Sherwin Nuland recalls his "ambivalent heritage"Throughout his childhood in the 1930s and '40s, Sherwin Nuland viewed his immigrant father through a prism of fear and embarrassment. Meyer Nudelman was never a violent man, according to his son, but he did have an unpredictable and volcanic temper that withered anyone in its path. Moreover, he suffered from a progressively crippling disease that made it difficult for him to walk about his Bronx neighborhood without his self-conscious son at his elbow. This tense proximity was so emotionally wrenching, Nuland says, that he had to write his new memoir, Lost In America: A Journey With My Father to finally come to terms with it.
Despite its ominous beginning, the book emerges as a heart-melting story of delayed compassion and love. Formerly a clinical professor of surgery at Yale and now a teacher of bioethics and medical history there, Nuland is also the author of The Mysteries Within, Leonardo da Vinci, and the National Book Award-winning How We Die. "I think my father left me with this ambivalent heritage," the author explains, speaking to BookPage from his home in Connecticut. "As a child, as an adolescent, in my 20s, I always felt that the way to pattern my life the way of bringing up my own children, the way of being a husband was to be exactly the opposite of what he was. But clearly something was churning inside of me because of this very strong identification I had with his disabilities. . . . It wasn't a question of consciously perceiving that he was with me all the time but that, in fact, he was inside of me without my knowing it."Nuland's reactive approach notwithstanding, his life began falling apart when he was in his late 30s and early 40s, long after his father had died. In addition to seeing his first marriage collapse, Nuland descended into such deep and unresponsive depression that he had to be hospitalized and subjected to a long series of electroshock treatments. "If you had seen me during this time," he says, "you would say, My God, he has become his father!' I spoke that way. In profile, I looked that way. I responded that way." Even after he recovered ("I'm the least depressed human being on earth when I'm not actually depressed," he says cheerfully), the filial complexities lingered.
Another strand of Nuland's remembrances is of cultural assimilation. Until his death, Meyer Nudelman remained a transplanted Russian Jew not homogenized. He never lost his impenetrable accent, nor tried to, and he showed little interest in exploring his alien surroundings. Son Sherwin, however, was a quick study in fitting in, in assessing and mastering the landscape. "I think [assimilation] is the arc of a life," Nuland says. "For some people, there's a conscious need to accelerate it, because you really want to leave behind what you have been born into. To others, the motivation is more forward in the sense that you don't necessarily want to leave what you have and what you are, but you're really planning to become this other thing in this society which you find yourself. For me, it was both. But I think it was largely the first that I really had to get out of this atmosphere that I thought was stifling." While still in high school, he legally jettisoned his father's last name in favor of the more English-sounding Nuland. Eventually, he departed from his father's religion as well. "It's been one of the conflicts of my life," he says. "It didn't resolve until I fell apart. I came out of that experience realizing that I had truly always been an agnostic and that what had brought me in previous years to the synagogue was my inability to separate myself from my background, from my love of family and that whatever obsessional religious forms I carried out were just that they were obsessional. They were not real. They were not genuine, because I really had no belief." Nuland concedes that his intelligence not only provided him a way out of his surroundings but was also a comfort while he was still in. "I was amazed by it. I could never figure it out. Of course, the Bronx was sort of a crucible for smart, hardworking kids in those days. I remember when I first started school, there were about five of us in class who seemed to be completely different from all the other kids. Eventually, we all skipped a grade. . . . My curiosity just seemed to be built in. But the realization that I had this ability to see things in certain ways that most other kids couldn't was a real source of joy to me. It opened the world up. It made everything possible."It eventually made possible Nuland's acceptance into the Yale School of Medicine. The distance between New York and New Haven lessened the flash points between father and son. Meyer Nudelman spoke proudly to all who would listen about his son's progress toward doctorhood. He doted on him, doing him small favors like preparing massive batches of chocolate pudding every time he returned home. For his part, Nuland visited his father dutifully during his increasingly long stays in the hospital, and rushed to his bedside to tell him in person when Yale awarded him the hotly competed for post of chief resident. As his father slowly absorbed the good news, Nuland writes, he saw in the old man's face "something beyond pride. It was vindication; if was fulfillment; it was the love of a father for his son. . . . I threw my arms around Pop's shoulders and made no attempt to disguise the tears."After tackling deeply personal topics in Lost In America, Nuland turns in his next book, nearly completed, to a more detached subject the life of the 19th-century obstetrician Ignatz Semmelweis. Edward Morris is a freelance writer in Nashville.