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The Way It Turned Out: A Memoir

2012 Edition, September 5, 2012

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ISBN: 978-981-4364-75-1
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Product Details:

  • Revision: 2012 Edition, September 5, 2012
  • Published Date: September 5, 2012
  • Status: Active, Most Current
  • Document Language: English
  • Published By: CRC Press (CRC)
  • Page Count: 480
  • ANSI Approved: No
  • DoD Adopted: No

Description / Abstract:


I have been always fascinated by the lives of others. As a youngster, I read avidly about nineteenth-century Armenian revolutionaries. During adolescence, romantic lives in novels captured my interest. As an adult, the accounts of historical figures helped me understand the past. After I became a psychiatrist, my interests became more clinical. I wanted to know what was underneath the surface of people's lives. Understanding others helped me to understand myself. However, it never occurred to me that one day I would write my own memoir.

Nabokov called his memoir Speak Memory. Yet our memories are mute. It is we who speak through them by looking at the past through the lens of the present and the benefit of hindsight. And we do it in order to serve the purposes of the present. Autobiographies are suspect because they can be so easily falsified. Even when authors do not willfully distort the truth, to glorify themselves or vilify their enemies, they may inadvertently misrepresent it through their failure of memory in the reconstruction of events. However, accounts of one's life may also serve a nobler purpose. Near the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine wrote arguably the first autobiography, which actually was the account of his spiritual journey from paganism to Christianity and which has been a source of inspiration to so many others since then. However, since I am not a St. Augustine, why would I want to write an account of my life? Why would I want to revive the pain of the past and the regrets of missed opportunities? What would be the cost of revealing my inner thoughts and feelings? Why would I want to expose myself after living a guarded and private life? Why distress my family and friends by public disclosures and invite the schadenfreude of those who might think ill of me?

It was my mother who provided the antidote for these qualms. When she was in her eighties, she wrote the story of her extraordinary life. My mother's account of her early life contained revelations that I could not have imagined and that opened new vistas into her and my own life. Having learned so much from her, I deeply regretted that I knew so little about my father's past. He rarely talked about it and I never asked. My wife, Stina, persuaded me that my own children would also know very little about my earlier life unless I revealed myself to them. A good friend, Reva Tooley, further convinced me that the story of my unforeseen life would be of interest to others beyond my family and friends.

I was forewarned by a literary agent that the only autobiographies that would be widely read were those by celebrities and by individuals with pervasive trauma in their lives. I could understand how the accounts of eminent figures would provide material for historians and how damaged lives would be of interest to clinicians. But what could most people find in the lives of the famous and the dysfunctional to identify with? Is it voyeuristic gratification? Instead, as I have grown older, I have become increasingly interested in the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary lives—lives that are not the stuff of fame or abuse.

My life has been a variegated cultural tapestry woven from the diverse threads of my personal experiences. There are themes in my life that readers can readily identify with and that may help them to make better sense of their own lives. For instance, the role of chance in shaping one's life. Serendipity plays a part in every life but it may have played a greater role in my life than those of many others. Moreover, the way we interpret events at the time they occur does not always hold up over time. For each of us to look back upon our lives honestly is painful, but also gives us the strength to look forward with honesty.

Our sense of identity is at the core of who we are. The struggles with my sense of identity, the question of who am I, is a recurrent theme in my story. The circuitous course of my life shows the more unusual ways we may define ourselves. I am an immigrant in the quintessential nation of immigrants. Accounts of that experience vary greatly but they also point to important common elements at various times in the history of the nation. Many of us may still think of immigrants to America in the terms of Emma Lazarus's famous words ("Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free") inscribed under the Statue of Liberty. However, these characterizations hardly apply to me, or to many other more recent immigrants to the United States. (The tired, the poor, and the huddled masses may have trouble getting even a visitor's visa these days.) Yet the question of identity remains a crucial issue for immigrants of every stripe.

No life exists in isolation and a personal account will by necessity involve the lives of others: my parents and my nanny, as well as my wife and our children, play key roles in the story of my life. However, this book is about me and not about them, and therefore my references to them will be discreet and, I hope, nonintrusive. A few key individuals have played a critical role in my professional development as mentors and colleagues and they too figure prominently in my account. Then there are failed relationships—lingering memories of unrequited love, disappointing friendships, and the scars of my first, failed marriage. These make the telling of the tale more difficult. I will try keep the focus on myself, but even then, not everyone may be pleased with what I have to say. It is not my intention to embarrass or upset anyone, but if telling the truth requires it, then so be it.

