Session With Greg Bellow

Greg 1

In conversation about his memoir of his father with

Zachary Boren

Saul Bellow, one of the great American novelists of the 20th century, died in 2005. And eight years later, his eldest son Greg wrote and published a memoir about the man he was and the relationship they shared. The book is a quite wonderful, albeit sometimes painful, expression of father and son and all that that relationship entails. “I had the complication of my father becoming famous during my adulthood,” Greg explains, “My mother was just my mother, my father was my father and he was Saul Bellow.” His book – Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir – is more than mere recollections and anecdotes; Greg ably manoeuvres through the complexities of a life changing, of a life ending. For most of his life Greg Bellow was a practicing psychotherapist in the United States. Though now retired from clinical practice, Greg still works with The Sanville Institute in Berkeley, California. Early this summer, Greg agreed to have a chat with me about his experiences both as a man and as a psychotherapist. What followed was a discussion full of little insights, interesting impressions, and nuggets of information. Here are Greg Bellow’s thoughts:

On his father… the public and the private
“I felt as if [Saul] had deserted the family values with which I was raised; he had rethought them, he had deserted them, and my mother and I stayed much more faithful to them. I definitely feel like he made some alterations. He definitely changed directions, he changed values, I would say somewhat more in his personal life than in his professional life, although he took up some very serious themes in later life, particularly the sort of anarchy and social degeneration that he saw around him.”

“I was at my first public event publicising the book in a bookstore five miles from my house; friends, relatives, neighbours, colleagues, there were about 85 people there, and my wife and I and it was like the last four years of my life in one room. We discussed [the book], I had a person with whom I was discussing it, and then we threw it over for questions. One of my closest friends said: “I’ve known you for forty years; the deal was you’re not supposed to talk about your father. Can you comment on that?” Or something like that. I said, “You’re not the first person who’s said that in the past six months or year! A whole bunch of people have said that to me; let’s have a show of hands of people to whom I’ve communicated that message” and half the room raised their hands. It was clear I was giving off some kind of vibe like “don’t touch this, don’t say anything about this”. Well that’s gone! Here I am talking very candidly about my father. That’s the answer. It’s true for many people that you’re freed up from certain constraints about being afraid of displeasing your parents [when they die]. I wouldn’t have published this book during my father’s lifetime. I wouldn’t have been able to write it until I resolved certain questions about trying to keep and protect him during his lifetime, being afraid of his disapproval. I’ve been asked repeatedly if he would have liked this book and the answer is no. I think he would have had some grudging admiration, but that would have been the best I could hope for from him. I had to stop worrying about that stuff, and when your parents are dead you don’t have to worry about it in the same way.”

“I could see him more clearly. I could see him more clearly in the books, I could see him more clearly in my life. The question is whether I worked anything through. If I worked anything through writing the book it was my relationship with the public Saul.”

On the book… memoir from the inside out
“I would say the book has been more helpful than I realised at reconciling myself to the older Saul. I see more similarities subsequent to having written the book. I think from a theoretical point of view, that was one of the things I have felt happiest about vis-a-vis the book.”

“My wife had read a bunch my daughter read a bunch [of reviews], and she’s a very serious reader, there are some people who are saying ‘get over it, grow up, don’t be bemoaning your childhood.’ Well, I didn’t write the book to complain about him. I didn’t write the book to be sensationalist. If he had put cigarette butts out on my arm I would have sold more books. The reviews I find most favourable are those that say: ‘This is a guy who was able to handle and not lose sight of his love for his father and his resentment towards his father.’”

“In any literary biography there will be 200 pages of footnotes in the back of the book; biographers are tied to empiricism, so if they don’t see something that they want to link it to in the life they’re not inclined to mention it. They do not like people speculating. Therapists speculate; it’s at the heart of being a good therapist to be able to make reasonable speculations and to be respectful enough of the patient, to say: ‘This is a speculation. What do you think about my thoughts about you?’ and then you listen to what they say.”

“So it’s a memoir but, in a way, I didn’t realise how much of an affirmation it was until I wrote the book and had a conversation with Leo Wieseltheir [who wrote one of the blurbs on the back of the American version]. He and I had a long conversation about fathers and sons, and he basically said to me: ‘Look, you know, just climb the Mt Everest of Saul Bellow or don’t. You’re at the top of the heap yet you start the book saying nobody wanted to be his son. Everybody wanted to be his son; nobody but you can take your place, nobody could’ve written the book you’ve written so you’re it and don’t let anybody tell you you’re not because they’re full of baloney’. And I realised after the conversation that he was right, that nobody could have written with my level of knowledge [of Saul]. I knew I was writing something a biographer couldn’t write.”

“It was very intimate, from the inside out, not the outside in. Biographers write outside because they don’t know their subject; it’s a profound difference. I was aware of that and then he said basically: ‘No-one understood your father and no-one else is able to present the honest view you have; no-one else knew him over the length of time you knew him.”

“It was very hard to write, I struggled with every word. I can’t even count the number of drafts I wrote. Dozens. Some parts I rewrote and some parts I left alone… basically what I did was I read James Atlas’ biography and I talked into a tape as I read; then I had 400 pages of disorganised notes and it took me 3 years to straighten it out.”

