I am 78 and still unknown as a writer, 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 a tease. They have given me a hint of possibilities. Which is a blessing and a curse. They make me like an adolescent. Hope springs eternal. I am fired up, expectations leaping over each other. It also places me on a stormy path like an adolescent, which can easily turn into disaster, emotions adults are supposed to have overcome.
Fortunately I like to write, like it more than almost anything I do. The feeling I get when the light goes on, when something I couldn’t understand now is illuminated–my head suddenly feels clear, relaxed, like I have found an oasis in the middle of a dessert. I love those moments and they almost always happen when I am writing. I write and write and write hoping for those glimpses. Compared to most people I value them to a ridiculous degree. But perhaps I need them more than most people. Discovering something that is newly true, or perhaps rediscovering something I once knew, and had forgotten, brings my happiest moments. Finding the truth, or close approximations of it turns me on. There is little enough out there, or so it seems.
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 the process can be long. I think I have figured out the reason. For hundreds of years the entire Torah was read to the congregation over the course of the year. Each week a new section of Torah was read. For centuries discussions in Talmudic academies about that week’s Torah could go all night, sometimes days and days. They weren’t being pedantic or stubborn. If they had gone home for the night they would toss and turn. They wouldn’t be able to sleep or would wake up repeatedly with what they thought might solve the problem. So they might as well have stayed at the academy with others similarly having to find the answers they had to have.
There was a lot at stake, It was the only way they had a chance of overcoming God’s silence. The word of God determined how their devotion should be carried out, their life lived as good Jews. Christians, have Christ inspiring them with a clear message. Jews are people of the book, meaning their most important possession is what was given to them by God. A book, the Torah. It contains his words to his people. Unfortunately, many of his words are not easy to understand. In the synagogue they put a crown on the Torah like it is our king. Every time the Torah is brought out from its home in its sacred ark it is like a coronation. As they march through the aisles holding up the Torah, members of the congregation kiss their tallis and touch the Torah with it. Songs of praise to God joyfully resound for having given the Torah to us. The Torah must be written out by hand. A single mistake by the scribe means that Torah must be disposed of. Because it is from God it must be perfect. Century after century interpretations of the week’s passage were debated. They still are. Rabbis didn’t and won’t give up on divining what is written. They can’t give up. They have to know what God is telling them. When they have figured out the meaning of a passage, when they have been blessed with a terrific insight, they believe they hear his voice. God is now speaking to them.
Somehow, with not very much Hebrew education, and no interest in the Torah, without a belief in God, I absorbed the spirit of their quest, their passion for making sense of things. I wanted what they wanted. Not God’s intentions, but I needed insights like Talmudic rabbis needed them. I don’t know where I got that devotion. My great grandfather was a rabbi. Otherwise, everyone in the family has long been secular. My answers have been every bit as complicated as Talmudic rabbis. The same as my ancestors, my quest could go on for hours, for days and weeks, for a lifetime. I sought clarity that repeatedly fled no sooner than I captured it.
It’s easy to deceive myself, and easy to deceive others. There is a pressure to be right and this leads to deception. So I had to resist temptation. My heroes became Wittgenstein and Socrates. They treasured honesty above any thing else. This consisted of being able to admit when they didn’t know something.
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. He published very very little. Had his never ending doubts. Notes taken by his students were eventually published. Bertrand Russell used to sit in on his classes, as did several of the other Cambridge professors. For good reason–they were hearing thoughts that they had never read or thought of. Russell called him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius.”
Where did it get him? Eventually, Wittgenstein quit the famed Cambridge’s philosophy department when he realized he couldn’t find the answers he needed. Philosophy at the highest level was a waste of time. For 10 years he worked as a gardener, never telling his fellow workers that he had been a professor at Cambridge. He came back to the university when he figured his way out of the traps logical positivism had led everyone to. The answer was “ordinary language” philosophy. His fellow gardeners were able to avoid the mazes his colleagues at Cambridge created for themselves. They should recapture their original uncorrupted intelligence to find answers.
A similar story about Socrates. When 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.
Probably as a result of pre-frontal syndrome, which happens to elderly people, tears come to my eyes easily. A last, certainly sentimental and embarrassing confession is needed. When I watch this one scene in Dr. Zhivago I tear up. Zhivago is dead. His brother thinks he has found Zhivago’s 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 why that makes me cry? How I got that way. But it nevertheless is true. For better or worse, truth is one of my obsessions. Even now, for the hundredth time, sitting in front of my computer, tears well up when I write about that scene.
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 happiness and end it, the mysteries of our motivations–I was drawn there.
That is not where psychiatry has gone. I have great difficulties with that. The chutzpah of the profession is mind blowing, claiming they know a thousand times more than they do. The brain’s chemistry may some day provide very good solutions to our troubles, but right now psychiatrists are fooling themselves (to be generous), and more to the point, the public. Our knowledge is thin. Yes they should rightfully pride themselves that unlike dinosaurs from the last generation (meaning me) they adhere to scientific method, to hard facts, to the certainty of numbers proving the point. But all too often this kind of thinking provides an illusion of effectiveness and surprisingly, rigidity and an abundance of false claims of knowledge we don’t possess. The tip-off is the deference given to “experts.” .