Writing the story of one's life is like undressing in public. How many layers of clothing should one take off? Self-exposure has now become a form of public entertainment, but some of us prefer to stay buttoned up. A memoir is even more self-referential than an autobiography because it reveals more of one's personal reflections and feelings, in addition to the story of one's life. How far should I go telling the world things that even my own family and friends might not know? Will I be able to walk the thin line between being truthful and embarrassing myself and others I care about? How can I give myself due credit without appearing smug and boastful?

The fact that I have been reticent all my life to reveal myself to others became, surprisingly, a spur for me to come out of my shell. Countless people have opened their hearts and minds to me—family, friends, lovers, colleagues, students, and patients. It was time for me to reciprocate. My life may not be exemplary enough to serve as a model for others but it might help them to learn from my strengths and weaknesses, my successes and failures.

None of the half-dozen other books that I have written provided a useful model for writing this book. Nor did the autobiographies of others that I read. Two of these were by well-known persons of shared background—one by Edward Said, the other by Vartan Gregorian. They were particularly interesting, but their focus was different from my own. Unlike the other books I have written, this one did not require extensive research. The material had to come not from the library, but from within my own mind. There was no crutch to lean on. Yet despite the passage of seven decades, I was surprised by how much I could remember. One recollection seamlessly led to another, although some had to be dug out laboriously. Old family photographs triggered many memories. An important source of information was my diaries. The first set of diaries was from my college years at the American University of Beirut between 1950 and 1953. The second set came twenty-seven years later, beginning in 1980, when I was a university administrator at Stanford, and ended in 2005 shortly after my retirement. (Its first entry is a quotation from John Berryman's poem, "Eleven Addresses to the Lord": "Surprise me on some ordinary day with a blessing gratuitous.")

My family and friends were another important source. My mother's memoir provided invaluable insights into her life and details about my childhood. Stina and our children, Nina and Kai, had their own recollections and observations to contribute. My cousin Nora, who is several years older, was an important link to our earlier shared lives. My good friend since college, John Racy, provided valuable information and observations for important periods when our lives overlapped during the past five decades.

The publication of this book is the result of a yet another serendipitous encounter. Two years ago, I was to board the plane at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and I was carrying my viola with me. A vivacious young lady approached me and asked if I was a famous violinist she had seen in a newspaper. It was tempting to say I was, but I did not. Instead, we introduced ourselves to each other. Her name was Jenny Rompas and we were soon joined by her husband, Stanford Chong. I had taught at Stanford for four decades. What was his connection with Stanford? There was no connection. It was coincidentally his name. They and a few other publishing professionals had founded a publishing house in Singapore called Pan Stanford Publishing. We kept in touch. I told them I was writing my memoir and looking for a publisher. Would they be interested? Yes, they would. So here we are.

To thank those who have helped me with this venture, I would like to acknowledge them in this preface rather then in a separate section since their participation has been an integral part of my writing this book. I am especially grateful to my wife, Stina, who was a source of unfailing support. She patiently read successive versions of the manuscript. As a writer and translator, she offered critical observations and constructive suggestions with respect to both content and language, as well as came up with the title of the book. My daughter Nina provided an insightful overview and as a conceptual artist helped with the design of the cover. My son Kai and his wife, Anni, read the manuscript together and made their own astute observations. A number of friends and colleagues read the entire text and made invaluable comments and suggestions. I extend my sincere appreciation to David and Susan Abernethy, Sanford Gifford, Richard Gunde, David Hamburg, Esther Hewlett, Sheila Melvin, John Racy, Reva Tooley, Nora Tour-Sarkissian, and Ernle Young. Select chapters were read by Robert Gregg, Walter Hewlett, Brent Sockness, Scotty McLennan, Paul Minus, John Reynolds, Steve Toben, Christine Tour-Sarkissian, and Abraham Verghese. The careful editing by Sarabjeet Garcha and Richard Gunde helped greatly to clarify and improve the text. The enthusiastic responses of these readers helped allay my concerns in exposing my life to public scrutiny and offered the prospect that this memoir may be of interest to others as well. I hope that is the way it will turn out.