is horrible. The guards keep the time.” The room is so dark that Mrs. Berenson can’t really even see her child. In five years, she’s touched her only a few times.

She has written a book, Lori: My Daughter, Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru (Context Books), in which she exhaustively covers the political maze her family has traveled in the last five years, naming those who have helped–Jesse Jackson, Cardinal John O’Connor–and those who sorely disappointed the Berensons. Former Ambassador to the United Nations and current Energy Secretary Bill Richardson earns her particular ire.

But what’s curiously absent from it is an emotional narrative: How did the nice Jewish intellectual daughter of a nice East Side family end up in a barbaric South American jail cell?

The only glimpse the public has gotten of Ms. Berenson was shortly after her conviction: the then 26-year-old, looking feral, her hair wild and her eyes possessed, was paraded before the media, yelling about the abominations of Peruvian justice. What no one knew, her mother says, is that a seriously ill Peruvian woman, naked and bleeding from multiple wounds, had been thrown into Lori’s rat-infested jail cell. Prison authorities wouldn’t give the woman medical care, provoking Lori to go berserk on camera. That act of defiance has probably done more to hurt her case than anything else. It provided the Peruvians with propaganda proof that she was a radical-fringe nut, and it made fulfilled American stereotypes of a mad left-wing terrorist.

When I asked Mrs. Berenson if she thought that the whole case might be different if it weren’t for Lori’s outburst that day, she replied, “Yes, the whole thing would be different. They made her look like a lunatic.” Then she paused. “I think she said what she felt,” she said carefully. “She thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to make a statement and I might not get another chance.’ Would she do it the same way again?” Mrs. Berenson doesn’t answer her own question.

After her military trial, Lori was sent to Yanamayo, the notoriously horrific jail in the mountains of southern Peru. In the remote, unheated place, at an altitude of 12,700 feet, Lori’s hands swelled and cracked and bled from the cold and altitude; her eyesight deteriorated and she developed repeated cases of strep throat and laryngitis. Her parents were not allowed to visit her for almost a year. When they did, a taxi would drop them at the bottom of a steep hill, which Mark or Rhoda (they rarely are able to travel together) would then have to climb loaded with food and clothes–a task made even harder by the thin air. On the map she drew on a Holiday Inn placemat, Mrs. Berenson sketched those hills, the walls surrounding the prison, and the various checkpoints she had to stop at to be frisked. Once, a female guard made her take her pants off.

“You empty everything you bring out onto tables,” Mrs. Berenson said. “Anything that is wrapped gets unwrapped and put into plastic bags. You have to remember to take the cardboard out of the toilet paper roll. It could take two hours for the whole process. Every time I would leave there, I would be frozen.”

Lori’s health continued to decline at Yanamayo, and she was moved to another remote prison called Socabaya, which at 7,600 feet was not quite so high up in the mountains. Yet her altitude-related ailments persisted. She was placed in solitary confinement and given little outdoor time. Even though her health was precarious, Lori went on a 14-day hunger strike last January to protest her conditions.

“We didn’t recommend it,” says Mrs. Berenson. “Ramsey Clark says that prisoners never gain from hunger strikes.” And still she defends her daughter’s actions. “Deciding not to eat is one of the only ways she can have control. She just wanted the officials to recognize what she had been saying. She wanted a note made that her trial was unfair, and she was imprisoned under despicable conditions.” Which is not to say she hasn’t kept a sense of humor. “I got a letter from her [in Socabaya] this summer,” says Lori’s friend Daniel Radosh. “She said that a woman on her wing had just gotten radio privileges, but that she was only playing disco. Lori wrote, ‘I can deal with the isolation and the repression and the altitude. but I don’t know if I can handle 12 hours of “Ring My Bell.”‘”

She probably misses that woman now. At Chorrillos, said her mother, “Lori is not allowed to talk to the other women. She is not permitted to wear a watch. It drives her crazy. And there are no windows. It smells like Lima, humid and damp. She gets bread and water for breakfast–at least in the other prison she got butter. Lunch is rice, some potatoes and a little meat. And then dinner is bread and water. I bring her fruits and vegetables and powdered milk for protein. When she was in the higher altitudes,” Mrs. Berenson continued, the cell was so cold that “I could bring her a wheel of cheese and it would keep.”

Rhoda Berenson has plain features–her soft brown eyes are punctuated by thick brown brows; her hair is also brown, short and well kept. She wears no makeup except for the remains of some orangey lipstick. The only thing that announces her is her jewelry, a pair of spiral gold earrings dangle from her ears, a long gold chain is tucked into her sweater, and an amethyst ring with four small diamonds is wrapped around her tiny finger.

Mrs. Berenson kept teaching for the first four years Lori was in prison. She would leave school on Thursdays and head to the airport, arrive in Peru on Friday morning then visit her daughter on Saturday. She would leave Peru on Sunday night, arrive in New York on Monday morning, go home to take a quick shower and then head to her Monday afternoon classes. “Oh, I was crazy. I don’t know how I did it.” Last January, she finally took early retirement.

At Nassau Community College when a physics faculty member retires, there is a party, and a gift for the person who is leaving. When Mrs. Berenson retired, the department decided that it would donate money to the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, which covers the family’s legal and travel costs. “Some of my colleagues didn’t donate,” she said “They would definitely have contributed if I were getting a present.”

Rhoda Berenson said that occasionally people will ask her, `Why didn’t Lori just stay here? What was she doing in South America? Isn’t it possible that she stepped over the line? ‘

“Mark takes those comments more personally than I do,” she said.

