05 Mar The Brockton Enterprise: Daughter describes Easton fire victim’s long road to isolation
Source: The Brockton Enterprise
By Ben Berke, The Enterprise
March 4, 2019
EASTON — When David Berman’s house ignited on Jan. 2, the privacy he cultivated during the last years of his life vanished in a billow of smoke.
Fire trucks from six towns arrived on his quiet street shortly before 8 a.m., with officials making forced entry through a back door bolted shut with six locks. Upon entering, they found 42 Dean St. dark and filled with smoke. Behind the barricaded windows, first responders described “extreme hoarding conditions,” with stacks of Berman’s possessions falling on firefighters as they navigated the home with thermal cameras.
After searching for hours, firefighters found Berman in the basement, deceased. More than two months later, the district attorney’s office has not released an official cause of the fire or Berman’s death, though a spokesperson said the office suspects Berman passed away before the fire broke out.
One thing from that afternoon was made clear: the extent to which Berman’s atypical lifestyle had isolated him from the outside world.
As reporters and television crews descended on his one-story brick house, some residents in the neighborhood described Berman as a recluse. Others called attention to a cage-like fence that firefighters had to dismantle to access his front door. One neighbor thought there were booby-traps on the property.
But Berman’s daughter and experts alike say that what happened to Berman could happen to any number of vulnerable seniors. Some 15 million Americans are estimated to share Berman’s hoarding habits, and countless more grow increasingly concerned with security in old age.
The fortifications surrounding Berman’s home, his daughter said, were only a way of protecting himself from a shocking pattern of harassment. She sat down with The Enterprise last month to share the story of a loving father who, through years of trauma and isolation, sank further into a dangerous habit.
A GENIUS WITH A HIDDEN PAST
David Berman moved to Easton in the 1960s, purchasing a tract of undeveloped land near a cranberry bog for $2,800. He and his wife, then residents of Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, erected a home with concrete floors and steel trusses — fire safety measures that, some 50 years later, provided little relief from the flammable conditions created by Berman’s hoarding.
When Chalak was young, Berman worked as a computer programmer. He left that burgeoning industry to join the teamsters union, before switching careers twice more to become a paralegal and later a car salesman.
Chalak described her father as a “genius” whose mental faculties only deteriorated later in life. When Berman was healthy, she said he studied at the Brockton Law Library and ran in local elections. He read widely and could take apart a car and put it back together on his own.
But Chalak said her father also made decisions that confused her, including the choice to legally change his name and hide a past life from his children. Born in Boston under the name Antonio Russo, Berman adopted a new identity after converting to Judaism in the 1960s.
Chalak didn’t learn her father’s birth name until she was an adult. Around that time, a chance encounter between her sister and one of Berman’s brothers revealed that her father had living relatives in Italy. Chalak later learned that Berman himself spoke fluent Italian.
Despite the shock of what Berman had hidden, Chalak emphasized that her father was a loving man, who took great care to provide for and spend time with his three children. She recalled frequent visits to Boston’s North End to enjoy slushies and Italian food. Berman would also take his children to watch airplanes fly in and out of Logan Airport—his service in the Air Force during the 1950s instilled a lifelong interest in aviation, said Chalak.
Throughout his life, Chalak said Berman was never diagnosed with mental illness. It wasn’t until a conflict with a neighboring family erupted that Berman began his long road toward isolation, she said, though she can’t quite remember how it all began.
There was an inappropriate remark toward her sister, she remembered, and a general feeling that Berman was overreacting by reporting their disagreements to school administrators and, eventually, police.
“One thing spiraled into another thing and it became so bad that BB gun bullets would fly through the window,” said Chalak. “Rocks would get thrown through our glass windows. Paint got thrown at the front door. The kids would have their friends come and race up and down the street and stop at our house and throw eggs.”
Determined not to let his detractors drive him out of the home he’d built himself, Berman constructed a cage-like structure to protect his windows from the increasingly regular stream of projectiles.
One police report said that Berman’s home “had the appearance of being fortified.”
High school was hard, said Chalak, because of the stigma surrounding her home. When she graduated Oliver Ames High School in 1989, she left for Northeastern University, never living at home again for longer than a summer. Her parents began a slow separation during the 1990s, leaving Berman mostly alone at 42 Dean St.
By the time Todd Gornstein moved to the neighborhood in 1999, Berman’s neighborly dispute had escalated into a cruel regional tradition.
“I was sometimes there when folks would torment him,” the real estate attorney told The Enterprise. “They’d drive by, slam on their brakes, or rev their engines. I’ll never forget times when I was at home and I could hear the horns blowing at night.”
Police reports from the era describe groups of teenagers from as far away as Norton and Plainville visiting 42 Dean St. to get a rise out of the increasingly paranoid Berman.
