Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 28, 2003|Volume 31, Number 23














Dr. Sherwin Nuland

Nuland revisits life with a difficult father

"My own father was my tormentor, towering over me with waving arms, roaring his denunciations. Even knowing that my words were muffled by the cushion and choked by my racking sobs and the gurgling of mucoid wetness bubbling out of my nose and mouth, I kept begging him to go away. I was being suffocated by the savagery of his castigation. My head ached from the unrelenting pressure of the words, which I could almost feel. Completely beyond control now, he was flaying the skin from my soul. ... I knew only that the bombardment of maniacal fury was doing its work, reducing me to a terrified and helpless infancy, and there was no way to protect myself against it. I was being paid back not just for my moment of mild teasing, but for all the indignities of a failed life as well."

-- From "Lost in America: A Journey with My Father"

Dr. Sherwin Nuland has lived his life determined to be everything his father was not -- self-controlled, successful, resourceful and independent -- he says in his new memoir "Lost in America: A Journey with My Father."

But in his early 40s, in the midst of a distinguished career as a Yale surgeon and teacher, Nuland became so depressed that he was hospitalized for a year, and frustrated psychiatrists considered a lobotomy. A young psychiatrist-in-training saved him from this drastic measure by instead ordering electroshock therapy. The treatment worked. But while he was in "the blackness of despair," writes Nuland, he was very much an image of his own father: stooped over, unsteady in his walk, defeated and lost.

Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at the School of Medicine, went on to resume his medical career, and a literary one as well. His several books on medical topics include "How We Die," which won a National Book Award in 1994.

In "How We Die," Nuland touched upon the deaths of his mother, an aunt and his brother. But after its publication, he could not ignore the fact that his father, who died in 1958, was conspicuously absent on its pages, he said in an interview.

Nor could he deny the connection between his midlife depression -- and several milder episodes he experienced before and since -- and his feelings about his father, he notes in "Lost in America."

Nuland wrote his memoir, he says, out of a need "to figure out how I felt about my father, what he represented in my life."

"Lost in America" is Nuland's own journey back to his childhood, a depiction of his father's journey through life in America as a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and a journey both inward and forward as he untangles his complex feelings for the man who, he writes, "remains a constant looming presence in everything I do, but an unresolved one." Published by Alfred A. Knopf, "Lost in America" was described as "breathtaking" by Publishers Weekly and The New York Times Book Review remarked that it "may well be a great book."

Nuland describes his upbringing in the Bronx, New York, where he lived, near poverty, in a cramped apartment shared by his parents, Meyer and Vitsche Nudelman, his maternal grandmother and a maternal aunt. His father, an Orthodox Jew who emigrated from Bessarabia in 1907, was a garment factory worker whose chronic illness from a progressive disease -- never identified in Nuland's youth -- bore neurological and urological symptoms. He had tremendous difficulty walking, and the odor of his urine-soaked underwear permeated the apartment.

Nuland's mother died when he was 11, leaving her sons to tend to their father, who was "in a class by himself," says Nuland. His father never mentioned the family or life he left behind in Russia, but also never embraced life in America. He spoke mangled English, which he never learned to read or write; Yiddish was the predominant language in their home. Writes Nuland, "he seemed unwilling or perhaps unable to do what was required to improve his station," making his life one of numerous "small failures and perceived slights." In time, notes the Yale surgeon, his father's "being lost in America would give way to being lost in life."

Fear and shame were the feelings Nuland most associated with his father, who was prone to sudden, unpredictable rages; even a mild joke could unleash his fury. As a child, his shame prompted Nuland to stay a few steps ahead of or behind his father while walking with him.

"It was unnatural to have a father like him, one whose moodiness and explosive anger were ever ready to change the atmosphere in the blink of an eye, and leave me cringing with alarm and even a sense of danger at what he might say or do," Nuland writes. "He was a constant source of embarrassment when we were in the street together. His hacked attempts at English, his increasingly obvious difficulties with walking, the eating habits that seemed to disgust me more with each passing year -- all of them repelled me. Why couldn't he be like other men? Why couldn't I have a father who was like everyone else's? I was ashamed to be his son, and I wanted to be away from him."

In high school, Nuland and his brother changed their last name, partly to disguise their Jewishness, which at the time closed certain doors for them. For Nuland, it was also an attempt to liberate himself from his father, who represented, "everything which I so desperately wanted to be rid of," he writes.

Ultimately, there was no escape. Nuland shows how his father both depended on him and made awkward attempts to show him love. Nuland's own loyalty forced him to arrive promptly each day to help walk his father home from work, even as a busy college student at New York University.

Later, as a student at the Yale medical school, Nuland couldn't escape his guilt about leaving home. There, he gained insight into his father's illness while reading a medical textbook, which described a disease that matched Nudelman's symptoms. Suddenly, Nuland writes, "I understood the tragedy of his life."

Age and illness softened Nudelman over the years, enough so that when Nuland was appointed a chief resident at Yale, he couldn't wait to share the good news with his father, then hospitalized. He remembers being touched by his father's intense pride. Two days later, Meyer Nudelman -- who was "just beginning to learn how to express his depth of feeling," recalls Nuland -- died.

"There were times earlier in my life when I wanted him dead," Nuland admitted in an interview. "But I discovered that even in death, he still had enormous power over me."

Since writing his book, people have asked Nuland if his "journey" has helped him to forgive his father, he said.

"I don't know what forgiveness means," he commented. "But I do know that each of us is crying out to be understood, and I came to understand him in a way that I hadn't before -- as a man who was raging against the fates but had no control of his own fate."


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The art around us

Yale Books in Brief

Campus Notes

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