Experts? Huh? Who are they? I’d much prefer if people wrote “this is my best shot.” That’s all any of us can offer.
“Expert” sounds authoritative, the voice of one who has studied, is very smart, is an EXPERT!
I understand why it is comforting to believe such people exist. They walk on the sacred pathways of science. We prefer very little wiggle room about answers we need. Basing their elixirs on studies, on hard numbers, on tight logic is very appealing. They do not rely on opinion but fact. You have doubts? Look at the numbers? Proof positive.
Unfortunately, real progress isn’t usually found in precise answers. In helping so many miserable people feel better, the success of Prozac gave people the impression that fantastic advances had been, and were, continuing to be made in neuroscience. Untrue. When research began on Prozac no one was interested in serotonin, the secret of Prozac’s effectiveness. Other neurotransmitters were believed to be at the root of depression. Eli Lilly, the company behind Prozac, originally saw an entirely different future for its new drug. It was first tested as a treatment for high blood pressure, which worked in some animals but not in humans. Plan B was as an anti-obesity agent, but this didn’t hold up either. When tested on psychotic patients and those hospitalized with depression, LY110141 – by now named Fluoxetine – had no obvious benefit, with a number of patients getting worse. Finally, Eli Lilly tested it on mild depressives. Five recruits tried it; all five cheered up. That’s the real story. There are some very fine neuroscientists laboring away to find new knowledge that may someday benefit us, but the field is hardly on the verge of “expertise.”
Science deserves the respect we all have for it. Think of what Pfizer accomplished with its vaccine, but let us not forget the nonsense that experts monotonously proclaimed about Covid. It was the same in my field. The trap in the recent mindset about psychiatry is that waving science as a banner, its virtues can act like a smokescreen. The language, the prestige, the seeming logic 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.
On the other hand I guess I somehow do believe that expertise exists. (My wife laughed out loud when she read what follows) Please go to SimonSobo.com to read the praise my articles have received. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) called one of my articles the best thing he had ever read in psychiatry. Regarding that article, Lauren Slater (Prozac Diaries) told me that she had everyone read it at the clinic where she worked. She talked about doing a published interview of me, but didn’t follow through, a not infrequent occurrence for her. At least she liked the article.
Right after I finished my residency I sent a different article to Anna Freud. She wrote back “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 the first part of that article in the yearly hard cover Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, which in those days was like being chosen for the all star team. Thirteen or fourteen of the best articles in a year appear there. Still young, and with an unlimited imagination I thought big things were in store for me. I just had to continue doing what I was doing.
After reading one of my articles on the subject 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 immediately. The next evening we were shmoozing in her apartment on Central Park West, arguing about every movie we had liked and not liked.
She was going to get my article in the Atlantic. Don’t ask how I fucked that up but she asked for it to be lengthened. In the new draft I mentioned Freud a number of times. In her inimitable style she hated the revision. Love or hate was the entirety of her emotional vocabulary. I didn’t understand that at the time and sensitive creep that I was, instead of sending a third draft I thought I had been found out (as a fraud). I didn’t contact her again for ten years. At that point I wrote to her because I vehemently disagreed with one of her reviews. Somehow she found my phone number in Croton on Hudson and we were on the phone for an hour once again talking movies. She didn’t understand what had happened, why I had disappeared. Later I read David Denby’s book about Pauline Kael. She was mentor to a bunch of young talented people, which David Denby called the Paulettes. He was one of them before he eventually became the critic for the New Yorker. Repeatedly she told him he was an idiot and should not plan on being a critic. He persisted.
If I only had that kind of confidence.
Except I do. Well, sort of. Given my track record I would have given up writing long ago if I lacked grandiosity (or my wife would add, stubbornness).
International University Press wanted to publish my book, The Fear of Death (derived from part 2 of the article Anna Freud liked). Perhaps it was because I had been published in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Perhaps they really liked the book. A number of people were excited by it. It opened up a whole new perspective in psychoanalysis. Freud had a powerful fear of death. Really powerful! It was the craziest part of him. Yet strangely, he denied it was an important motivation in our psychology.
That made no sense to me, and I assume to almost anyone who is interested in what makes us tick. I spent 5 years on the book, getting it right, wrestling as best as I could with my uncertainties. I had no doubt our fear of death had a lot to teach us. The book is full of my thoughts about it. I expected others to follow in that direction. There was a lot to learn. IUP, at the time, was the premier publishing house, kind of the Knopf of psychiatric literature. All of a sudden journal editors were asking me to write something for them, a new experience for me. But they wanted me to write about what they wanted me to write. I had my own ideas.
IUP registered the book with The Library of Congress. The publishing house listed it in their upcoming publicity campaign. It’s a long story of what went awry, but it includes two years fighting with their editor, about changes he wanted. I knew I was correct (at least at the time I was certain) so I didn’t budge. It would have been so easy to fudge it, compliment my editor for his insight, then find a way to say what I wanted to say. But two year of trying to prove to the editor that I was right and he was wrong led to a stalemate. They hired an arbiter who supported me. IUP, as a scholarly publisher, simply needed an introduction that explained that the book had a lot to say, but it was more speculative than their usual. A new editor was assigned. He introduced himself with a letter stating that he agreed with the first editor. That did it. I didn’t write back. Not surprisingly, eventually the manuscript sat on my shelf for years unpublished. (I was busy writing another book). About nine years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from IUP giving me 6 month to agree to their changes. I couldn’t even remember what was in the book so I ignored their letter.
