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Primary Care

For physician Jack Coulehan, the nightmare recurs. He finds himself in a hospital cafeteria fearfully searching the faces of fellow interns. Do they know his secret—that he has no medical experience at all? Suddenly, an emergency call rings out, and Coulehan runs in his underpants and socks, directionless, through a maze of white hallways until he finds his father on a hospital bed in cardiac arrest. There’s nothing he can do.

Coulehan (GSPH ’72, MED ’69) is director of the Institute for Medicine in Contemporary Society at New York’s Stony Brook University. He describes this nightmare in his poem, “That Intern Dream.” The poem appears in Primary Care: More Poems by Physicians (University of Iowa Press), edited by Coulehan and Angela Belli. The volume features 100 poems by 52 physician-poets. Each poet-doctor wrestles with aspects of a profession that requires both scientific detachment and emotional involvement.

With poems about acute myocardial infarction, Che Guevara at the San Pablo leper colony, and the “fetal hieroglyph” of an unborn twin, Primary Care offers 100 reasons why poetry is increasingly required coursework in American medical schools. —Bo Schwerin

A Wealth of Family

Thomas Brooks grew up on the North Side of Pittsburgh as the only child of a working-class single mom. She struggled to keep the two of them in decent housing with food on the table. Always, though, the youngster knew he was loved. At age 11, his mother revealed he was not her biological child—he was adopted. But the news didn’t change his aspirations for a better life, inspired by his mom. He worked hard in school, and despite the obstacles of poverty and racism faced by the young African American, his educational ambitions paid off. He graduated as valedictorian of his high school and, within a few years, received a degree in electrical engineering from Pitt.

Later, at age 25, Brooks (ENGR ’88) decided to search for his biological parents, and the outcome was a surprise: He is the son of a White Lithuanian-Jewish woman, then residing in London, and a Black man from Nairobi, Kenya.

He has British and Kenyan half-siblings and lots of cousins. This “only child” from the North Side of Pittsburgh is, in fact, part of a large, multiracial family—something he celebrates with “inclusive pride” in A Wealth of Family: An Adopted Son’s International Quest for Heritage, Reunion, and Enrichment (Alpha Multimedia). The book chronicles his soul-searching,
globetrotting journey to uncover the nature and source of family. —Bonnie Coffee

A Good War Is Hard to Find

Dressed as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, David Griffith stands alone under a giant tent surrounded by vampires, monsters, and other costumed partygoers. Not much is happening at this Halloween party, and all the food is gone.

Then a friend appears, wearing Army fatigues and nerdy standard-issue eyeglasses; in gloved hands, he carries a black hood. He’s impersonating Charles Graner, the Army soldier who became infamous worldwide for abusing detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The friend suggests they recreate one of the harrowing photographs depicting the abuse—an image well known from its circulation in the international media.

He pulls the black hood over the head of a nearby partygoer, and he and Griffith pose, thumbs up, while a photo is snapped.

The next morning, Griffith (FAS ’01) is horrified by the Polaroid, which he hides in a closet shoebox. No matter his bad mood or sulky boredom—what possessed him to take part in such an unsavory act?

That photograph stayed hidden until he began writing A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press). Early on, he found the shoe box, dug out the troubling snapshot, and reflected on its meaning. His book, a collection of essays, combines cultural criticism and personal narratives about the way Americans distance themselves from violence in images—until confronted with their own potential for darkness. —Marin Cogan

Surviving Mae West

Frosted with snow, a young woman named Tess dodges a snowball hurled by her brother. Ducking, she fires one back. The snow, bright as the stars in winter, hits him in the shoulder as he slips on the frozen ground. In this instant, she is not thinking about the darker side of her family’s history—her life as a prostitute, her brother’s battle with alcoholism. In the snow, everything is new again.

Tess and her brother grew up in a peaceful, rural West Virginia community. But one night after a high school party, a traumatic event changed their lives forever. In Priscilla Rodd’s Surviving Mae West (Vandalia Press), a family struggles to overcome extraordinary loss. There is no redemption in a Manhattan brothel or in the bottles of brandy her brother consumes to wash away emotional instability and guilt. Ultimately, Tess must create her own redemption. Rodd (FAS ’02) began writing this story as her Master of Fine Arts manuscript in fiction at Pitt. She strengthened the novel with help from professors Chuck Kinder and Lewis “Buddy” Nordan, both accomplished fiction writers.

In exploring her heroine’s character, Rodd ultimately penned some surprising lessons about sacrifice, growth, and deliverance. —Mary Zangrilli

Growing Girls

A mother wakes to the sound of her daughters squealing in delight. The girls are in the living room with one of the family’s chickens, named Birthday, who is running in circles—backward—with its gray head bent between its legs. One daughter attempts to pry Birthday’s head up, while the other fluffs a purple tutu and holds it like a hoop so that, next, she can coax the chicken to run through it.

The girls’ mother, Jeanne Marie Laskas (FAS ’85), did not always have chickens in her living room. She didn’t have a stockpile of spare tutus or an addiction to Nickelodeon cable show SpongeBob SquarePants, either. Instead—as a successful freelance writer and regular contributor to GQ magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, and others—Laskas wore snakeskin cowboy boots and had interviews with the likes of movie star Tom Cruise. Her priorities, though, have changed. Now she’s tackling the biggest challenge yet: motherhood.

Laskas—a Pitt assistant professor of English who teaches writing—is the author of Growing Girls (Bantam), the third book in a series chronicling her move from city life to a farm in Scenery Hill, Pa. The book illuminates her discoveries as she absorbs and embraces life as an adoptive mother—a life that sometimes involves saving a panicked, backward-running chicken from becoming tangled in chiffon. —Katy Rank

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