Literature Annotations


Nuland, Sherwin B.
Lost in America: A Journey with My Father


Genre Memoir (212 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Acculturation, Adolescence, Children, Communication, Cross-Cultural Issues, Depression, Disability, Family Relationships, Father-Son Relationship, Freedom, Grief, Illness and the Family, Impaired Physician, Institutionalization, Loneliness, Love, Memory, Mental Illness, Mourning, Narrative as Method, Obsession, Poverty, Power Relations, Psycho-social Medicine, Psychotherapy, Racism, Rebellion, Religion, Scapegoating, Sexuality, Society, Survival, Time, Trauma
Summary

Sherwin Nuland has had a distinguished career as a surgeon on the faculty at Yale University and as an author with interests in history of medicine, medical ethics, and medical humanism. In this memoir we become acquainted with a different side of Nuland, that of son to a widowed, immigrant father with whom the author had a complex and difficult relationship.

We learn also that Nuland has suffered from depression on and off since he was preadolescent, experiencing a major breakdown in midlife. This book attempts to make sense out of the family dynamics and the depression. At the same time, it describes the insular world of Russian Jewish immigrants living in New York City's Lower East Side and Bronx in the first half of the 20th century.

Nuland explores, frankly and openly, his ambivalent relationship with his father, Meyer Nudelman, and contrasting adoration of his mother, who died when Nuland was 11. The young Sherwin (Sheppy) Nudelman lived in fear of his father's strict rules and unpredictable anger. Further, Sheppy was required to assist his father whenever he went out of the house because Meyer Nudelman had an unsteady gait that made walking difficult and that became increasingly severe. Although the boy initially enjoyed these neighborhood jaunts with his father, he was increasingly resentful of them as his father's condition deteriorated and as his own interests focused more on people and activities outside the home. His father's strong Yiddish accent, strange gait, and sloppy appearance were a major embarrassment.

The last third of Lost in America--chronologically the era of World War II, the Nazi atrocities, and after--concern Nuland's maturation and his path toward the profession of medicine. As he and his brother, Harvey, were contemplating a future in the world of Gentiles, they decided to change their last name from Nudelman to Nuland. Sherwin Nuland was accepted to medical school at "Waspy" Yale and chose to enroll there, deliberately distancing himself (on the surface) from his father and his culture.

In medical school Nuland realized that Meyer Nudelman's physical symptoms were caused by late stage syphilis. The initial shock and disbelief of that discovery dissipated; Meyer's growing helplessness and tremendous pride in the accomplishment of his son allowed for a measure of understanding and affection between the two.

Commentary

This is a well written, absorbing, and sometimes painful-to read-memoir. Nuland attempts to understand his difficult relationship with his father through an exploration of memory, cultural background, and by narrative reconstruction. He is often brutally frank about the fear, mortification, disdain inspired in him by his father. "Maniacal fury," "tormentor," "smothering power," "entangling shame" are terms he uses to describe his father's mood, behavior, and his own feelings about the man. Nuland understands, retrospectively, his own adolescent self-absorption and his near abandonment of Meyer as a young adult.

Yet he is still wrestling with guilt--"it is almost too painful to think about, this self recrimination I have borne since middle-age about never having taken my father seriously" (108). And he is wrestling still with ambivalence--"enduring love" and "enduring hate"--"I am writing this book to help me come to terms with my father" (2). Yet, in the end, it is not clear that the struggle is finished, and in that sense Nuland expresses what is probably true for all of us--that much about our relationship to parents dies within us only when we are dead.

What cannot be disassociated from Nuland's story is his Jewish background of persecution, scapegoating, immigration, and the Holocaust. These families led lives of displacement, loss, poverty, fear, and suffering--whether in Eastern Europe, or while "Lost in America." The children who were born in America were, as Nuland points out, the anchor that kept their parents from total despair. Such a situation can put a terrible burden on those children, even as they become "successful." Nuland, too, we understand, is somewhat lost in America.

PublisherRandom House/Vintage
Edition2004 (paperback)
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published: 2003. Nuland discusses his severe depression of the 1970's and its resolution with electroconvulsive therapy in a talk he gave in 2001, when he first publicly revealed the mental illness he had experienced. See 20 minute video online at: http://www.ted.com/talks/sherwin_nuland_on_electroshock_therapy.html
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 07/02/04
Last Revised 10/18/11