That fiasco was very important to me. In the last few years I have put the meaning of the book’s fate in perspective. 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. I told them it doesn’t exist. “No problem,” they said. They would create a book cover (with blank pages). Sure I told them. At that point, why not. The five years I labored writing the book may have been wasted but glory hungry person that I am, at least it got to go Hollywood. They filmed the scene. It was cut from the final version of the movie.
Just shows you just how fleeting fame can be. Even the blank pages of my masterpiece didn’t make it to the big time.
In the end I self published. Five years of writing and revising were at least worth that. It wasn’t read by more than a dozen people. And was reviewed nowhere.
What keeps me writing like a mad man at 78? There were others besides Anna Freud and Pauline Kael who thought my writing was special. There were many other notables. What gives me encouragement is the story of William Kennedy. In Albany, New York he toiled in obscurity for decades . Then he met Saul Bellow who read one of his novels. Bellow went ape shit, let everyone know about his discovery. After being turned down by 14 publishers, suddenly all doors were open, rave reviews of Ironweed, fame, long interviews in the NY Times, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In his interview Kennedy compared himself to Camus, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. A genius had been discovered, a new measure of a man, including in his own self image.
Of course I am 78 not 50 so there is a difference. Also there is another side to that story. Apparently Kennedy’s 15 minutes of fame quickly faded. Subsequently, he wrote novel after novel which I certainly, like most people, haven’t read. It was not very good. Or it was. Never having read a word by Kennedy I have no idea if he is a great or even good writer. So the point of the story is not just that fame is fleeting, but genius is according to the beholder. Nobel Prize winning Bellow dictated the opinion of dozens of subservient critics, Pulitzer Prize winning committees, and most other official proclaimers of taste and opinion. Group think is as powerful at the top as it is at the bottom.
Cornell made him a visiting professor the same year he won the Pulitzer. But after that there were no more Ivy League appointments. No nothing. The party ended. Kennedy returned to Albany and to obscurity. Not completely. He was honored by an Albany parade and a three day weekend. A day was named after the home town boy. With enormous pride someone noted in his Wikipedia article that teaching at Albany, he joined the ranks of the SUNY Distinguished Academy as a board-appointed Distinguished Professor.
On still another hand, (I have 3) he was one of the writers of Cotton Club, a movie I liked a lot, particularly the script. Apparently during those few years when he was still hot, Hollywood found him and he did a great job. Only, Cotton Club didn’t do very well, so his life as a screen writer was short.
Last comment. My wife, after listening to my tale of woe for the twentieth time tells me I should concentrate on the pleasure writing gives me rather than pitying myself for my lack of acclaim. Yes some very smart, thoughtful people have recognized what I have written approximates the truth. Take what you can get. So what if I didn’t get there. No one really does. Well they do but… I’ve come to agree with her perspective. It matters little whether I’ve had a lot of good insights to share or few of them. Someone else has mastered the art of selling used cars. Another person is great at leveraged buyouts. I’ve realized the reason it took endless hours for Talmudic scholars to come up with the answers to their questions is that there aren’t any answers, only more and more questions. It took me a long time to realize that my unending search for the answers I needed didn’t lead me anywhere. For good reason. What I craved doesn’t exist. It never has. It never will. And as for the recognition I crave what do I really want, to cry out like Sally Field “You like me. You really like me.” It is an immortal line, well remembered because it captures how pathetic those who turn to others for recognition can be. No amount of rewards, interviews, fame, or fortune changes a thing. No one can tell me what I should know. I am somebody whether I try or not. I always have been. Plus within two generations anything I am or did, or said, everything my wife is, or everyone else is– all of it will be forgotten. Especially when it comes to ideas. Ashes to ashes. So have a nice day.
If only I could harvest the spirit of that realization, see it clearly. Enjoy the calm that comes with acknowledging the obvious. What is, is. And if I can’t get there often enough, at the very least, know how lucky I am that amazingly I still have a beautiful wife who, with all of my shortcomings, some times loves me, 4 cool children, and 6 always surprising grandchildren, two good friends, and enough pleasant acquaintances. And a mind that lately has trouble remembering certain names and words, but still works most of the time. No one is sick.
I am a very lucky guy. As despairing as everything seems to me. Very, very lucky. I’m reminded of the real truth by my photography
And this Valentine card from my 72 year-old grandma wife https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8JuacesT4U She’s the one with the talent. She couldn’t care less about fame and fortune. She just writes her songs and that is enough. Ronnie Spector sang one of her songs on David Letterman Go to her site.
Now if someone would produce Anna Oceanna, music by Linda, script by me, I will have won the jackpot. Maybe I’d take back all my blather that there is no meaning.
Oh, One last thing. A good and current sample of my writing can be found here.