I am 74 and still unknown as a writer of major import, but as ridiculous as it may sound, I am patient. Here and there I have had my moments, glimpses of where I might go, but they have been ephemeral, a tease. Fortunately, they have also given me a hint at possibilities. So, like an adolescent, hope springs eternal, firing me up, creating expectations, also setting me up for disappointments. Whatever happens, the effect on my writing is nil. I am as charged and excited as day one when I couldn’t understand something and the light went on. I found an answer. I write and write and write.
I still get excited by the joy of discovery. My head suddenly feels clear. More than that, realizing I have something to say, that isn’t being said elsewhere, gets me going. Even if someone else has gotten there first, I take that as confirmation. Whether I, or someone else, I’m thrilled when I discover an answer to a question that is bothering me.
I suppose I go deep. Not by choice. My questions lead me to new questions and doubts so I keep going. Occasionally, I nail it. Correction– more than occasionally. Often enough. But my heroes are Wittgenstein and Socrates. They treasured honesty above any other habit, being able to admit when they didn’t have an answer.
In the middle of his lectures at Cambridge, Wittgenstein often called himself an idiot when something confused him. He’d stand in front of the class unable to go forward. Eventually, he quit Cambridge’s philosophy department. For 10 years he worked as a gardener. He came back when he figured his way out of logical positivism’s traps. The answer was “ordinary language” philosophy. His fellow gardeners were able to avoid the mazes his colleagues at Cambridge created for themselves.
A similar story about Socrates. Someone told him he was the wisest of all philosophers. He had his doubts. So he went to hear other philosophers’ teachings. Many knew things he didn’t know, but he had one unique quality, which he decided made him wiser than any of them. He knew when he didn’t know something.
A last, certainly sentimental and embarrassing confession. Tears come to my eyes every time I watch this one scene in Dr. Zhivago. Zhivago is dead. His brother thinks he has found his long lost daughter, now grown up. He tells her all about her father, his greatness as a poet, his love of Lara.
“This man was your father. Why won’t you believe it? Don’t you want to believe it?”
“Not if it isn’t true.”
Zhivago brother smiles, “That’s inherited.”
I don’t know what any of that means. How I got that way. But it nevertheless is true, for better or worse, it is one of my obsessions. Even now, for the hundredth time, I feel the tears coming when I go there.
Until my retirement, most of my writing was on psychiatric subjects. It was old school psychiatry, not science, the kind that appeals to laymen. The pain in our hearts, forever ready to grab a hold of our life, the mysteries of our motivations–I was drawn there. The brain’s chemistry may some day provide very good solutions to our troubles, but right now psychiatrists are fooling themselves, and worse, the public. Our knowledge is thin. Yes they should rightfully pride themselves that they adhere to scientific method, to hard facts, to the certainty of numbers proving a point. But all too often this provides an illusion of effectiveness and surprisingly, rigidity and an abundance of false claims. The tip-off is the deference given to “experts.” Experts? Huh? Who are they? I’d much prefer “this is my best shot” That’s all any of us can offer.
“Expert” sounds authoritative, but it represents the eternal temptation of the Wizard of Oz. Basing their elixirs on studies, on hard numbers, on science is very appealing. We prefer very little wiggle room about answers we need. The trap in this mindset, however, is that waving science as a banner, its virtues can act like a smokescreen. The language, the prestige, the trappings of science can be so distracting that science’s core value is overshadowed, absolute clarity about what is known and not known. The theme of many of my articles is that, considering how much we still don’t understand, our steps forward should be tentative, investigative, not closed off by the chilling effects of authority.
Please go to SimonSobo.com to read the praise my articles have received in my field from the likes of Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled). Lauren Slater (Prozac Diaries) and Anna Freud: “I read immediately what you have written and found it very interesting and convincing… I have searched for the right words to describe the processes which underlie the young people’s attitudes, but I was not able to find them. I believe that you have done much better in this respect and I find myself fascinated by your elaborations.” She put part one of that article in the yearly Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, which was like being chosen for the all star team. Thirteen or fourteen of the best articles for that year. And, at that point I had just finished my training.
Professor Bruce Charlton in England, at the time, editor of the iconoclastic journal Medical Hypothesis, had me write an editorial, attacking psychiatry’s “diagnosis” fetish,( placing patients in one of 6 or 7 categories which presumably then explains everything.) Samuel Timimi included a contrarian chapter by me in his book Rethinking ADHD. I should also add my idol at the time, Pauline Kael “loved” a movie review I sent her. She sent me a postcard to call her, and the next day we were shmoozing in her apartment.
IUP wanted to publish my book, The Fear of Death (derived from part 2 of the article Anna Freud liked). A number of people were excited by it. It opened up a whole new perspective in psychoanalysis. Freud had a powerful fear of death. It was the craziest part of him. Yet strangely, he denied it was an important motivation in our psychology. My book presaged, in 1980, a preoccupation that had grabbed a hold of American culture, and that is still with us, a focus on health, on mortality of almost religious magnitude. Destruction of conventional authority, particularly religion, the elevation of me, of personal freedom, left us to face alone the very worst possibility in our life. Death.
IUP, at the time, was the premier publishing house, kind of the Knopf of psychiatric literature. They registered it with The Library of Congress. Listed it in their upcoming publicity. It’s a long story of what went awry but the manuscript eventually sat on my shelf for years unpublished.(I was busy writing another book). Its fate says it all. One day Walt Disney Productions contacted me. They had found the title in The Library of Congress. They were doing a comedy, What About Bob? A character in the movie, the shrink’s son, was brooding in his father’s library, reading The Fear of Death. I told them the book didn’t exist. “No problem” they said. They would create a book cover (with blank pages). Sure I told them. At that point, why not. They filmed the scene. But then cut it from the final version of the movie. Speaking of how fame is fleeting. In the end I had to self publish. Took me five years to write that book. Why not get it out there.
Anyway, as often as I have sputtered and fucked up good opportunities, the point remains that many renowned writers, especially those who admire originality, have been turned on after reading my work. So I still expect it is going to happen. Or it won’t. Either way I still have my photography