Interview: Eugene Rubin, author of Headlock

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

By Julia Halprin Jackson

“What you’re going to figure out, when you put it on the page, is that you’re forced to really think through something. I think people can understand more things about themselves once they’ve written it down.”

Eugene Rubin’s memoir Headlock: Chronicles of a Psychiatrist’s Son explores teenage angst in 1970s New York City as framed by the powerful hold of his celebrated psychiatrist/author father, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Isaac Rubin. Rubin explores the finer points of male adolescence while breaking down each anecdote in a way that only a psychiatrist can. Questions about sexuality and identity are framed in terms of infamous Times Square gyms, high school wrestling, late-night prank calls with friends, and his everpresent “Jewfro.” The college hunt starts early for Eugene, who enrolls in an all-boys college prep school and is persuaded by his parents to aim not only for a university degree, but also for a famously competitive six-year medical program. Where is that fine line between parental and personal expectation, and how can one live up to either?

Julia Halprin Jackson spoke with Rubin by phone about why those memories from his prep-school years became so central to his life story.

The title, Headlock, refers to wrestling, one of the obligatory extracurricular activities that you undertook to beef up your college applications. What exactly is a headlock, and how is it a metaphor for your teenage experience?
The only reason I was on the wrestling team in high school was that it was a very small school, and they just needed another warm body to fill a weight class so they wouldn’t forfeit matches. The other thing about wrestling was that it looked good on my resume. I was trying to get into a six-year medical school program, basically from high school. “Headlock” is sort of a classic professional wrestling move. The metaphor was going through adolescence and high school feeling in a bind, feeling a little like your head is in a vise in the sense of being told what to do, or being told what’s good for you–being under pressure, the struggling to get out of that bind, but also in some ways feeling comfortable in it. I think it’s a good term for somebody who’s stuck struggling, or feeling stuck.

Adolescence is a classic time for that kind of feeling. Your father played quite a role in interpreting your teenage feelings of confusion and purpose.
He had very definite ideas about what you should be doing, and what you should do with your life. On the one hand, that provided comfort in a sense, because it had direction, but also you want to break away from that, too. I think I finally did, now that I’m almost 50, but not back then.

I saw a few quotes from your Twitter feed that I found cool. Yesterday you wrote that “I think I love origin stories and this was my Dad’s professional origin.” What do you mean by that?
Somebody asked me about my father’s books, or which ones influenced me. There were two memoirs: one was a sequel to the other. One was called Emergency Room Diary, which was about his time working in an emergency room in the ‘50s, and then Shrink was about residency. They were books about his very early professional career, and he was really a kid, in a lot of ways. I’ve always liked stories about how people got started; the backstory. Like X-Men Origins; I saw that and was interested, although it was complete fiction. What got somebody started, or got them to where they are now? Knowing how it all turned out ahead of time, like knowing what happened with my father, what his career turned into, but reading about humble beginnings and seeing the same person depicted under different circumstances—when they haven’t come into their own yet, when they’re not recognized yet for what they are or are going to be. I always find that interesting.

Would it be accurate to say that Headlock is your origin story, then?
Maybe—yeah, I guess so. I guess a lot of memoirs are origin stories. Yeah, yeah, I guess it is. I guess so. In some ways I’m similar to the way I was all those years ago, but in a lot of ways, not, obviously. Luckily.

The interesting thing about your storytelling approach in this book is that is it handles adolescence in terms of your family’s successful life. What was it like as a writer, describing your father, who has this very public profile, as a character in a book?
Yeah. You know, I had initially mixed feelings about doing that. At first, I wrote it, not thinking that I would show it to anybody, and then it took more shape as I went further along with it. I was worried it would be a disloyalty, or that he might be mad, but it really wasn’t the case. I also thought about if his patients read it. He jokingly said, “I don’t really care what you put in it, but my patients might get angry and come after you because they are very loyal to me.” He was kidding, but I realized too that he’s not somebody who changes his behavior for anybody. He will say what he wants to say, and do what he wants to do. I don’t think any of his patients would really be surprised by his behavior in the home. I can’t say it’s a memoir that has anything really egregious in it; that’s the other thing, it’s not like books like Liars’ Club that start with making note of a bullet hole in the wall that somebody shot. It’s not like that. But still it’s unusual.

It seems like a lot of memoirists and journal writers struggle with that line—sometimes the best story admits a kernel that you might not want to admit to your family, but it makes a better story, versus tiptoeing that line between fact and fiction.

