Truths To Tell

In his new book, psychiatrist and author Gordon Livingston shares a lifetime of wisdom.

January 05, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston has weathered the worst life can inflict - the loss of not one, but two children, in little more than a year.

About 13 years ago, his older son, Andrew, 22, a college student, took his own life. The other child, Lucas, 6, died of leukemia, despite Livingston's donation of his own bone marrow.

The Columbia resident wrote a poignant book about his tragedy, Only Spring: On Mourning the Death of My Son, which resonated among parents who had lost children.

"That never heals," he says. "Parents who are bereaved just hate the word `closure' because [the pain of loss] never heals."

He's 66 now and has written a second book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now, which distills the experience of his 33 years as a psychiatrist.

"And from my life experience as well," he says.

Livingston's life experiences are many and varied. He served as an airborne infantry officer after he graduated from West Point in 1960. He then interrupted his military service to study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he earned his medical degree in 1967. He returned to the Army as a surgeon in 1968 and volunteered for Vietnam. But his views on the war soon changed.

He effectively ended his military career when he passed out "The Blackhorse Prayer" in Vietnam. In the scathing style of Mark Twain's "War Prayer," Livingston wrote:

"Give us this day a gun that will fire 10,000 rounds a second, napalm that will burn for a week. Help us to spread death and destruction wherever we go. ... We thank you for this war, fully mindful that, while it is not the best of all wars it is better than no war at all."

He was returned to the states, where he resigned from the Army and began postgraduate work in psychiatry at Hopkins. While there he learned by accident that he was adopted - his adoptive parents had never told him. At age 34, he sought and found his birth mother.

One of those touched by Livingston's account of the loss of his sons in Only Spring was Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in the November election. The Edwardses lost their 17-year-old son, Wade, in a 1996 auto accident.

Elizabeth Edwards "met" Livingston in an online bereavement community, and once in person. She's written the foreword for his new book, in which she praises "his unapologetic directness and his embracing compassion."

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart is in its third printing and has been described as a work that draws "wisdom from personal experience."

Dr. A. Carl Segal, also a Columbia psychiatrist, is recommending Livingston's book to his patients. "He's made a significant contribution to the mental health process in the United States," says Segal, 70, a former chief of psychiatry at Howard County General Hospital.

"When somebody can distill major points like that and distribute it in a widely read fashion - and I think it's on that track - people aside from the few thousand he personally dealt with suddenly become 10,000 or 100,000."

One of Segal's patients had read the book twice during the week when she arrived for her appointment yesterday.

"I think it's going to be the kind of thing that a lot of people can read and discuss with their therapist," he says.

"People are kind of responding to this book surprisingly well," Livingston says during a telephone conversation.

He borrowed the book's title from a Pennsylvania Dutch proverb.

"That just kind of expresses my sense that's what happens to most of us," he says. "We wish we knew in our 20s what we know now; but you never can, because it's life experience that teaches us this stuff. ... It takes a long time to accumulate all that experience. And by that time, we're old."

He began writing Too Soon Old a little over a year ago.

"I just kind of wondered what have I learned over all these years," he explains. "I must have learned something from all these thousands of conversations I've had with [patients].

"I just started writing things down that I thought I knew that were true and that weren't necessarily obvious to everybody."

He'd jot down themes and then write an essay about them. He started out with 25 themes.

"Then I thought of a few more things that ought to go in there," he says. He and his publisher settled on 30 themes, and the book is organized in a series of short essays, the "Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now."

Livingston usually writes early in the morning before he goes to work. "It's a difficult task," he says of writing. "Someone once said you stare at the computer screen until blood forms on your forehead."

But he is a forceful writer with a knack for turning a phrase:

"We live in a society that has elevated complaint to a primary form of public discourse."

"Memory is not, as many of us think, an accurate transcription of past experience. Rather it is a story we tell ourselves about the past, full of distortions, wishful thinking, and unfulfilled dreams."

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