A 2001 report describes a Wrentham teenager driving his friends to Dean Street to shine a spotlight through Berman’s window. “He was told by his friends that if you go by there and provoke him, the resident will chase you,” wrote the reporting officer.
A 2006 report says neighbors saw teenagers screaming at Berman and pelting him with items. The reporting officer said Berman had begun to deal with incidents like this “on a nightly basis.”
But soon, the calls reporting harassment came to an end, ushering in an era of increased seclusion on the part of Berman.
“As of the writing of this, we are unable to locate anyone who has seen or spoke to Dave Berman in the last month,” Sgt. John Lynn wrote in a report after a 2010 wellness check. A month later, a different group of officers reported similar results.
Berman, they said, had stopped answering the door for police. Towards the end of Berman’s life, Chalak said when she and her husband came to visit, he would only greet them in the front yard.
Keeping in touch from a distance wasn’t viable either. Berman didn’t have a working phone, said Chalak, and, according to Lynn’s police report, he kept no mailing address.
The years of harassment and property damage had given way to a form of nihilism, said Chalak. She recalled her father’s newfound attitude about the property he’d taken such care to construct: “It’s going to get ruined, so why build something new?”
Instead, he took to blockading his windows, and erecting chicken wire fences and other security measures around the property.
“I would always ask him, ‘Why don’t you move?’” said Chalak. “But he said, ‘This is my home. I helped build it with my hands and I shouldn’t have to move.’ He was very stubborn like that.”
Todd Gornstein was one of few people to keep in regular contact with Berman during this period. He recalled Berman driving a rickety, sky blue Oldsmobile down Winnecunnet Way to welcome him to the neighborhood in 1999, stepping out to offer him tomatoes and cucumbers.
Ever since, the two chatted regularly, typically about the law, the weather or politics, said Gornstein. Berman even met the real estate attorney’s children, surprising them with his kindness and dispelling the rumors they’d heard about his strangeness.
“He was lucid when I would speak to him and seemed to just be a sympathetic, sensible person,” said Gornstein.
But in all their years of talking, Gornstein said Berman never invited him past the front door.
HOARDING’S VICIOUS CYCLE
Jesse Edsell-Vetter runs Metro Housing | Boston’s Center for Hoarding Intervention, where he oversees some 75 to 80 interventions per year.
According to Edsell-Vetter, hoarding can create a vicious cycle for the 15 million Americans caught in its grasp. Embarrassed by the state of their home, some people with hoarding tendencies grow increasingly private, cutting themselves off from potential sources of help. Others fear legal consequences if their lifestyle is exposed.
“We have a very punitive system,” Edsell-Vetter explained. “People are afraid to reach out and ask for help. Loved ones, family members, friends and service providers are afraid to raise concern because they’re afraid of getting the person in trouble, or having their home condemned or taken away.”
Chalak said Berman refused multiple offers to help with home maintenance, leaving her with the feeling that there was nothing she could do.
Terry Kourtz from Old Colony Elder Services runs a program similar to Edsell-Vetter’s in the Brockton area. She said family members can’t help loved ones who hoard unless they’re ready to help themselves.
“Going in and cleaning up something without the person’s involvement can be pretty detrimental to them, sometimes traumatic,” said Kourtz. “Having them involved in that process of cleaning and sorting is ideal.”
Programs like hers and Edsell-Vetter’s offer a way out for people experiencing hoarding. If nothing is done, Kourtz said the results can be extreme.
“From what I’ve heard, cases can cause an infestation,” she said. ”(Hoarding) can cause breathing problems and it can cause mold.”
She also cited structural home damage and an inability to cook or store food as other possible consequences. In Berman’s case, hoarding left him uniquely exposed to an accidental fire.
“Hoarding is a treatable issue,” Edsell-Vetter said when weighing the particulars of Berman’s situation. “If we can get the system to catch up so we can provide the right intervention, we have a much better chance of having fewer outcomes like this particular case.”
A LOVING FATHER, A GRATEFUL DAUGHTER
Chalak does not mince words when it comes to the destructive effects of the harassment her father suffered.
“He wouldn’t have died if he felt that he could live a normal life like you and I, if he didn’t have the fear that someone was going to attack him,” she said.
But in her hours-long interview with The Enterprise, Chalak expressed gratitude for the neighbors and public officials that helped Berman during the last years of his life, dropping off meals and, on rare occasions, driving him to stores in town.
“I can’t say thank you enough to the police and the firefighters who were there that day,” said Chalak. “It was like a culmination of all the people who would come by to make sure he was OK. They were the ones that made the trips to the house. They were the ones that gave their time to him. I know it wasn’t easy but I’m grateful.”
Chalak, a biomedical engineer, now lives in a suburb of Worcester with a family of her own, where she keeps photographs of Berman in the house.
“He wanted his kids to be successful and we are,” she said through tears. “He would take the brunt of everything to make sure that everyone else was OK.”