A few days ago, Michael Miner, a longtime fixture in Chicago journalism, upstaged me. I had been planning to write two or three blog posts here about the often daunting process that finally led to the recent publication of After the Barn, my memoir about coming to grips with my brother's early death and other family traumas. Now Miner has taken on the subject, in two thoughtful columns in The Chicago Reader, the city's widely read, 42-year-old alternative weekly. Here is the first:
A WRITER HAUNTED BY HIS BROTHER'S DEATH FINALLY TELLS THE STORY
BY MICHAEL MINER
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."
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. . . .
Miner has more to say about After the Barn. To read all of this first column, click here. Watch for his second column in a subsequent post.