Wrestling the Demons Within
Lost in America: A Journey With My Father
By Sherwin B. Nuland
Knopf, 112 pages, $24.
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Stock figures and set pieces tend to dominate the well-limned territory of memoirs written by the children of the early 20th-century immigrants who stepped off the boats from Odessa, Danzig or St. Petersburg and found, alas, that New York’s streets were not lined with gold and so settled along the macadam thoroughfares of the Lower East Side, Brooklyn and the Bronx. There is the extended family living cheek by jowl, sons sharing bedrooms with assorted female relatives or camping out in living rooms. There are the strains of the Yiddish of Eastern Europeans for whom mameloshn is the first, the beloved and the only natural tongue. There are strong, fierce matriarchs and mothers of enduring tenderness. There are fathers trudging off to their sewing machines on Seventh Avenue, coming home to read The Jewish Daily Forward, the forebear of this paper. There are fathers and sons solemnly reciting prayers on Yom Kippur. And there are children growing to adulthood bearing the burden of their elders’ intemperate faith that the success of the young will redeem the hardships and disappointments of an earlier generation.
This, in some measure, is the world of Sherwin B. Nuland’s intriguing memoir, “Lost in America: A Journey with My Father,” and these are the makings of his boyhood in the Bronx, circa 1940. They explain, in part, the man he became: a Yale-trained surgeon at a time of rampant antisemitism, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale and author of the brilliant and original “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.” Yet for Nuland this familiar landscape was colored in dark and tumultuous hues, and, despite Nuland’s notable achievements, depression stalked him from his teens onward. On his worst days, confined to a psychiatric hospital during a midlife breakdown, the powerful penitential prayer Nuland remembers saying with his father spawned terrifying, obsessive “ideations” that nearly destroyed him.
By using his breakdown to introduce his story Nuland signals that this is no mere sentimental journey. Without dwelling on the details of his illness, Nuland leaves no doubt about its severity — most of his doctors believed that only a prefrontal lobotomy could save him — and so invites us to embark on his memoirs piqued by the question: What went so terribly wrong?
The thrust of Nuland’s answer is plain — although there are hints that he may not be the most reliable of narrators. Nuland locates the source of his deepest pain in his relationship with this father, a man of unpredictable sensitivities, of exacting and infuriating demands and of volcanic rages. Never a worldly success, never assimilated, never comfortable in English, he was afflicted by a mysterious, degenerative illness. His hand was unsteady, his gait wobbly and his bladder so weak that urine leaked onto his clothes. A perennial source of embarrassment and shame to his son, he was the quintessential “bent, tired-looking shtetl Jew.”
But more was afoot than one difficult personality in the crowded four-room apartment Nuland shared with his maternal grandmother, maiden aunt, parents and older brother, and much besides his father accounts for the trajectory of Nuland’s life. Death and loss stalked the Noodleman-Lativisky family. All but one of Nuland’s maternal grandmother’s children predeceased her, including Nuland’s beloved mother, who died when Nuland was 11. A firstborn son succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 3, and diphtheria nearly killed Nuland when he was no older.
Molding Nuland as well were the massive silences and strange lacunas that characterized family life. Nuland’s father never talked about the family he had left behind somewhere in the Pale of Settlement. Letters never arrived from the old country, nor were they sent. Nuland’s maternal grandmother, his adoring bubbe, didn’t speak to Nuland’s father; she survived the death of Nuland’s mother, lived another decade sharing close quarters with her son-in-law and died, as far as Nuland knows, never having uttered a word to him. Nuland to this day has no idea of the source of her towering grievance.
In the best of this memoir, the voice of the clear-sighted, unflinching author of “How We Die” is audible. Here, as before, Nuland proves himself the master of the minute, almost technical, description that conveys worlds. In a single sentence Nuland captures all of the loving and repulsive richness of his grandmother’s gogl-mogl, the elixir of milk, honey, raw egg and butter used to heal the body when chicken soup wouldn’t suffice. Yet despite its many pleasures, this is a strangely unsatisfying book. The explanations Nuland is willing to provide for what went wrong come across as guarded. Whole districts of enemy territory within Nuland himself — the most interesting kind of exotic land — seem only superficially visited, flown over at a safe distance, far above the teeming and perhaps dangerous regions below. Something essential feels withheld. Indeed, Nuland, holding true to familial patterns, shows himself capable of secrecy and subterfuges. To escape discrimination, he tells us, he hid his Jewish origins by changing his surname. He reports that when he finally discovered the source of his father’s ailments in a medical school textbook, he never told his father — understandably, perhaps, since his father’s doctor had never told him — but neither did he breathe a word of it to his brother, who died 40 years later still ignorant of the source of their father’s great affliction. Capable of withholding such vital information from blood relatives, Nuland invites questions about how much he might be keeping from his readers.
Nuland is entitled to keep his own counsel. He may well have made a wise decision to forgo writing what might have been an anguished howl of guilt and rage. The demons within him have been loosed on a number of occasions, and once they nearly murdered his soul. Now, Nuland says, he wants to make peace with his father and with himself.
Yet the best memoirs of our times — works like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” and Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood” — were born of something besides a desire for peace. They are brutal at their core, seeped in unresolved pain. The people who wrote them may not be the nicest of human beings, their personalities may not be the most fully integrated, they may be unkind, even ruthless, and, for all we know, they too may have withheld huge chunks of themselves. But their works evince a blind courage, a willingness to dig and leave exposed something still alive, raw and bleeding, which makes for good reading. If such writers don’t sleep well at night, that is their problem, not the reader’s.
Peace, after all, has never been the point of great literature. The author of “How We Die” knew this; the author of “Lost in America,” having other concerns, may have forgotten.
Jill Laurie Goodman is a New York lawyer and book critic. She last appeared in these pages December 21, 2001, reviewing Lawrence Douglas’s “The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust” (Yale).