A life of wonder Appreciation: Dr. Taghi Modaressi brought the same zest for life to his psychiatry and to his writing. It was a passion he carried with him till the day he died.

May 03, 1997|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

The first time I interviewed him, about a year ago, he came out of his office to meet me, smiling warmly and extending both his hands in an open, welcoming gesture.

I did not know it then, of course, but in those first moments of our meeting the very essence of Taghi Modarressi was laid bare: His warmth, his optimism, his eagerness to welcome and embrace the world.

Such qualities served Dr. Modarressi well in both his passions: psychiatry and writing.

As a child psychiatrist he set himself the highest of goals -- to find the answer to one of life's most compelling and mysterious questions: What goes on in the mind of a baby?

To pursue such an ambitious undertaking Dr. Modarressi, who was born in Tehran, Iran, founded the Center for Infant Study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. With the opening of the center in 1982, he became a pioneer in the developing field of infant psychology.

In our long interviews, which took place over the course of several months, it became clear that Dr. Modarressi did not adopt the stance of the uninvolved researcher who distanced himself from his small, non-verbal subjects. Always when he talked about babies, he would lean forward to press his point, his voice rising in genuine excitement and awe.

"Babies can talk!" he would say. "Babies are experts in communication. The language of babies is feelings. And babies are able to create or reflect feelings around them. By action, by a smile, by posture, by gesture -- they communicate."

To the end of his life, he remained full of wonder at the miracle of a baby.

The end came last week, when Dr. Modarressi, who was the husband of novelist Anne Tyler, died of lymphoma at his Homeland residence. He was 65.

A writer first

Before Dr. Modarressi was a psychiatrist, he was a writer. His first novel, "Yakolia and Her Loneliness," was published in Iran when he was 23. Three years later, in 1959, he moved to the United States.

At the time of our talks he was finishing his sixth novel. As usual, he had written it in Farsi, the language of Iran, and was preparing the arduous task of translating it -- all 600 pages -- into English.

"I call it 'writing with an accent,' " he said with a laugh. "And I prefer that. Because that way of writing also gives a background, creates an atmosphere so that you immediately know these people are not born American. So that something that could have been a handicap has become for me a voice."

Taghi Modarressi's books demanded a lot from the reader. He was, along with his humanism, an intellectual man, brilliant and well-read. And he told his stories in a Persian voice. Wrote one reviewer of his novel, "The Pilgrim's Rules of Etiquette": "Modarressi does for his native country what Gabriel Garcia Marquez has done with Colombia. ... [his] lyric writing virtually captures the working of human imagination."

You could say it was the working of human imagination that guided both his psychiatric research and his writing.

Search for character

Creating the internal world of a fictional character, he said, is not unlike the way infant psychiatrists go about constructing a baby's inner life. Both novelist and psychiatrist, he believed, had to answer the same question: Who is this character waiting to emerge?

From our first interview, it was clear Dr. Modarressi was not well. The cap he wore and the cane by his side were outward signs of the battle going on inside his body. What remained untouched was his spirit, which seemed always present in the room.

During this time there were intermittent hospitalizations that would cause him to cancel one of our interviews. By this time, however, the truth is I thought of our meetings not as interviews but as conversations.

And what wonderful conversations they were. He was a man both profound and funny; a man who laughed a lot; a man who was as likely to quote Proust as Freud; a man who loved books and films and art. His opinions and reflections on whatever topic came up were always genuinely creative. He had a knack for approaching each subject in a fresh way, as though he'd never thought about it before.

And so it was when the man who had studied so intensively the beginnings of life was asked to reflect on endings. He did not flinch.

"Before I became ill, my attitude toward death was very serious," Dr. Modarressi said. "I thought I would feel frightened, I would be depressed, I would lose my interest, not be able to sleep. I thought I would not have the stamina to deal with death."

He looked away. "The emotional effect of death, to me, is a sense of loss. Not fear. It's kind of funny but I feel more irony than fear. But the fact that you are so little in the face of all this."

But the illness, he said, also had heightened his response to the world around him. "In some way, it liberates me. I feel so alive. It's so funny to say -- but I'm enjoying life. Since I have been ill, I really feel I'm tapping some resources in me that I didn't know I had."

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