A client recommended a book, and I read it, only to be bowled over by the parallels between the author’s experiences and my own. It’s a novel, “The House of God” by Sam Shem, and my client alerted me to it, he said, because “the author reminded me of you.” I’m flattered by the comparison, and I have to admit, the parallels between our work, and our lives, are striking. I feel like I’ve stumbled onto – well, maybe a role model, maybe a hero, maybe a friend, if we ever manage to meet up.
“Shem” is the pen name of Stephen Bergman, a psychiatrist who wrote his novel about becoming a doctor – it recounts experiences drawn from his residency at Boston’s Mount Sinai Hospital (which is where Jewish kids from Harvard Med went in those days.) Bergman used a pseudonym because his book was controversial and still stirs controversy today in its honest depictions of sex and use of humor to expose the hypocrisy surrounding the practice of medicine and medical education. I employed a lot of the same tricks in my own book, turning my gaze on the practice of law and legal education.
Okay – let’s list a few of the striking parallels, because, as I said, they’re striking.
Bergman didn’t want to go to medical school – he went to avoid the draft, and to please his father, a dentist who, as a Jew, couldn’t get into medical school himself, due to anti-semitism. Bergman wanted to be a writer, but thought medicine would earn him a better living.
I didn’t want to go to law school. I did it to satisfy my mother and in an attempt to earn money. I wanted to be a writer. Oh, and my family’s Jewish, too – and my father was a psychiatrist.
Bergman went to Harvard, a first-tier medical school, then to a top internship.
I went to NYU Law, a first-tier law school, then to train at a top law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell.
Bergman began practicing medicine at Mount Sinai, and I began practicing law at Sullivan & Cromwell. That’s when we experienced what we both refer to as the worst years of our life.
The next parallel is especially striking: Bergman and I headed off to realize our dreams and wound up becoming writers and psychotherapists, only to discover inspiration in the “worst year of our lives” to write humorous, subversive books about the professions we fled. Both books contain blunt criticism of what we experienced. Both books help others escape the traps we fell into.
They’re odd books. Bergman’s started out as a sketch he penned to amuse friends that caught the eye of a literary agent, mine as columns written at the urging of a journalist after she interviewed me. They have strange titles – “The House of God” and “Way Worse Than Being a Dentist.” Both books started with a trickle of sales that expanded over time. Bergman’s went from a cult underground novel thirty years ago to required reading for current med students – it’s sold over 2 million copies. “Way Worse” can’t compete with those numbers, but it’s only been out a few years, and the trend in sales is up, not down. I get reader reviews with comments like “mandatory for lawyers or anyone considering becoming one.”
Another parallel: Bergman’s book, like mine, helps explain a profession to itself, in the process elucidating it to outsiders. You put down “The House of God” with a clearer insight into who doctors are, and that breaks the isolation between doctors, and between doctors and regular folks, too.
I was aiming for the same thing with my book. The worst part of being a biglaw junior associate was the isolation from my peers. We were supposed to compete, so we hid from one another, alone in our offices, falling apart and wondering if we were the only ones. Bergman describes a similar dynamic in medicine.
Both books employ frankness – and outlandish humor – to offer a deeper understanding of these people and their lives. Both books went out on limbs to present undiluted critiques of our professions, and both remain controversial. In “The House of God,” Bergman spelled out what he thought was wrong with medical training, in particular the fraud at the heart of end-of-life care that forces doctors to go to cruel lengths to unnaturally prolong lives. He also describes in detail the wretched treatment of medical interns, and some of the emotional and sexual acting-out that can result. I did much the same thing when I tried to capture in words the exploitative, billable-hours-obsessed world of biglaw.
It took Bergman a while to get his book published – it was an outlier, something new in the world of books about becoming a doctor, which were until then typically safe, conventional and predictable. It went through a lot of drafts.
I was informed by literary agents that no editor would touch my book with a ten-foot pole. “No one wants to read a book critical of their profession.” That was the accepted wisdom. Agents told me I could write “How to be a Happy Lawyer” or I was on my own. As a result, my book was self-published.
After writing his book, Bergman found himself persona non grata at his old hospital.
I wonder, after writing “Way Worse Than Being a Dentist,” how I’m regarded at Sullivan & Cromwell. I haven’t been invited to a firm alumni reception since my book was published, but they don’t throw those shindigs very often, so maybe an invite is in the mail. One of my clients, a legal staffer, told me with perceptible glee, “they hate you at S&C!” But I doubt it’s come to that – or, if it has, I don’t see the rancor enduring. My book has been around a few years, and it isn’t going anywhere, so I assume at this point it’s part of the furniture. Clients spot it tucked in desk drawers at their firms, and tell me about it being handed from lawyer to lawyer with a wink. The powers-that-be can adapt to anything in time, including “Way Worse Than Being a Dentist.”
Thirty-some years after he went his own literary way, Bergman was welcomed back to the fold with an invitation to address students at Harvard Med. His friends were dumbfounded, but Bergman accepted it with a shrug, perhaps as further evidence of the truism: He who speaks the truth wins in the end.
Like Bergman, I’m asked to speak at schools, and it weirds me out. Bergman wrote a harsh critique of medical education, then got invited to speak at Harvard Med. I tore into legal education and I’m booked at law schools. I feel like a radical subversive attempting to overthrow their system – but one who gets flown out for free, then picked up at the airport.
Again, like Bergman, I assume they respect me for telling the truth and feel their students deserve to hear it. But it still strikes me as somewhat dischordant that I’m implicitly or explicitly advising half their kids to drop out and do something else.
The strangest part is that when I’m told I don’t know what I’m talking about – I’m a bitter failure, a loser who couldn’t “hack” S&C, etc., etc. – it always seems to come from young, inexperienced lawyers. The older guys, partners and so forth, take for granted I’m telling the truth. As one managing partner put it, “Look, my firm isn’t a nice place. It just isn’t. It’s about making money and running a tight ship and making clients happy. Who’s kidding whom?”
So…what are the lessons I can draw from the curious parallels between yours truly and Stephen Bergman?
It’s nice to feel a bit less alone – there’s another “me” out there, speaking truth to power, in the context of our near-accidental professions. Someone walked this ground thirty years before I stumbled onto a parallel path. I’m grateful to him for that.
There’s a self-evident lesson contained in both our books: Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. And that raises an interesting question: In hindsight, would we have done it again? Not if we could have avoided it, right? And yet, weirdly, both Bergman and I found our way to successful professional lives, unique paths that (maybe) could only have started the way they did. Maybe it was kismet that Bergman went to med school and I went to law school so we could wind up psychotherapists who wrote books for doctors and lawyers. Life is too much of a chaotic tangle, too much of an experiment in quantum mechanics, to wind everything back and run the experiment again.
I feel a curious link to this other author, and, as I’ve said, gratitude for the ground he broke. But there’s one other thing I want to thank him for. I work with many people, including lawyers, in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. A year or two ago, I saw a play in New York City, at the Soho Playhouse, called “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” a meticulously researched recreation of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. I sat, rapt, as actors on stage brought the founders of AA to life in front of me. It was an outstanding night of theater, and one that lent me insight into the deeper meaning of the recovery movement and how it saves lives. Some time later, I realized who wrote that play. Yep. In addition to a couple more novels involving doctors, Stephen Bergman, in partnership with his wife, Janet Surrey (a clinical psychologist), wrote “Bill W and Dr. Bob.” I can’t get away from this guy.
I wouldn’t want to. Thank you, Stephen Bergman – you’re an inspiration. I hope our parallel paths eventually cross.
Please check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls
in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance