My Dad, My Depression
By DAVID MOGOLOV
Lost in America: A Journey with My Father
By Sherwin B. Nuland
212 pages. Vintage Books. $12.
Sherwin Nuland wrote his most recent book, Lost in America—aptly subtitled A Journey with My Father—to, in his
words, "help me come to terms with my father. I am writing this book to
finally make peace with him, and perhaps with myself." Given his family's
paralysis in the face of his father's ceaseless rage, which Nuland goes on to
describe, this is a tall order. Whether he succeeded on his mission of peace,
only he can say, but for his readers, if they can be said to have reasonable
expectations from it, the book is a success. Perhaps because of decisions he
did not consciously make, Lost in America
is a gift to our understanding of family, and to the obligations we have to our
fathers, no matter whether they've fulfilled their obligations to us.
This book is, above all else, honest. Nuland doesn't spare truth for mercy.
Both parental biography and autobiography, the book lays out the facts in a
level, unsentimental way. Nuland seems to stroll through the story, rather than
stride. His father, Meyer Nudelman, a Jewish immigrant from the Russian Pale,
settled in the Bronx and spent the bulk of his life working in the women's garment
industry. While those around him tried to assimilate, Meyer never even
attempted the basic step of mastering English. The first of his sons died while
Meyer was still young and healthy. Over the following years, due to the effects
of a mysterious undiagnosed disease, he was slowly deprived of his motor skills
and bladder control, rendering him a near-cripple and social embarrassment for
his family. His diminished stature enraged him, and in impotence, he lashed out
daily at his family, berating and threatening them for the smallest perceived
slight. The family, in his presence, remained silent, fearing his eruptions.
The death of his wife left him wounded and alone, and even more unstable.
But this honest history alone cannot give us a true understanding of his
father. It's not Nuland's recounting of events, but his earnest desire for his
father to be worthy of his love that makes the book resonate. Despite it all,
his search for his father's decency trumps everything else, and in the end,
gives us a deep understanding of their relationship. That is not to say that
Nuland credits his father more than he deserves. Rather, Nuland gives more
weight to the good in his father by emphasizing the subtle but essential
intimate details that would, by an outside chronicler, be overlooked.
Consider that Nuland begins his father's biography with a discussion of his own
battles with serious clinical depression, and devotes at least some of every
following chapter to his father's reign of domestic terror. Surely, everything
he tells us is to be believed. But still, the stories that reflect his father's
goodness, though less frequent, are the passages that make the book most
worthwhile. They also hold the most weight, because they are the most complete.
Nuland tells us why, when he's discussing something else—on page one he tells
us that "the solitary torment of a depressed mind eludes any attempt to
make it apprehensible to those who have not experienced it... Neither vivid
description nor the empathy of others can pierce the darkness of the long
night." He compares it to the sensation of pain, which we cannot recall
once it has passed. We only know it to be terrible. Others can sympathize, but
they cannot know. So, thankfully, is
the fear and anguish caused by Meyer Nudelman impossible to make fully
tangible. The better moments are those we grasp more fully, because we are
cheered by them. We recognize our own experiences in them.
Were it not for these fonder memories, Nuland would not probably be motivated
to share this book with us, nor to write it. If his was just a story of a bad
father, even a terrible father, it would not be compelling. In fact, Nuland
would likely not be so haunted by his father had Meyer been merely a cruel man.
He would not tie his father so closely to his own failures, and to his
depression, had his father not left him so conflicted.
The revelation of his father's defects and failures is an offering to his
memory. Not an offer of forgiveness, but of recognition that his father is
human and worthy of respect, not just an embarrassment to his sons. The
combination of his stooped, shuffling movements and his indecipherable speech
made him, in the eyes of his two remaining sons, the prototype of the shtetl
Jew, the very image they were trying to flee. They were ashamed of him
throughout his life. They saw him as comic, when they ought to have viewed him
as tragic. Nuland realized this only just before Meyer's death, and the pages
that follow this recognition are written in a different tone--one of mature
acceptance and, in a reversal of traditional roles, careful protection of his
father. Nuland recalls hurrying his father away from a medical school dorm,
embarrassed by his father, who had paid him a surprise visit after a
painstaking and dangerous trip to New Haven from the Bronx:
Seeing how I lived was not my father's
real purpose in making his way to my dormitory; he had come because he missed
being with his son. I could tell this from the cursory glance he cast at my
room that day, and the tenderness in the way he looked—gazed might be a better word—at me; I could tell it from the things
he chose to talk about, which had everything to do with home and nothing to do
with Yale; and I could tell it from our physical connection as we walked, which,
though necessitated in part by his instability, brought a sense of his warmth
to me as it rarely had in the past…For those few hours, we were as we had
always been and yet never had been, without the rancor and without the pain.
None of the passages in the book say so much about the
father-son relationship that existed here, even beneath the horror and the
shame that overwhelmed it. And none of the passages of the book resonate more
than this, and its like.