Essay: Carl Schiffman’s “The Informed Heart”

As we approach the “Frog Days of Summer” and our summer reading lists may be looking a bit spare, we though it would be a good time to offer a some high quality bonus reading.

Carl Schiffman’s essay “The Informed Heart” is a wonderful recollection told with carefully wrought, plain spoken prose. The essay has a disarming honesty and manages to be frank without being emotionally desiccated. It’s a perfect read for a summer weekend.

This essay appeared in NDQ 88.1/2 and you can read more of that issue by clicking the link. I should mention that I royally botched Carl Schiffman’s bio in the back of that issue. I’m horrified at my own carelessness as editor and, as a small gesture, I have included an updated bio at the end of the essay and will publish an erratum in the next issue.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.

The Informed Heart

My best-paying temp job ever, acquired with a fake college degree, but demanding only skills I could muster, had been part-time as well as temporary, so when it ended just before Christmas 1960, I was left with little money and too few weeks of covered employment since my last time to be eligible for benefits. I had no intention of looking for more temp work. It had been years since I had asked my family for help. I had never before approached my aunt Norma. Now I told her that I was looking for a serious job, but it would probably take time; I wanted to borrow a couple of hundred dollars to carry me while I looked.

I had set myself a precedent for serious job hunting when I looked for theatre work. The difference was that the backstage work I could find was part time and impermanent, the pay low and uncertain; what I wanted was an opening on a career, the chance to “make something of myself,” to stop being marginal. I began answering ads placed by magazines or publishing houses, tried to find an entry level job that would make it possible for me, after whatever apprenticeship I was required to serve, to make my living with words.

As evidence of my seriousness, I also began answering ads placed by private employment agencies. In those days, the agency collected its fee usually one week’s wages from the applicant. I have no idea how I managed to cosmeticize the seven years of employment disasters that followed my expulsion from college at the end of my freshman year. I’m sure I exaggerated the time I spent earning my BA., exaggerated the duration of a couple of good jobs I had briefly held, and hoped that nobody would bother to call my references. In any case, what I did worked, because by mid January I had a job as editorial assistant on a new magazine, Current, with offices in a townhouse on East 71st Street. I don’t think it was my tricked-up resume, but rather my eagerness and enthusiasm during the interview that won me the job.

Current, a new venture, its first monthly issue planned for February, was to be a current affairs digest of a particularly high minded nature. It would publish excerpts chiefly from a wide range of American and European periodicals, but also from government reports, the minutes of scholarly conferences, new books that touched on what Current called the “frontier problems of our time.” The intelligent reader would be able to keep up with a broad range of new material, while being guided to specific articles or publications which he might want to seek out for himself and read in full.

My chief responsibility was to receive and distribute the huge volume of incoming mail, including five or six daily newspapers and a flood of weeklies. I had a checklist that told me which editor’s name to circle first on the distribution sheet I clipped to each cover. These sheets had spaces for the editor’s comments on whatever publication he thought worth passing on. Incoming mail arrived twice a day and had first claim on my attention. I would make a second tour each morning and afternoon to redistribute mail between editors.

177 East 71st Street was an exceptionally pleasant building to work in. The lower two stories, the original parlor and garden floors, were occupied as a residence by Eliot D. Pratt, the magazine’s publisher, who owned the building. The magazine’s quarters, in the two -and- a half upper stories had been only superficially remodeled, still felt much more residential than commercial. There was an eat in kitchen on the attic floor where the three associate editors had their low ceilinged offices. There was another kitchen, a long galley, on the entrance floor, where the receptionist, the business manager’s office, the copy editor’s desk, and my large work table were located.

When I wasn’t sorting or distributing mail, much of my time was spent in a walk in closet, more like a small room, into which all the publications the editors had reviewed for our first issue had been dumped in only the loosest order. It was my initial task to arrange and shelve this mess by title and date, turn the closet into a reference library of back issues. Not that everything was saved. The daily newspapers and many of the news weeklies were discarded after they had been screened. The more scholarly journals, monthlies like Encounter or Commentary, quarterlies like Foreign Affairs, were the ones the editors wanted to keep. I worked very hard establishing order, got sweaty and dirty, may have undercut the good impression I was trying to make. Perhaps a legitimate college graduate would not have embraced the dirty work so eagerly or would have washed or brushed away the traces of his efforts when he left the closet to make his rounds of editors’ offices.

