Cuts and Incisions: Dr. Richard Selzer’s Double Life

As a point of clarification, the owner of the perpetually locked study carrel at the end of the hall in Bass Library is Dr. Richard Selzer. The “weenie bin” overflowing with piles and piles of paper even houses a small, white statue of an angel. If you’re one of those people that wishes they could move into a cramped space and write term papers forever, Selzer says, you can have it when he’s gone.

But, until then, cubicle C62F will continue to house the notebooks and ephemera of a tremendous man in the midst of a tremendous second life. His first (just as tremendous) began as a medic in the Korean War and ended with 25 years teaching surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital. His second, as a celebrated author of short fiction, memoirs and essays, began with a Guggenheim Fellowship for general nonfiction in 1985.

Dr. Richard Selzer, a man with correspondence between two worlds.
Richard Selzer
Dr. Richard Selzer, a man with correspondence between two worlds.

Whereas Emerson thought, “the poet is the only and true doctor,” Selzer complicates matters a bit, being one of the only true physician-writers writing today worthy of Rabelais, Keats, Chekhov, William Carlos Williams and Hippocrates. His work floods the back issues of Harper’s, who’s published over 20 pieces to his name. Later this month, Yale University Press will release his journal of 20 years, “Diary.”

Selzer is the kind of doctor that privately thinks all his patients are “loonies,” except he’s also the kind of doctor that writes books about all his “loony” patients (their names redacted, of course) but cares enough to take them to tea at the Elizabethan Club. The security guards at the Beinecke, where he does most of his writings weekday mornings, know him as “Mr. Beinecke.” He checks their skulls for lumps pro bono.

WEEKEND sat down with the master of life and deadpan humor at his home behind Science Hill.

Q. So for how long were you practicing surgery at Yale?

A. I practiced and taught surgery at Yale for almost 30 years. And then at the age of 58, I knew there was something else that I wanted to do — writing. It came to me much later, like a wisdom tooth.

Q. But why did you start?

A. When I was 25, I had just finished my internship at surgery here at Yale. I was drafted into the United States Army — the doctor’s draft was still operating — and I was sent to South Korea, a rural area just south of the demilitarized zone. And there were no other doctors, no nurses, no INTERPRETER. There were healthy young Americans who didn’t need a doctor. But there were many villages full of peasants who did need a doctor. So every day and every night, there was a long line of Korean peasants who came up the mountain to see me.

So I learned quickly to say, “I am a doctor. Where does it hurt?” in Korean. And they would point to the place in the body where it hurt, and that’s what I examined. And so I could, in many cases, make a diagnosis, but I was only 25 years old. I had no experience, really. I had never operated on anybody or delivered a baby by myself. But I was suddenly responsible for thousands of patients who didn’t speak my language. I was supposed to be there for two years, but I got sick with malaria. But the general in the area, he happened to be my friend, and he saw that I was deteriorating. He said, “I did not join the army to preside over your death,” and so he sent me off to Japan. Soon thereafter my wife met me.

Q. What brought her over? Was it your letters?

A. No, because I said to her, “What to you want to do?” And she said, “I want to get married now.” This was before I left. So we got married. And three days later, I was sent to Korea. When I learned I was being transferred, I wrote to her and said, “I’ll be in Tokyo,” so she signed on to this steam boat and came … We got to know each other over the next year in Japan. And so I became conversant in both languages, Korean and Japanese.

When we have visitors here at Yale, they ask me to come and talk with them, so I do. I can converse.

Q. That’s very sweet.

A. Well, it’s nice. But then, you see: When I was in Korea, I was 25, and I was doing this awful thing, and I decided to keep a journal of it. I had never written a word before, and I wrote down every day what I did. And then I put it away. I came back here, I finished my surgical training and I forgot all about this journal. But then the University of Texas asked me to send my papers to them. My wife Janet and I gathered up all my papers, and we didn’t even look at them and sent them down to Texas. And before long, a man called up here, and he said, “I just read your story.” And I said, “Well there must be some kind of mistake. What’s it called?” He said, “It’s called ‘The Bronze Gong,’” which I had called my journal, and I sort of vaguely remembered it. And then last year, 2010, it was published. Fifty-five years after I wrote it. So you must never give up hope. It was called “Knife Song Korea.”

