John J. McLaughlin

In his beautiful and moving Letters to Sam, Daniel Gottlieb, a renowned psychologist who has lived with quadriplegia for 25 years, imparts uncommon wisdom about the lifelong journey of becoming a man. Written as a series of letters to his grandson, Sam, the book—which draws on Gottlieb’s personal, often tragic life circumstances, as well as stories and parables from Jewish, Christian, Greek, Sufi and Zen traditions—is a beacon of hope for our age, especially for people of faith. With a serenity that can come only from one who has made peace with his wounds, Gottlieb fashions profound, simple (yet never simplistic) life lessons from the gritty, messy stuff of everyday life. “Confusion,” Gottlieb quotes one of his mentors as saying, “is like fertilizer. It feels like crap when it happens, but nothing grows without it.”

Yet Gottlieb’s everyday life is not so everyday; nor is Sam’s. When he began writing these letters, shortly after Sam’s birth, he was a 53-year-old man 20 years into a new, shockingly different stage of his life. Shortly before his 10th wedding anniversary, he was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in perfect health, on his way to pick up a surprise gift for his wife. In the road’s opposite lane, a 100-pound wheel flew off an approaching tractor trailer; it smashed into the roof of his car, breaking his neck and severing his spinal cord, leaving him able only to talk and to feel his face and shoulders. Over time, through much suffering, he regained limited use of his arms and some measure of independence, but not before his marriage was in ruins.

When Sam was born, Gottlieb was unsure how much longer he himself would live, given his fragile state. He began crafting the letters of this book as a way to guide his grandson into manhood and, equally important, to allow Sam to know him. But even that simple goal was quickly thrown into doubt: at 14 months, Sam was diagnosed with a severe form of autism. Gottlieb kept writing, however, holding out hope that one day his grandson would be able to read and understand his letters, despite his disability.

Gottlieb writes of the boy’s disability, and his own, with candor and tenderness, and without a touch of self-pity. In fact, he counts his vulnerability as a blessing, contending that his perspective from a wheelchair lends a unique acuity to his reflections on what it means to be a man, and beyond that, to be human. He relates, in a letter entitled “Give Kindness a Chance,” how flipping on his hazard lights while driving his specially-equipped van in stormy conditions often elicits compassion, rather than rancor, from other drivers. In “Your Grandmother Sandy,” Gottlieb delves into delicate territory, telling Sam how his wife’s cancer and his own accident created a festering co-dependency that eventually destroyed their marriage.

Years after the divorce, Gottlieb visited Sandy, who was then living with multiple sclerosis, in an attempt at reconciliation. Her apartment, however, was not wheelchair-accessible, and they were unable to carry on more than a superficial, distant conversation—over her wrought-iron gate at a distance of 20 feet. Two years later, receiving news of her death, his grief surprised him, showing him that because of his vulnerability—swallowing his anger to visit her, wheelchair and all—on some level, he had healed.

And in a stunning anecdote within “Compassion Works Both Ways,” he recounts how he was visited, while in intensive care immediately following his accident, by a mysterious woman in the night. She had heard that Gottlieb was a psychologist, and came to him with her suicidal tendencies. Little did she know that Gottlieb was harboring suicidal thoughts himself, unable to contemplate continued life as a quadriplegic. But he listened to the woman. And as he did, he was filled with compassion, and gave her a referral. “Everyone else had been trying to convince me that I was still a worthwhile person,” Gottlieb writes, “but the only way I could really learn that lesson was from someone who asked something of me. Quite possibly, that evening, she and I saved each other’s lives.”

In other letters, Gottlieb delivers lessons on sexuality, anger, family relations and “success.” Through all of these, he counsels Sam to embrace his vulnerability, advice that is certainly countercultural, though not necessarily uncommon. Gottlieb’s genius lies in drawing this out beyond the realm of self-help to that of social justice, and the remarkable power of this book rests in his own witness: overcoming extraordinary adversity to become an agent of change and healing. “Very often,” he writes, “people who step outside of themselves and begin helping others wind up getting better more quickly. They become part of the larger world. Their own problems no longer fill it up.”

Gottlieb (who is donating his royalties to Cure Autism Now) has allowed his vulnerability to lead him beyond his own suffering, and to advocate for changes in the law on behalf of other disabled persons. One suspects that Sam—now four years old, speaking well and showing a growing potential to read—will one day do the same.

 

John J. McLaughlin is the author of the novel Run in the Fam'ly, forthcoming this fall. He directs Education Across Borders in Seattle.