On a brighter note, early on, perhaps for the second issue, I began to work with the copy editor on the physical production of the magazine. This was an exacting job in those days of linotype machines and hand-set type. I proofread with a dictionary and the New York Times Style Manual. I also helped in the cutting and pasting up of the proofed galleys into pages, which were reviewed again when they returned from the printers. There was a skill in making sure that any corrections or last-minute changes were accommodated within the page to avoid the expense of having to reset other pages.

This work, although it might run to midnight as the printing deadline neared, usually occupied me for only part of a week in the month and did not fill all my time. I would take over the switchboard when the receptionist or the secretary who relieved her were both unavailable, but that was a rare occurrence. Once I had finished putting the closet in order, I began to have time to look more closely at all the publications that crossed my desk; to spend time, which no one seemed to begrudge me, reading the articles I found interesting. I’m not sure when the time I spent reading was formally authorized by my name appearing on the distribution list, but I believe that by spring I had been given initial responsibility for most of the daily newspapers and mass circulation magazines, those least likely to produce materials Current might want to excerpt.

I don’t mean to suggest I had final word even on these publications. Nothing went directly from me to the closet or the trash. I was simply to note in red on the distribution sheet any article of interest before passing the publication along to the associate editors. No matter. My responsibility might be very thin, my suggestions given very little weight, but I was now spending more than half my time reading, being the grateful recipient of a paid education in current affairs. I began my day by distributing the mail and would then be free, except for one tour of the editors’ in and out boxes, or possibly a few minutes at the switchboard, until the second mail arrived in mid afternoon. The office was quiet; there was always coffee and frequently doughnuts or Danish pastry in the galley; I could see a garden, trees anyway, through the back windows of the parlor as I sat at my table working my way through a giant pile of newspapers and magazines.

I didn’t only look at the materials I had been assigned, but at everything that crossed my desk. I first learned about the publications themselves, their names, frequency of publication, specialized content, editorial point of view. I leafed through air editions of British publications like the Manchester Guardian Weekly, the New Statesman and Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, that I had only vaguely heard of before. I learned that the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association published minutes of their annual conferences. I saw academic and literary quarterlies like the Yale or Antioch or North American Reviews for the first time in my life. It was not content, but bibliography, that I reacted to first, the sheer number and variety of publications that were like miles-long freight trains, transporting knowledge.

I was still living in poverty, on the top floor of a Lower East Side tenement, with no central heating, a toilet in the hall, a bathtub in the kitchen. At Current though, from the moment I left the subway, I was bathing in wealth. There were no businesses, no stores, on Current’s tree lined street, only beautifully kept row houses. The cartoonist Saul Steinberg had the house adjacent to ours. He came to one of the cocktail parties at which I handed around drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The exteriors for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were shot just up the block from us. Trucks, lighting equipment, and swarms of technicians, filled our street for days. Audrey Hepburn must have been there, getting out of a cab or walking down the block from Tiffany’s, but I never caught a glimpse of her. I would usually eat lunch at my desk or in the upstairs kitchen, then go out for a walk in the neighborhood. On cold or rainy days, or simply when I was in the mood, I would go to the Frick Collection just a few blocks away to look at the paintings or just to sit quietly on one of the marble benches in the symmetrical central court with the skylight and the fountain. My repeated visits to the Frick made friends of paintings for me. Bellini’s St. Jerome at the mouth of his cave, El Greco’s Christ ejecting the money lenders from the Temple, Rembrandt’s great self portrait, became intimates of my life. Early in spring, as soon as the boats were out, I would take an extra-long lunch hour and row myself around Central Park lake, watch the willows coming into leaf.

There was a brief time though, reminiscent of earlier failures, when it looked as though I were undoing myself. The business manager, who had the front office on my floor, would come rushing at me morning after morning, finger on the dial of his wristwatch, to point out that I had come in five or ten minutes late (again!) I truly believe he started looking at his watch at exactly nine every morning and did nothing else until I walked in the door, like a cat preparing to pounce.

