Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A writer haunted by his brother's death finally tells the story

Posted By on 06.11.13 at 12:34 PM

Richard Pollak
  • Rob Howard
  • Richard Pollak
Autobiographies tend to be turgid vanity projects, a slog through the minutiae of personal history on the dubious assumption that someone cares. A memoir, however, is often very different—an attempt to distill from a life the story buried there that explains it. This story often involves a quest to confront a childhood mystery. Every childhood is enough of a mystery that we all relate.

Last February I wrote about Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends, a memoir about his quest to learn the circumstances of his father's sudden death, which happened when he was six and about which his mother never spoke. As Hainey's father had worked at the Sun-Times just before I got there, and as I knew how he died years before Hainey figured it out and knew most of the people he approached for information, I turned the pages avidly. I felt as much a part of the book as outside it.

Hainey's haunting question could be answered, and it was. Dick Pollak's quest was a little different. In August 1948, he was playing in the hayloft of a barn in south central Michigan with his younger brother, Stephen. Dick was 14, Stephen 11. Dick would remember—or he'd think he remembered—or he'd go through life haunted by the memory whether it was true or not—that his mother called up, "Time to go, boys," and he yelled down, "Tell him you'll punish him if he doesn't stop hiding." And right then, with those cold words barely beyond his lips, his brother fell through a hole in the loft that the hay had concealed. He fell 35 feet and died.

Let me skip ahead 42 years.

In 1990 Bruno Bettelheim committed suicide at the age of 86. Reading the local obituaries, I concluded that Chicago's media hadn't given the great child psychologist (director of the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School for troubled children) and author (The Uses of Enchantment) his due, and I wrote a snippy little item in my Reader column:

Some Professor Down in Hyde Park

RIP Bruno Bettelheim, who apparently was understood to be a great Chicagoan everywhere but in Chicago. We appreciated the thoughtful page-one obit in the next morning's New York Times; from the play the local papers gave his death, he might as well have been a waiter at the Berghoff.

The first response was an angry phone call from a Berghoff waiter. But soon the letters began to pour in. Most came from former patients. "He was an evil man who set up his school as a private empire and himself as a demigod or cult leader," said the first, setting the tone for what followed. "He bullied, awed, and terrorized the children at his school, their parents, school staff members, his graduate students, and everyone else who came into contact with him."

A former counselor at the school wrote, "The Bettelheim I knew had little mercy in his heart, and exuded a particularly obnoxious strain of old Viennese arrogance."

The Reader published 15 letters in all setting me straight about Bettelheim.

Now I'll skip ahead another 23 years. A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from Richard Pollak. He said, "I am the author of The Creation of Dr. B, the biography of Bruno Bettelheim published by Simon & Schuster in 1997. I likely never would have undertaken the project had Chicago friends not called my attention to the letters and your writing that appeared in the Reader after Bettelheim's suicide in 1990."

The e-mail went on, "At the time I was working on a quite different book, a memoir that dealt with—along with much else—my brother's early death in 1948, while on vacation from the Orthogenic School. . . . After finishing the biography, I wrote another book, then returned to the memoir in fits and starts; I finally published it about a month ago. It's called After the Barn."

Any book whose publication I'm responsible for holding up some 20 years is a book I'd better pay attention to when it finally arrives. Pollak sent me a copy, and I just finished it.

Like Hainey's After Visiting Friends, Pollak's After the Barn is littered with little details that connect me to it. Both of us as kids were nuts abut John R. Tunis. Long before I got to the Sun-Times, Pollak's father, Robert, had covered theater for it. The Pollak family had a weekend place near New Buffalo, Michigan; so do we, and it's where I read his book. In 1971, Richard Pollak and Anthony Lukas of the New York Times—and William Woodward III, the young heir to a banking fortune who bankrolled them—launched More, a New York-based journalism review inspired by the three-year-old Chicago Journalism Review. I flew in for More's first big national journalism conference; Woodward put me up (though I’m not sure I ever met him), and I recall Pollak bouncing around and Nora Ephron rising to make some smart remarks. It was a starry evening.

But the spine of After the Barn is something I can only imagine in a nightmare: Stephen's death, and Pollak's quest to retrieve his brother somehow and stitch up the rent in his own life. There was much more about Stephen than the circumstances of his death that his big brother needed to understand. Who was he, and why had his parents enrolled him at the Orthogenic School at the age of six? Did he belong there? Stephen became, Richard Pollak tells us, a "spectral sibling" said to be "autistic" or "retarded." Yet Richard would remember nothing at all about his brother that was strange. "My few memories are only sunny," he writes.