But what inspired the book, in terms of specifically focusing on the teenage years? It seems like there are a lot of ways to approach this kind of story, and zeroing in on these experiences of being at an all-boys high school in New York City in the 1970s. What was it about those five or six years in particular that drew you to telling this story?
I think the small bit of nostalgia. I had read this book called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, and it was about New York in 1977. Those years I remember very, very vividly. A lot of things are a blur, but those years are not. I think partly because being that age is sort of a horrifying experience, even when it’s going well. Maybe I wanted to work it out for myself, or find a place to put it and get past it, even. I don’t look at those years so fondly; in some ways, I do, because there was a certain amount of freedom and creativity and craziness with the way my friends and I entertained ourselves, and did things, and talked, and had camaraderie. But also, it was just a very uncomfortable time.

Originally, when I was going to write it, it was going to be more focused on the whole idea of living in what is effectively a monastery, the all-boys school, that had all this exposure to pornography from an early age. The only women I was exposed to were either my mother, who was on a pedestal like a goddess, and all these sex professionals on my TV screen, on the Manhattan Cable Television Channel J. It was like the Madonna-whore complex, and then the rest of the time were just boys and men, except for weekends, when we’d go to a party, and look at girls, and then run to somebody’s apartment and make prank phone calls.

That’s one way to express that energy, I guess.
I guess—take it out on people. So originally I had started the book with my history; and I’m surprised I didn’t end up a celibate pervert living in my parents’ basement. It’s not really a miracle, but when I was 16, if you had told me I would have turned out married, with two kids, in a very conventional kind of life, I would have been surprised. I had no idea how things would turn out.

On that note, what makes this different from a lot of coming-of-age stories is the added psychoanalysis throughout, not necessarily as a storytelling device, but just the relationships you had with your parents. Even as a really young man, telling them about your obsession with the Pizza Girl—there’s a lot of kids who probably feel that, and associate with that, but would never go home and spill their guts to their parents about it. I’m curious as to your thoughts on the role of this kind of dialogue about feelings, and emotions, and the way humans work, in regards to teenage frustrations.
That kind of dialogue is really not exaggerated—that’s really what it was like. I think part of it was generated by an openness in the household, and everything was fair game to talk about. But on the other hand, we could talk about your anxieties almost as much as we wanted to. Sometimes it might be better to be able to tell your kid, “Look, just get on with it.” But writing all of that, and looking at it, brought home what an anxious person I was. That was the theme that comes out of the book. We had a psychiatrist’s household that had a pretty neurotic kid.

I was curious about the use of sarcastic banter between teenage boys, and not just the boys, but also with a lot of the characters, such as your friends’ parents and classmates. From someone not in an all-boy prep school frame of mind, it almost seems as this slew of dark accusations of homosexuality, that are probably reflective of their age and the setting. As someone writing this book, how important was it that that humor was conveyed, and why was that important?
It’s important because it was really the backbone of how we all interacted—that was the major way into communicating. It could get pretty nasty. Also, as far as trying to get a feel for how it really was, that kind of material had to be there. If we had watered down the swearing or if it didn’t have homophobic humor, it would be a different book. It wouldn’t reflect at all what it was like, or what went on. I think this was how a lot of all-boys schools probably were or are, and that was how it was for us, at least for the group of kids I was hanging around with, and it was a small group. We sort of set ourselves apart, and a lot of people didn’t like it, and everyone was just someone to make fun of or put down.

Looking back now, I realize that a number of the people we were putting down, we were probably envious of, and that a number of them were more developed and more mature than we were, in terms of what they thought about and cared about. We made fun of everyone, and of each other, and we had our own language, but at the same time, as long as you keep insulting each other, you’re not going to say anything tender or affectionate.

It was entertaining to read, and it was interesting to see in the context of a psychiatrist’s household, this juxtaposition of teenage foul language and in-depth analyses of what these fears and insecurities are, and why kids were talking about them or referring to them in the way that you were.

What influence did your background in psychiatry and your studies in medicine have as far as writing goes? Was there a lot of thought to psychoanalysis or other subjects you’d studied, or was it more a focus on telling a story, and then weaving in the parts that seemed appropriate?
I don’t think there was a conscious thought about the training I had. It really was, “What do I remember?,” and “How can I get that down on paper?” And looking back from a perspective of greater maturity, then adding in something that would be more interpretive of how I felt at the time, and understanding it better now. It really wasn’t the kind of discussions or thoughts about different principles psychiatrically; it was whatever would have been there if I never went to medical school. I think I would have had the same perspective and it was just something I grew up around.