So my life has been a blend of blood and ink.

Q. When was the last time you performed a surgery?

A. When I was 58, I noticed my dexterity was decreasing, and I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I also had wanted to become a writer. So I said, “I’m going to stop.” That was 22 years ago.

[His wife, yelling from the kitchen: 1958. No that was … No that was … 1985.]

Selzer: If you want to come in here and correct all my mistakes, you’re welcome! She remembers everything. I don’t remember anything because old age has my memory in tatters so that I can’t remember my past life. And since you can’t remember your past when you lose your memory, and you can’t know what’s in the future, you live in the present, for the moment. And that’s a very limited way to live. But I’m grateful to be, to have lived this long.

Q. Are you annoyed by old age?

A. No, I feel two ways about it: I regret and rue the lessening of my powers, physical and mental. But in another way, I look upon old age as a refuge, a relief: I don’t have to perform. All my life, I had to be the best, and suddenly in old age, you don’t have to.

Q. Well certainly the people at Harpers, who published an excerpt from your journal this month, think you’ve done something right. And I appreciated it incredibly. I’m so bowled over by the opacity of its writing style: “Met Loonie N. in the library, he was looking more gaunt and tormented than usual. He seems to be drowning in a sea of rare and relentless symptoms, each one a mystery.” What do you think people will take from reading your diary?

A. Well it’s different than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a more personal, more amiable, more friendly thing than I’ve ever done before. It reveals me, who I am. I have fifteen books out there. That’s a lot of books. But this is a very personal, intimate one.

Q. I think Yale students in particular would be excited to read it and recognize many locations they know and abhor, such as the weenie bins of Bass and the reading rooms of Sterling Memorial Library.

A. For the last three or four years, I’ve gone every day to the Beinecke, and I’ve become sort of the resident doctor. Everyone who works there says, “Feel this, will you doc? What do you think it is?” So I give them my opinion and refer them to a real doctor. So I’m at home at the Beinecke. I miss Frank [Turner] very much, of course, it was a big shock to me. He gave me permission to go down there and use the long tables in the reading room whenever I wanted. So I do go over there, and I try not to bother anybody — the scholars — so I feel at home there.

Q. So I mentioned your name and that I would be interviewing you to Professor Anne Fadiman [who teaches “Writing About Oneself”], and she told me to ask you if you were still working in your famous carrel in Cross Campus?

A. I do have a carrel. Everyone is so kind. It’s really disgraceful, but when I could no longer carry my books and papers back and fourth from here to the library, the librarians gave me a permanent carrel.

Q. Is it the one with the statue in it? At the end of a hall, near the emergency exit?

A. Yes, and it has that little statue in it, which was made by one of my readers, and I leave my books and papers in there. I’m the only person in the world that has a permanent carrel. And I feel guilty about it because I see students come in and try to study in it.

Q. I feel like almost every hand enrolled at Yale College has tried the knob out of curiosity.

A. Yes. And it’s mine! And I feel guilty about it. But I’m so grateful for it. And I won’t last much longer, and then they can have it back.

Q. If they knew what you were doing in there, they would realize whatever they would be doing doesn’t compare to writing your 16th book.

A. I thought I was all through with this Diary book, that I could retire from writing, but now I’m working on a new anthology of unpublished stories. But that is going to be my last book.

Q. So what is it about these shorter forms that you’ve seemed to embrace — the short story, the journal entry, the essay — that is so compelling to you?

A. Brevity is the character of almost all of my writing. I could never imagine writing a novel. Maybe it’s the surgeon in me that gets things over and done with. I have an idea of what I want to write, then I get it down, and then I trim it and trim it until it’s just four or five pages long, but it has in it exactly what I wanted to say.

Comments