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In Lost in America, a Yale surgeon opens up memories of his father

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Summer


The latest and most personal book by Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. ’55, HS ’61, Lost in America: A Journey With My Father, grew first and foremost out of his need to dissect his tangled feelings of love and resentment toward his immigrant father. But Nuland’s memoir about his impoverished childhood in the Bronx also arose from his discomfort about how others view him today: those who have known Nuland as the urbane surgeon, scholar and internationally known writer have seen a public face whose polish reveals nothing of “the long road to get there.”

Nuland opens his book with an epigraph: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The book tells not only the story of his father’s tragedies but also the story of Nuland’s own “great battle”—his struggles with death, depression, anti-Semitism and shame.

“For many people who haven’t spent a lot of time with me,” says Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, “I was some kind of a cool WASPy guy who comes from a very American background and has things all figured out. … But I’m also this other complex, confused person. The whole idea is that each of us is a bundle of inconsistencies.”

Some of Nuland’s confusion stems from growing up with a father who devoted himself to his wife and children but who raged against them, frustrated by his own failures and misfortunes. Nuland’s nagging awareness that he needed to examine his feelings about his father remained in “the back pocket” of his mind for several years after the 1994 publication of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. The book was tremendously successful, winning the National Book Award and selling a half-million copies in the United States alone. But readers pointed out something that shocked Nuland: he had intimately described the illnesses of several family members without once mentioning his father.

“I didn’t understand why I’d left him out of the book,” says the 72-year-old Nuland in a late-winter interview in the office of his colonial house in Hamden, Conn. He realized, “I’m never going to really understand him until I write about him.”

Nuland begins his story not with an account of his father but with a scene from his own nightmarish year in a mental hospital when, at age 42, he was suffering from severe depression. The dispirited Nuland adopted the stooped posture and helplessness of his father, 15 years dead.

That father was an immigrant from Bessarabia, then claimed by Russia, who had come to America at 19, a garment worker who embarrassed his son by speaking mangled English and shuffling when he walked (a sign of a spinal cord disease that Nuland abruptly recognized one evening while reading his physiology text at Yale). Nuland’s father and adored mother had lost their first-born son before Sherwin, or “Shep,” was born. And then Nuland’s mother died, too, of rectal cancer, when he was 11.

Nuland was drawn to medicine both by his need to vanquish the disgust he felt about disease and because he revered doctors. “To me, as a child of 8, 9, 10, there was a nobility in a physician.” In his chaotic world, physicians “had about them an equanimity that I genuinely admired, that was based on the reality that they really could do things, really could lift people up from the depths of despair and give them hope.”

Indeed, a young physician effectively saved Nuland’s life during his midlife depression. Nuland narrowly escaped a lobotomy because resident Vittorio Ferrero, M.D., protested the orders of his superiors at The Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. Nuland recovered after a string of electroshock treatments.

These days Nuland devotes all his time to writing and speaking. He’s planning a trip to Shanghai this summer for the wedding of his son from his first marriage, and he has two young grand-children by his older daughter, a NATO diplomat in Brussels. His two younger children, with actress and director Sarah Peter-son, are of college age.

Nuland says his books have allowed him to become a kind of family physician in print. In that sense, he calls Lost in America “my ultimate book.” “This is a kind of therapy for everybody who reads the book, to recognize that it’s OK to be complex and confused. ... Because essentially what I’m saying is ‘Look, look where I was, and look how I gradually came out of that to have made such a rewarding life.’ ”

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