This man, Charles, who at times could be quite friendly, even affectionate, cast a terrible shadow over my first months at Current. He made me feel that my coming in on time would be an intolerable submission, a humiliation I could not endure. I began to be late less frequently, but still often enough to prove my freedom.

Finally, with my job perhaps in jeopardy, I decided that I was being irrational, that the real consequence of my coming in on time would be that the man’s persecutions would stop. I would have little more do with him since I reported mostly to others. And so—just like the adult I was trying to be—I forced myself to come in on time and the conflict ended. I suspect that both the business manager and I were somewhat disappointed to lose the daily drama in our lives.

Months went by smoothly and rapidly, with an absence of fresh disaster that was new in my experience. Weeks succeeded each other; new issues of Current came out. One small piece that I suggested —I can’t recall exactly what, but something light and diverting, a change from the magazine’s generally ponderous tone—was accepted for publication and I was allowed to write the editor’s comments which appeared below the title of each piece and justified its inclusion in the magazine.

To me, the measure of my success was not the tiny piece that appeared in the magazine, but an event that took place in late August, a first in my working life, I had earned a week’s vacation with pay! I took the first airplane trips of my life to Rockport, Maine and then a ferry to Vinalhaven, an island in Penobscot Bay that New York artists frequented. I spent a week bicycling and hiking, becoming friends with a local artist, Brud Clayter, and his wife Carolyn.

If I took that vacation alone, although my girl friend, Jackie, was still living with me, it was because our relationship had deteriorated almost in pace with my doing well at work. There were frequent arguments, endless tears and apologies, abortive break ups and unavailing reconciliations, a whole soap opera, but with the danger of serious violence always lurking. There was a complete reversal of values in my life. I began to enjoy leaving for work in the morning, to dread coming home at night. Everything at the magazine, at least what I was exposed to, was orderly and rational, as civilized as East 71st Street was in comparison to East 3rd.

In January, completing my first year, I got a five dollar a week raise, but no promotion, no movement from editorial assistant to assistant editor, no invitation to start reading full time. I was, more promisingly, assigned a few books and long journal articles to read. As with the newspapers and large circulation magazines, I had only initial responsibility, would pass along whatever I read to an associate editor with my comments, in red ink if I thought there was material we could use. The use of red ink on the distribution sheet was important because it meant the selection would eventually go all the way to the editor- in- chief’s desk. It was his way of keeping track of what his editors were recommending.

These were extraordinarily dramatic times. The year just ended had seen Kennedy’s election to the presidency. Khrushchev, whom I saw on his balcony at the Soviet Embassy opposite Hunter College, had been banging his shoe at the U.N. Castro had liberated Cuba, and I had heard his speech of triumph (in untranslated Spanish in a Central Park filled with mounted policeman), Beyond all these events, and capturing my imagination more than any of them, the black student sit ins had just begun at lunch counters in the South. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had led the way. Federal troops had been sent to Little Rock to enforce desegregation, and now black college students in North Carolina and Tennessee, and soon all over the South, were taking up the struggle.

My stability at work—I’d never lasted more than a few months before anywhere—my improved income and the better opinion of myself that the job engendered, gave me courage to face the unhappiness of my personal life. After one failed attempt, Jackie and I definitively parted in the spring of 1961 and as a kind of impromptu divorce settlement (we had been together for over three years) I surrendered the 3rd St. apartment and all the furniture, paid an agent’s fee to put the lease in her name. I moved in with a friend on Avenue C, and then, in the summer of 1961, I sublet, along with the stranger who had placed the ad, a luxuriously furnished apartment on Riverside Drive: five rooms, three baths, a maid’s room (but no maid), and rows of windows overlooking the Hudson. Hannah Arendt, who was attending the Eichmann trial underway in Jerusalem that summer, occupied an identical apartment on a lower floor.

It was while I was living on Riverside Drive that I was assigned to read another book about the Nazi experience. The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim was based on his experiences as a political prisoner at Dachau in the late 1930s before the Final Solution had been decided on. Dr. Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst and child psychologist, was now known chiefly as the director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, which was pioneering new treatment for childhood autism, as well as for his book about that school, Love is Not Enough.