Yet when I asked, what was Lori like as a child? Mrs. Berenson shifted in her seat. “I don’t know,” she said. “She went to school, had friends, played music.” Was she a rebellious teenager? At this, Rhoda Berenson glared, shook her head, and made a motion with her hands that said, Enough. Later, I tried once more, and she still resisted.

“Are you just like your parents?” Mrs. Berenson said sharply. “Could I have predicted what [my daughter] would be?”

Rhoda and Mark Berenson grew up in the Bronx and met when they were teenagers; she went to went to Bronx Science, he went to Stuyvesant. They both attended City College and became professors–she of physics, he of statistics. He has co-authored more than a dozen volumes on statistics, including the No. 1 best-selling textbook in the field. In the early 1970’s, the family moved into a rent-controlled three-bedroom duplex in East Midtown Plaza on East 25th Street. Lori and her older sister Kathy attended public schools until high school, then Kathy went to Hunter and Lori to LaGuardia, where she graduated in the same class as Jennifer Aniston and Chastity Bono.

Lori Berenson was a stellar student, a gifted singer and guitar player. She loved board games, cats and she collected stuffed animals. But Mrs. Berenson also recalls her daughter being bothered by injustice from a young age. “She hated that teachers had pets,” she said, “even though she was a goody-goody and smart and one of the pets herself.”

“When she was 12 she told me that she didn’t want to go back to camp, she wanted to work,” she said. “She became a mother’s helper at the Hamptons for three years and then took jobs at David’s Cookies, and a pasta and cheese store.”

At 14, Lori did the voice-over for a commercial for CARE, the international relief agency. “I think it was then that she started to see the world differently, she said. “But it wasn’t until she got to Cambridge that she became active in Latin American causes.” At M.I.T., Lori became immersed in the activist community, which at the time was focused on Central America. “She felt like she didn’t fit in very well,” said her friend Daniel Radosh, a writer who has known Lori since they were students together at JHS 104. “She wasn’t finding her niche. She was so smart and a good student but she felt her academic life was becoming less fulfilling then her political life.”

But Mr. Radosh is a realist about his classmate. “I don’t think she thought she was handing out dimes to starving children,” he said. “She was doing political work. I don’t think she deserves what she got. The fact that Peru is a place where people can be rounded up and thrown into the prison was exactly why she felt she needed to be there. She’s your friend’s kid. She’s street smart, worldwise, educated. She’s a real New Yorker, a New York kid. Her politics didn’t grow out of rebellion, they grew out of solid New York City liberalism.”

During spring break of her freshman year, Lori went to Nicaragua with a group of Quaker women. She returned to Central America twice, then decided to take a leave of absence from college.

Did Rhoda and Mark try to stop her? “No fights,” Mrs. Berenson says. “Look, we’re academics. Education is very important to us. But Lori thought, `How can I be here reading a book when there are people who need help?’ What can you say?”

Well, you can say finish college, do the good works later. But the Berensons decided to let Lori take the $50,000 that was left in her college trust fund, which she used to support herself while working for human rights causes in the U.S., before she moved to El Salvador in 1992.

In El Salvador, Lori Berenson got involved with an organization called CISPES, a group in solidarity with the leftist Salvadoran guerrillas of the FMLN. A colleague of hers there, Andrea Lampros, recalled Lori as “the first one to teach me how great it was to have cigarettes in the morning with my coffee.”

But another woman who worked with Lori said, “I remember thinking she was really intense, even more than most of us. I guess it didn’t shock me when she was arrested, but I did think she was naïve.” When the woman saw the picture of the enraged Lori Berenson broadcast shortly after her conviction, she said she recognized the expression on her face.

Mrs. Berenson’s visit to prison this time was all business. The mother and daughter didn’t have time to catch up on news of family and friends and Lori wasn’t be able to tell her mom about her new cell. They talked about Lori’s new Peruvian lawyer, a young attorney named Jose Luis Sandoval Quesada whom they ended up choosing last week for the latest phase of her trial. “I agonized over the decision, I couldn’t sleep.” Rhoda said. “But it was really Lori’s decision to make. She’s the one who has to have chemistry with him.”

When Rhoda Berenson flies, back to New York, her husband will be ready to fly to Lima. The Berensons rarely travel together: Someone has to answer the telephone, letters and e-mails and work with the Washington, D.C.-based Committee to Free Lori Berenson. Rhoda Berenson now gets thronged by mobs of Peruvian journalists every time there is a development in the case, and her picture is in the paper so often that she is often recognized on the street. “I’ve gotten a whole new education,” she said. “One I could have lived without.”

Lately, Rhoda Berenson said, Lori has been knitting booties for the new babies of her friends in America. When I said that it must be difficult for Rhoda and Mark Berenson to watch Lori’s friends moving on, getting married and having kids, Mrs. Berenson responded snappishly. “Life goes on for her too,” she said. Then, she softened. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she said. “Lori said to Mark, ‘I’m sorry, I know you wanted grandchildren.’ I don’t want to talk about it. Lori loved children.”

At this point, Mrs. Berenson seems resigned to the nightmare, resigned to the journalists, lawyers, embassy officials and politicians. Resigned to monthly trips to Peru. It’s as if she is sleepwalking, one foot in front of the other, waiting for someone to wake her up. I ask her if on some level she feels guilty about her daughter’s predicament. “There’s nothing I could have done,” she said sadly. “Sometimes I think, well, what if she had gone to Oberlin, because Cambridge was so focused on Latin America. It’s interesting if you’re writing a novel to contemplate a different ending. But it’s not useful.”