Annals Q&A With Dr. Stephen Bergman

      Forty years ago, Stephen Bergman, MD, DPhil, took a pen name, Samuel Shem, and published the most influential novel about the American hospital establishment ever written, The House of God. After his intern year at Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) in Boston, Shem, as he still prefers to be called by his colleagues, went on to practice psychiatry before leaving medicine entirely in the 1990s to focus on what had always been his first love: writing. The author of several novels and a play cowritten with his wife, Janet Surrey, about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, Shem once again returned to medicine as a professor of medical humanities at New York University 4 years ago. That experience led him to write a sequel to The House of God, set in a modern hospital, replete with a new set of maddening attributes. That new novel, titled Man’s 4th Best Hospital (the novel Mount Misery features 2 main characters, but is not a “true” sequel, Shem maintains), was recently acquired by Penguin Publishing and is expected to be released in 2019 or 2020. I visited his Buddhist-prayer-flag-decorated home in Newton, MA, where he and his wife live. We discussed the legacy of his novel and his protagonist’s apparent special affection for what was then called the emergency wing (“the EW”). The following is heavily condensed and edited from conversations that afternoon, as well as many e-mails and several telephone calls, during a 5-month period.
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