At Harvard he learned that he was anything but a writer. But former Crimson golfer and basketball player Stephen Bergman wound up authoring 'The House of God,' one of the most important medical novels of all-time.
On March 5 the Off-Broadway play "Bill W. and Dr. Bob" opened at the New World Stages Theater in Manhattan. Its co-author, Stephen Bergman, is one of the more remarkable former Ivy athletes.
He's not your typical playwright. Bergman is a psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member, a Rhodes Scholar who, under the pen name Sam Shem wrote the bestseller "House of God," which has sold more than two million copies and has remained in print over 25 years. The British medical journal "The Lancet" calls the novel one of the two most significant medical novels of the 20th century.
An ex-Harvard golfer who learned the game caddying for his dentist father, Bergman grew up in Hudson, New York, and thought he'd like to attend nearby West Point until his father told him "Jews don't join the army." His father then asked "what's the best school? I said I heard Harvard was, then Yale," remembers Bergman. "He said to apply to them."
Bergman did, was admitted to both, and chose Harvard. "I was convinced I was the stupidest student in the freshman class," he says. His freshman writing class didn't improve his self-confidence. "To each of my essays the teacher did not put a letter grade but wrote on the bottom 'See Me.' She told me that my papers were too terrible to mark, 'Below F," says Bergman. "'I decided I had no talent to be a writer and did not try again until I got to Oxford."
A starter on the freshman basketball team, Bergman "could not balance my love - basketball - with the endless after-school labs for pre-med, so I had to give it up. A real blow, very depressing." He loved golf "because of the spring trip down to North Carolina. We'd start out of the black snow in the streets of Cambridge and drive all night and wake up with the sunrise in green warm golf country."
His senior year, with thesis done and Rhodes in hand "I played golf every single day for three weeks at the best course in America, the Country Club (of North Carolina, in Pinehurst). The tightly woven green grass and the empty fairways made me realize that I had finally died and gone to heaven."
Graduating from Oxford at the height of the Vietnam War "it was either Nam or Harvard Med," says Bergman. The medical school reflected the tumult of the times. "We were products of the sixties," says Bergman, "our freshman year we had a vote to strike after Kent State. It was ?strike or learn the kidney.'" They struck and "I never learned the kidney," he says.
It was during his internship year at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital that he experienced a "hey, wait a second" moment. "Something's not right," he recalls, "It was an inhumane way of dealing with patients." Bergman dealt with it by writing "The House of God." In the book "the most outrageous stuff is the most true," he says.
Choosing psychiatry because "it gave me time to write," Bergman has produced a stream of novels and plays. "Bill W. and Dr. Bob" came about because "20 years ago we were looking for a story," we being Bergman and Janet Surrey, his wife. The play is about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically the famous meeting of the two founders, William Griffith Wilson and Dartmouth's Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith. Bergman's practice specialized in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. "It's about the healing power of mutual connection," says Bergman.
The play opens with Dr. Bob and Bill W standing side by side on the stage, each declaring that they are alcoholics in the manner now done in AA meetings thousands of times each day. What the play does is expertly explain how the men took elements of existing unsuccessful treatment regimens and synthesized them into the recognizable AA program. Whether this can be a reliable entertainment vehicle remains to be seen. Variety's Mark Blankenship crtiticizes the characterization of the AA founders, saying it "likens them to modern gods."
"In one of my novels, 'Mount Misery,' the hero says ?you can tell everything about a person by the way he plays a sport," says Bergman. "I believe that this is true. You learn everything about life from the passion and dedication to a sport."
— Stephen Eschenbach