So as far as your process in writing, it was more about recording the memories from that time, versus trying to see it from a psychiatrist’s perspective?
Yes. I wasn’t really looking at it from a psychiatrist’s perspective, and really as much as possible writing from a 17-year-old’s perspective.

Did you keep any journals at the time?
No, there were no journals. I had, and still do have, a bunch of old audio tapes of prank calls, like a box full of them. They were somewhat helpful. I didn’t go to them very much; maybe a couple of times, just to get a certain mindset back. I found an old notebook from a high school class, and it had written on the inside all the statistics from the 1978 Yankees starting pitchers. Win-loss records, stats; that was about the extent of it.

That would make a pretty interesting time capsule, between the tapes and the baseball stats. That was another thing I noticed: because the book is very self-referential in regards to the teenage experience in New York City, aside from the references to baseball, I didn’t really get a feeling for what else was going on in the world at the time. Was it this a conscious choice to focus on the perspective of the teenager, and less on the outside world?
That’s really what it was: a perspective of the teenager then. I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in the world; it was what was going on immediately around me, and not much beyond that. At one point in the book, I had to interview for a medical program, and they asked me some things to get me to talk about current events, and I didn’t know any. Despite being an A student, it was such a singular focus on grades and immediate social life.

In terms of the production of your book, I first heard about it because the first three chapters were available as a free download from your website. What inspired that choice as a writer, and how has that been going for you?
It’s slow going. What we found out was more people wanted a hard copy, and didn’t want to read it online. The thought was that this would be a quick, easy thing for people, somewhat like iTunes, but people still want a book. They want a real book, so it became another option.

Is this something you would recommend for up-and-coming writers? Having a teaser online?
The teaser is a good thing to do. It seems like that’s gotten more common. You can go on Amazon, or if you have a Kindle, you can get a sample of the book and decide to give it a quick read before you buy it. I think it’s a good thing. I’d done it with other books, and I don’t know if it means you end up selling more books or fewer books.

What books do you like to read?
What do I read? Right now, I’m reading Battle Creek, by Scott Lasser, and that’s a novel, but it’s got a lot to do with baseball and fathers and sons. I think the author that I’ve probably read the most of is Philip Roth. When I was writing the book, I reread part of Portnoy’s Complaint because that book had pretty big impact in high school; we studied it in class. It’s sort of a raunchy book, especially to a bunch of immature boys studying Portnoy’s Complaint with the teacher trying to act serious about it. I reread it, and I didn’t like it as much as I did 30 years ago. When I read Patrimony, which is a memoir by Philip Roth about his father, that I read with much more interest. I’ve changed.

As a psychiatrist, would you suggest writing a memoir or keeping a journal as a kind of therapeutic exercise?
Yeah, I think a lot of people find benefit from that. A number of my patients do that. I think it is cathartic and I think it is therapeutic. If you sit down and start journaling, you really don’t know what you’re going to end up writing. You don’t know where it’s going to take you. But what you’re going to figure out, when you put it on the page, is that you’re forced to really think through something. I think people can understand more things about themselves once they’ve written it down. Also, people do it when they need to vent, when they are upset or frustrated. It beats punching the wall. (Laughs)

Given your family background and your professional interests, do you get the feeling that your descendents will follow in a similar fashion? Will there be more psychiatrists and writers in your family?
I don’t know; I’m not certain. We’ll see. (Laughs) My kids are pretty young. My wife and I want our kids to get good grades, and we emphasize the importance of that, but I don’t tell them that they’re going to medical school. I want what they come to, to be from them. I’m sure that if they came up with something outrageous and I thought they would starve to death, I’d become more directive. We’ll see.

Where do you plan to go from here, as far as writing goes? Do you plan to write another memoir?
I’m in the thinking stage about it. I think I’d like to try something different, maybe something fictionalized. Fiction, but reality-based. Maybe something where the protagonist is a psychiatrist. I have to sit down and start doing something with it, and see where it goes.

And finally, Eugene Rubin, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
From seventies smut to sterile suburbia


DOWNLOAD the first three chapters of Headlock for free

BUY the whole book as a PDF, for your Kindle, or in paperback

VISIT Eugene Rubin’s website

FOLLOW Eugene Rubin on Twitter

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