My Dad, My Depression


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.