But he cannot trust his memories. Dick's surviving memory of that day in the barn was such a tiny fragment of the whole that he had no idea how he got down from the loft himself, whether Stephen died at once or after the ambulance came, how his parents reacted, or even how his family got back to their home in Hyde Park. And Dick would soon be diagnosed as epileptic, and the years ahead would be pockmarked by epileptic seizures, each leaving a new hole in his memory.

The late 1980s find Pollak in a better place. The new drug he's taking to ward off seizures is vastly better than the old. His second marriage is triumphant. Bettelheim's successor as director of the Orthogenic School has located Stephen's file that Bettelheim years earlier had assured him was lost, and has sent it to him. Pollak is finally in a position to begin the book he'd had in him forever, the memoir that would sort out the mystery of Stephen's life and death, put it between covers, and give him some peace.

Then Bettelheim dies, and Pollak turns from the memoir to the biography. The Creation of Dr. B accused Bettelheim of faking the details of his life in Europe, of faking his academic credentials, and of faking the results that allowed him to claim that 85 percent of his patients at the Orthogenic School went on to live normal lives. In his prologue, Pollak described visiting Bettelheim in his office in 1969 in search of information about Stephen. Bettelheim made him promise to say nothing about the visit to his parents. Then, "he immediately went on the attack. My father he dismissed as crude and somewhat simpleminded, a 'schlemiel' who paid the bills and stayed out of emotional problems. My mother was the villain. He said she paraded as a saint and a martyr when, in fact, she was almost entirely responsible for my brother's problems. . . . As his guttural assault filled the small room, I recalled how often my mother had cried after dealing with Bettelheim, her tears accompanied by bitter accusations that he hated her and, for that matter, all mothers."

Pollak told me in a recent e-mail, "I saw the BB bio as a major challenge, but it's fair to speculate that I may have taken it on to avoid the hard introspection required to write the memoir." When he finally got back to the memoir, his publisher at the time, Simon & Schuster, liked the opening pages but Pollak didn't; so he put the project aside yet again and wrote another book. In 2009 he finally wrapped up After the Barn, but times were terrible in the book business and no publisher would touch it. The manuscript sat around a few years, and eventually Pollak published it himself. (I'll say more about that in a later post.)

There are no big revelations at the end. But slowly, over time, from his interviews and research but also from advances in scientific knowledge and simple life experiences, Pollak became wiser. He learned that his brother was indeed deeply troubled, had received sympathetic care at the Orthogenic School (if not from Bettelheim), and was making strides. He comprehended the load had Stephen made his parents bear in life—far greater than his own. And his eyes finally opened on the obvious: which is that "Tell him you'll punish him if he doesn't stop hiding" is the sort of whiny complaint little boys have made about their brothers since time began.

And he realized—no, not that life is basically good, but the opposite. On the great scale of human horror, his own story hardly registers. "Like most teenagers, I thought I was unique," he writes. "Who, after all, could possibly match the double-whammy of the barn and epilepsy? I wore these traumas like medals, though carefully pinned inside my tunic. That millions could match my traumas—had suffered far worse—did not pierce my self-involvement until I was well into my twenties. Only then did I begin to comprehend that trauma was a default truth of the human condition, not least in the twentieth century."

It's a lesson that, once comprehended, can always be comprehended a little more. Pollak concludes with a sweet flight of the imagination: Stephen has lived and is better now, and the two of them are sitting side by side in Carnegie Hall, listening to Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, which as little boys Dick pretended to conduct while Stephen pretended to play the violin. But just two pages before, we are in 1997, and Pollak's longtime friend Tony Lukas, apparently happily married and with a new book about to come out, has strangled himself with a bathrobe belt. And then we are in 1999, and William Woodward III has jumped out a window of his 14th-floor Manhattan apartment. His younger brother had died the same way; his mother had taken poison, and his father had been fatally shot—accidentally, a grand jury decided—by his mother.

"I admire the way your book concludes without big revelations or silver-bullet remedies," I wrote Pollak last weekend. "Stephen remains a mystery, though not so big a one. The swirl of emotions that drive the book are distilled into regret. Even worse things happen to other people—woe and unbearable pain are everywhere you look. You go easier on yourself. You marry the right woman, and the right drug comes along to help you with your epilepsy. Your burdens turn out to be bearable, but others aren't so lucky. You wish Stephen had lived. And on these simple notes you let the book go."

"I hope other readers see it the way you do," he wrote back.

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