R.I.P. Dr. Shep Nuland: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

7 Mar
Sherwin Nuland circa 2003(photo: Robert Birnbaum

Sherwin Nuland circa 2003(photo: Robert Birnbaum

Dr. Sherwin (Shep) Nuland ,author of “How We Die,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1995, died this week. I had a emotionally fraught conversation with Nuland (@Identitytheory.com) in 2003 about his book Lost In America: A Journey with My Father. which told of his father’s very troubled life. Here from that chat:

RB: There is the old saw that everyone has at least one book within them.

SN: I think it’s true. Whenever people ask me, “Should I do this?” Yeah do it, do it. You have no way of knowing how wonderful this might be for you, for a reader, whatever. Another reason I say I am not a writer, when I die there is going to be an obituary in the Times and there is going to be a picture. I won a prize. I noticed that National Book Award people get their pictures there when they die.

RB: (laughs)

SN: Well, I am a guy who has been fortunate to have been so sick that he has had to spend a very long time in accessing his unconscious mind, in trying to free up all of the entanglements to get to what he really thinks. And somehow in doing that, I have been enabled to just write spontaneously.

SN: The headline will say “Author of How We Die and/orLost in America.” You know what I want the headline to say? (long pause) I need a moment for this. I want it to say something about the fact that this man spent thirty five years of his life…taking care…of sick people the best way he knew how. That’s what I want it to say. (long pause, while SN struggles to control his emotions) Ridiculous. Uh, because that’s what I have done. That’s what my life has been about. I don’t want to be thought of as a writer. I want to be thought of as a doctor. Surgeon, yes, but a doctor. I know that it sounds self-exalting but a healer. Because that’s what I tried to be. Some of it, of course, comes from the story I tell in the book, about going to the clinic with my father and how awful that was —for everybody, not just for him.

You can find Nuland’s obituaries here and here.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria


Nuland once included the Philo of Alexandria quote in the title —”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”, in a note to me.

Currently reading Amerian Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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