The Informed Heart had enormous impact on me. It was Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic training, his insights into himself, his fellow prisoners, even the thoughts of the guards, that helped him survive. I said that there had been no violence in my relationship with Jackie, which meant that I had never hit her. But one time I barely managed to turn aside a blow and crashed my fist through a window instead. I needed many stitches and when the Emergency Room at Bellevue finished with me, they suggested I see a psychiatrist.

Even before that happened, I had begun to see myself–not the girl I happened to be with, not Jackie; nor Abbie, the girl friend who had preceded her and with whom my relationship had been even worse—as the cause of my own unhappiness. I don’t know if I had begun to read books about psychology and psychoanalysis before I read Bettelheim, but I had been reading Proust at bedtime for years and had learned how little the reality of relationships has to do with the other person and how much with the way we ourselves relate.

I was terrified that after leaving Jackie I would fall into another self-made trap. When Jackie had been angry at me, she had savaged our apartment. I would come home and find the furniture topsy-turvy, all my books and papers scattered like trash across the floor.I spent the better part of a week or two, at home as well as at work, editing excerpts of The Informed Heart to compose the single long book extract that Current published each month. I covered the distribution sheet with red ink, giving—perhaps unwisely—not just my cool and measured estimate of the book’s importance (as a record of the individual struggling against forces that would destroy his freedom) but to show the many ways the book illuminated me to myself. I probably gushed terribly.

As with many other pieces I had submitted, the rejection of The Informed Heart was in writing, a brief note on the bottom of the distribution sheet when the book came back to me for filing. No editor ever spoke to me in person about the book, gave me reasons for its rejection, or gave me a chance to defend my choice. This was not unusual: I believe the editors communicated with each other chiefly by notes on the distribution sheets. If there were editorial meetings at which decisions were debated, I was never invited to one, and I’m not sure any took place.

The long extract that was actually published in Current the month for which it rejected the Bettelheim was a piece by George Steiner, the house intellectual at The New Yorker, about the difference between the words “disaster” and “tragedy” and how frequently the press, especially in headlines, ignored this crucial distinction. An air crash, for instance, was a disaster, a tragedy was always a willed event, asserted a value. The article had been selected by Andrew Norman, the associate editor I liked best. He sought me out to say he was surprised that I hadn’t marked the article to anyone’s attention, that he would have expected me to be sensitive to the material because of my interest in theatre.

I did not resign from Current immediately after The Informed Heart was turned down, although that was my impulse. I was not sure what kind of work to look for, was afraid to leave a job that had provided me with stability for the first time in my life, a safe haven from emotional storms, a chance to spend much of my time reading, even if my thoughts about what I read mattered so little to anyone else. It is a measure of my distress that summer that my only memory of a day long picnic that the Pratts gave for the staff at their large country home on the Housatonic River in Connecticut, my only memory of what must have been a festive day, was of getting caught in barbed wire while climbing into a field to look at sheep, and ripping my clothes and some skin in the process.

When I finally did give notice, in late October, it was after having gotten a job as a live-in counselor or “cottage parent” at St. Christopher’s School, a residential treatment center for disturbed or delinquent children located on the Hudson about thirty miles north of New York City. While dealing with less extreme cases, it was an institution like the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago that Dr. Bruno Bettelheim had written about in Love is Not Enough.

~

When Carl Schiffman turned eighty not long ago, he began writing brief essays like “The Informed Heart” revisiting his childhood and the jobs he held after flunking out of college in his freshman year. Some of these memoirs have been published in Apple Valley Review, North Dakota Quarterly, bioStories.com., Catamaran Literary Reader, and Hotel Amerika.

He is a native New Yorker, a playwriting graduate of Yale Drama School, which accepted him without an undergraduate degree. Five of his short plays were produced Off-Broadway in the 1970s to no great effect. His fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Antioch Review, Southern Review, Transatlantic Review, Southwest Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. His first story online was in the Spring 2018 Jewish Fiction.net. A story was in the Winter 2020 issue of The MacGuffin, another story is due in Main Street Rag.

Carl has been retired since the mid-1990s. He made his living as a case worker with neglected or delinquent children, as a state and federal civil rights investigator, then finally as a writer for non-profit organizations and fund-raising consulting firms.

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