ANOTHER medical school book? Another Harvard medical school book? This one, Gentle Vengeance, is based on the journal notes of Charles LeBaron, a Princeton graduate, impoverished and orphaned, who entered his first year at Harvard Medical School at age 34, after over a decade of odd jobs and night school. LeBaron wrote the book in 1979 during a 10-week summer vacation after that first year. He must now be finishing his third.
He conveys convincingly the feeling of a medical student intimidated by being part of a great medical school, yet disappointed in his colleagues and faculty. And he captures well the bigotry of Harvard, which, for all its well-earned reputation, retains the narrow provincialism of the founding fathers, only replacing the Puritan worship of God with a Puritan worship of Harvard.
As a Harvard undergraduate, I was taught that all good doctors were trained at Harvard Medical School. LeBaron describes the same flat-world attitude. For instance, Saturday classes, regardless of their merits, are worshipped by the students, as well as the faculty, with an intensity worthy of Cotton Mather. LeBaron sets himself above all this, a trifle smugly, but Harvard breeds smugness. He bravely leads a rebellion against Saturday classes. The dean replies, "'As far as I know, we've had Saturday classes since Harvard Medical School was founded 200 years ago.' . . . Saturday classes remained."
This unthinking Harvard approach leads to the same kind of "scientific" mind that blithely counted the human chromosomes as 46, because it always had been 46, until a less biased observer pointed out there were 48 chromosomes under his microscope, and every one else's as well.
About a third of the way through Gentle Vengeance, LeBaron and his writing falter. He tries to explain in cozy terms and at length thermo-dynamic flux, and later fungal cultures, in a doomed attempt to make physiology and microbiology light reading. They aren't. The interested reader should consult the standard textbooks on the reference shelves of a medical library. Furthermore, the tone of the book changes. The author becomes disorganized, angry, obscene and bitter, as he juxtaposes scenes from his past with his current medical school experiences. He often shows a surprisingly naive and ready sympathy for the violently deranged. And he has the annoying habit of blaming the "system" for whatever comes his way.
He remembers an incident when a retarded resident of a facility where he'd worked went berserk. LeBaron courageously wrestles him to the floor after three Selectric typewriters and the office furniture have been destroyed.
"'Cool, I said softly in his ear. 'Cool, cool, cool.' I looked up at the administrator. 'Give me six, seven minutes, he'll be down.'" A few broken chairs and a concussed psychologist later, the psychotic is sedated, to my relief -- it is a gripping scene -- but to LeBaron's dismay.
"If administrators hadn't arrived, I could have gotten him down . . . Now everything is muddled." His smug superiority here is irritating, but also misguided. Whispering "cool" may hypnotize the willing subject, but sedatives -- or even strait jackets -- better protect a psychotic from killing others or himself. Disturbed people are disturbing. However, LeBaron predictably blames "the system" for this incident, which may be therapeutic for him, but is tedious for his reader.
Next, his self-pitying anger focusses on disease. We know people die, but the fact is somewhat more difficult for LeBaron to accept once he is a medical student. He remembers watching a patient deteriorate when he was working in a San Francisco hospital, doing his alternative service as a conscientious objector. An intelligent man, Percy, was dying tragically from tuberculosis of the spine that had spread to his brain. LeBaron's distress is understandable.
"Slowly his head came around to face mine. He didn't say anything. Spit started to drool from one corner of his mouth.
"'Aw f--- it, Percy!' I said out loud, clenching my fists. 'F--- it all!' I squeezed his shoulder hard, then gently and left him." A bit soap-operatic, but moving.
Facing this kind of thing is part of becoming a doctor. But LeBaron, in writing about the incident, which occurred years ago, miles away from Cambridge, somehow blames Harvard for Percy's death.
"Give me two years of endless short-answer tests, then put me on round-the-clock tests, and how many Percies would I accrue."
He storms away from his books and out into the street, weeping and shouting.
"'No more victims you mother-f-----,' I said. 'You can f---ing fail me a hundred times . . . Find yourself another personality to reconstruct . . . You got one victim less.'" It's a bit much.
Next LeBaron reveals himself through encounters with women.
"I was drunkenly stumbling about the dance floor with a light-headed red-tressed nursing student names Jessica . . . Four hours later I woke up with three quarts of beer wrestling eighty-three hors d'oeuvres to a draw . . . After half an hour of thrashing . . . I'd so thoroughly destroyed the bedclothes that Jessica couldn't sleep either, called a cab and went home." Good for Jessica. On the next page, he's with Celine.
Finally, I object to LeBaron's mistaking the use of obscenity for expressive writing. What is the difference between a "f------ loathsome smell" and a loathsome smell?
Gentle Vengeance, which tells more about the author and his conflicts than about medical school, should have been titled, "The Private Life of Charles LeBaron." One of the things that troubles me most is his lack of interest in medicine and patients except as they affect his emotions. Not surprisingly he wonders why he is there. He says he only wants a "red van and all its attendang technicolor pleasures! . . . I wonder if this [med school] might not be a pretty roundabout way of buying a car?" Alas, the answer is yes. By the end, it is LeBaron, not his bete noir, Harvard, who appears in an unfavorable light. This is a pity. He is clearly a determined, intelligent, admirable man who has surmounted the great obstacles of poverty, no family and few friends. The book should be a tale of triumph, but is more the discontent of a lost soul. Had the author waited to sort out his own conflicts and finish medical school before going to press, he might have given us a more interesting and balanced book, and a kinder view of himself as well.