PARK CITY — The first time Dr. Scott Zuckerman met the subject of his biography “Dreams of My Comrades,” he wasn’t all that impressed. An acupuncturist who formerly practiced pediatrics, Zuckerman had been treating a patient for back pain when he met her father, Murray Jacobs (pseudonym) — a demanding and cantankerous 89-year-old man — and the two didn’t hit it off.
But Zuckerman’s curiosity was piqued when he learned that Jacobs was a World War II veteran. Although he was in the midst of writing his own autobiography, Zuckerman thought it was important that he switch topics for a time and write about Jacobs instead.
“I think every human being’s story needs to be told,” Zuckerman said. “Many (veterans), because of the trauma that they suffer, are reluctant to talk about their experiences. So, I think documenting those experiences is exquisitely important because once those veterans die, their experiences are gone forever.”
Sifting out truth
With Jacobs’ health already on the decline, there was no time to waste. From the Great Depression to World War II to man landing on the moon, Zuckerman wanted to know it all, and he wanted it straight from someone who had lived through it. But before the veteran would even consider talking to Zuckerman about his memories, he had two conditions: Zuckerman had to use pseudonyms for him and his family, and the biographer could not publishing anything until after the veteran’s death.
Zuckerman agreed. After knowing Murray for several years, Zuckerman officially began the writing project in 2011, and the book was four years in the making. Published by Sunbury Press, “Dreams of My Comrades: The Story of MM1C Murray Jacobs” tells about Jacobs’ experiences as a member of the United States Navy that he had kept secret for over 65 years while he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I think he sensed that I understood him and I was nonjudgmental to him,” said Zuckerman. “So, I think that led us down the path of him being willing to open up to me about things that he had never told anyone, including things that he had never told his psychologist who was treating him for PTSD.”
The biography ended up being more of a process of trial and error than Zuckerman originally thought. Although the book felt like a natural fit for a first-person biography, Zuckerman realized as he was reading over the material that the stories Jacobs told him were not always accurate. To compensate, Zuckerman changed the tense of the book and did additional research by going through the National Archives at St. Louis and studying Jacobs’ military file.
“Once I went back as a scientist and as a physician, I had to do fact-checking,” he said. “I realized, well, it was 70 years ago … and as lucid and as great a storyteller as he is, the facts weren’t quite the way he portrayed them.”
More than a biography
As Zuckerman interviewed Jacobs with a tape recorder between them, it wasn’t the history alone he wanted to highlight in the book — it was the dynamic of their relationship. So, in the first chapter when Jacobs tells about the first time he had seen combat, Zuckerman’s reaction to the information is also included.
“Our relationship forms the cornerstone of the book itself,” Zuckerman said. “In fact, some folks who pick up my book hoping for just a historical representation … may be disappointed by that.”
The format of the book also lends itself to an exploration of psychology, including what is truth and how it is perceived differently by people based on their background and unique circumstances.
“Our own truths are shaded by our own life’s experiences. You and I could experience the same event at the same time and each of us report it in somewhat of a different way because of where we’re coming from,” Zuckerman said.
In an attempt to relate the truth as accurately as possible, Zuckerman decided to retell Jacobs’ story exactly as he shared it with him. Those details include graphic scenes from the veteran's time overseas and confessing to his own involvement in cruel atrocities. Considering the minimal censorship on his end, Zuckerman stated that “Dreams of My Comrades” isn’t appropriate for all audiences.
“It’s really an R-rated book,” he said. “It’s not R-rated necessarily intentionally. … That’s the subject matter. … I felt that one has to be true: I have to be true to my own self and to my subject and to the subject matter.”
According to Zuckerman’s wife, Dr. Julie Asch, the content was a little less disturbing for her than it might be for readers who are unfamiliar with the content. Since her husband would regularly share excerpts of what he had written and talk about it with her, she noted that hearing Jacobs’ story was more of a learning process for both of them.
“He’d be listening to the tapes of his interviews while I’d be doing my own reading, so we kind of went through this story development together,” she said. “I think when you’re living through it slowly and having discussions about it over time and finding out other stories that happened in World War II, it wasn’t as shocking.”
That being said, Asch added that “Dreams of My Comrades” naturally leads to discussion and would be a good choice for a book club, so that readers can navigate some of those more gruesome details together.
“There’s always the thought, ‘I wonder if they won’t like it when they get to this part or that part,” Asch said. “But the most common thing is getting through some of that more vivid World War II description … but then when they get caught up in the whole psychology of the book, it pulls them back in.”
The power of withholding judgement
During the interview process, Zuckerman also encountered feelings of self-doubt as he worried whether he was actually helping his subject, or whether resurfacing old memories was causing him more damage in the long run. According to Zuckerman, his relationship with Jacobs started out as superficial and gradually became more authentic. But the more he searched for the facts, the more distant Jacobs became.
“It almost was like there was that big elephant in the room and both of us realized that there was no further benefit to discussing that,” he said, noting that for a time, the two would keep their conversations to golf, politics and the weather.
“My goal was to get at the truth,” Zuckerman said. “And then my goal was to try to relieve his burden of what he had been carrying with him throughout his life. Personally, I don’t know if I succeeded in that.”
Jacobs’ psychologist assured Zuckerman, though, that her client’s mental health had improved over the course of the project. And Jacobs’ family also believed Zuckerman should write the biography — one of Jacobs’ daughters even gave Zuckerman a book of letters her father had written to her mother during World War II to express her appreciation.
Partway through Zuckerman's research, the veteran passed away at age 98, so Zuckerman interviewed other sources in order to finish the book. Although the final product was different than he expected, Zuckerman stated that the story felt complete.
“There are things I still wish I could go back and talk to him about and discuss with him, but I do feel I was able to extract everything I needed to tell,” Zuckerman said.
Although he’s already in the midst of working on his second biography, Zuckerman said that he continues to get emotional when rereading passages of “Dreams of My Comrades.” And for Zuckerman, the greatest lesson he learned while writing the book was not that he had the perseverance to finish it or to find a publisher. Rather, it was the importance of questioning the truth — and withholding judgment of others while discovering it.
“We should not take people just at face value,” Zuckerman said. “People are not always what they seem to be on the surface.”
Note: “Dreams of My Comrades” contains obscene language, sexual references and graphic descriptions of violence.