It is with three decades experience as a doctor and a penchant for storytelling that Stephen Bergman, MD, PhD (pen name, Samuel Shem), writes with wit and heart about both sides of the doctor/patient relationship. His highly acclaimed first book, The House of God (1978), continues to sell beyond the two-million mark and is today required reading at many medical schools worldwide because of its authentic depiction of hospital internship, the grueling year medical students must endure as they transition from textbooks to the real world of doctoring. Specializing in psychiatry, Dr. Bergman lectures widely at colleges and medical schools, and has also written the novels Mount Misery (sequel to The House of God) and Fine, the nonfiction book We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues between Women and Men, written with wife Janet Surrey and also penned with Surrey the off-Broadway play “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (available on DVD).
I spoke with Dr. Bergman by phone, shortly after he launched his book tour for The Spirit of the Place (Kent State University Press, 2008) at the Hudson Opera House. Why Hudson? It’s the book’s setting (renamed “Columbia”), in the mid-1980s. Bergman grew up there, and “knows Hudson and all of Columbia County, inside and out,” he said. The history and details that come to life in the narrative are delightful whether you know Hudson or not. For instance, Bergman mused, “I was taught in school that Hudson was once a whaling port because of the river. I came back one time [after moving away] and Hudson had grabbed on to the whale as a symbol—it’s on their street signs, it’s everywhere. I asked a lot of people about it, but nobody knew why. The town was founded as a Quaker utopia, but later became known for its whorehouses. That’s very accurate. When those got shut down in 1950, the town kind of died. But now there’s a fight between the natives and the New Yorkers. It’s still an open question who’s going to win that one.”
I asked Dr. Bergman to comment on how The Spirit of the Place draws from his unique perspective as a doctor who for years has experienced and contemplated the pitfalls of our medical system.
What are you showing us in the relationship between the young doctor who begrudgingly returns to this small town and the older doctor who has been the town’s doctor for ages?
The Spirit of the Place is about a doctor [Orville] who’s been running around the world, doing good work, actually, working for Doctors Without Borders, and he’s called home by his mother’s death to a small town called Columbia, based on Hudson, New York. And then, through circumstance, he becomes the doctor for this town. He really disliked the place when he was growing up and couldn’t wait to get out of it. It was a very brutal, anti-Semitic experience for him. I’m not saying all of this is word-for-word my experience—but I grew up in Hudson; it was my home from when I was 2 until I was 18, when I left. So Orville doesn’t really want to stay there, but through the time he spends there—the wild, funny, rich experience—it works on him, and changes him for the better. Through his doctoring this town, it kind of doctors him. It heals him.
The Spirit of the Place contrasts medical practice today and the good old time doctors, personified in the book by Bill Starbuck. He’s based on a wonderful doctor from Hudson, Harold Levine. He was a kind old country doctor. He never had an assistant. You just came in and waited your turn. The waiting room was totally packed. One time he tried to get an assistant to schedule appointments, and people got really pissed off. He was one of these doctors who knew everybody. He knew patients’ families and social histories. Starbuck is the narrator’s [Orville’s] mentor, and got Orville through his adolescence; he let Orville visit patients with him and help out. Levine had that role with me. He was a good doctor.