“I didn’t want to write a bad book, I wanted to write a good book. Part of that was making sure that I didn’t get carried or swept away by the fact that [Saul] alienated a lot of people; he did a lot of things that were troubling and shocking and did things to me that I would rather he’d not have done, and said a lot of things to me I’d rather he’d not have said. I never lost sight of my love for him. My wife says the love comes through on every page. Some people have talked about the hate; there’s plenty of it, but it doesn’t kill off the love.”

On writing… aide-memoires, feeling and making sense of emotions
“I reread all of my dad’s books and then I tried to come to some sort of meaningful terms with how to use or understand the books as personal documents. It is I think is a very unique way to write a memoir and I haven’t heard too much about it from people so far. I made a very conscious choice not to try to be scholarly but to view the books as adjuncts to my memory.

“The connections I made were connections of feeling. I would see something that made me say: ‘That’s the way, that’s the story I heard many times, that’s the way my father felt.’ He reconstructed his past; there were moments when I said: ‘There he is, right there on the page. I can just see it. I can just feel it.’ It didn’t happen very often, but when he tells the story of being dragged home on the sled by his mother I say: ‘Oh yeah, he told me that story, the part about the old lady saying don’t try to kill yourself, don’t overdo it for your children.’ I don’t know if he put that in there or not; he would claim to have definitely shaped the characters for a fictional purpose.”

“I’m not a big fan of the idea that you work through your problems by writing.
I think therapy is a very different process from writing; I am in the minority. I’m not saying it doesn’t change people to some extent but there’s the old joke: the only trouble with self-analysis is the counter-transference. In other words, there’s somebody who’s written a lengthy book about his thought that Dostoevsky writing his books is a process of working through his conflicts; but Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov right before he died and there are enough she-witches in that book to fill up Macbeth; there are terrible women in there. He didn’t necessarily soften his attitude towards women. Catharsis will get the emotions out but you still have to make sense of them.”

On psychotherapy… mirroring, and his hero Winnicott
“I wrote a note to a man when I was 24. I came to San Francisco, and whilst my first goal was to find an apartment – I already had a job – my second goal was to find a psychoanalyst. Literally within three months I became a control case at the Psychoanalyst Institute, where I did the full four-times-a-week psychoanalysis.”

“I don’t think [Saul] was crazy about it at all. He thought that I’d gone and joined the enemy. He didn’t think much of Freud; he thought he was a great thinker but he didn’t think too much of Freudianism.”

“I used to find myself very alienated by therapists who said they could predict anything their patient will do. The best therapists, I find, are constantly surprised by what their patients say to them; they don’t anticipate anything or pre-judge, they just listen and, sort of like Aristotle or Hamlet, they hold a mirror up to the patient and say ‘this is mine’. You have to own it. You can’t say ‘You’re doing this’, you need to say ‘This is what occurs to me or makes me think of and I wonder if that has something to do with what’s going on inside of you?’; otherwise you’re substituting your reality for theirs and that’s a big no-no.”

“So people who predict if you do this, this is going to happen – and this comes from my father – human beings are way too complicated to know what the hell they’re going to do. That’s what I love most about my father, that after spending 70-80 years he found out he was as baffled as the day he was born. He used say, ‘Oh he’s a high IQ moron,’ he’s very smart but he doesn’t understand anything.”

“[As a psychotherapist] I’d say my biggest influence is Donald Winnicott, the great English analyst; I’d say he’s probably the most influential thinker in psychoanalysis after Freud. First of all, he writes a lot about kids and early development. And I’d also say Heinz Kohut, the father of self-psychology. He and Winnicott are frequently discussed in tandem; he basically radicalised psychoanalysis by getting away from the drive theory.”

On children… boys with broken hearts, and the neglected child
“I think I get a clearer picture about what was special to my father about childhood, his childhood and my childhood, the childhood through which he saw me go and my own career as a child therapist. There’s this movie about William Barry – 2004’s Finding Neverland – it’s about a guy who goes to this park and he meets this kid and finds out that his father has died and he’s heartbroken, so he takes him under his wing and the family under his wing. That’s what I came to learn of how to be as a therapist. I became a therapist who specialised in working with little boys with broken hearts because I was a little boy with a broken heart.”

“I would say in hindsight I was drawn in to this without being aware of it. Writing the book has solidified my awareness of it, although it’s certainly not a new thought because my cases are full of so many kids whose parents got divorced or awful things happened to them.”

Saul Bellow's Heart

“I would like to do some writing when all vis-a-vis this book – which has taken forty years of my life – is wrapped up… They’ve been meaningful years, but after a hiatus from my professional life I’d like to get back to some questions related to neglected children. Not necessarily to work with them but to study them and write about them or do research on them which will require some writing. Plus my writing is better, I taught myself how to write over the past five years. I didn’t necessarily work through my feelings with my father but I worked through my bad grammar and intonations; I’m a better editor and a better writer.”

Zachary Boren has written for The Independent, The Huffington Post, and The Chicago Tribune amongst others.