Book Excerpt
Letters to Sam : A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life
by Daniel Gottlieb

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An excerpt from Letters to Sam : A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life by Daniel Gottlieb, published 2006 by Sterling.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2006 Daniel Gottlieb






Dear Sam,

Because of your autism and because you are very small, you are at high risk of being bullied. My guess is that you're going to meet up with bullies at school. You're also going to meet them later on. Learning to deal with them now will help you then.

There are things I want to tell you about recognizing bullies. But the most important thing is that dealing with bullying at this stage is something you and your parents need to do together. So this letter is for your mom and dad as well as you.

You first.

It might help you to know a little bit about the kids who do the bullying. People who feel good about themselves and their lives don't try to dominate other people the way bullies do. Psychologists say that it's hurt people who are most likely to try hurting others, and I certainly think that's true with bullies. When they try to push other people around, they are really trying to make themselves feel more secure. Of course that doesn't work. But they keep pushing -- harder and harder.

When you encounter one, I'll bet your first reaction will be fear. Then you will either feel ashamed of yourself or get angry. But when you're dealing with a bully, fighting back rarely helps and often makes things worse.

A Buddhist teacher once said that a poisonous snake is only poisonous when you walk toward it. A bully is like that poisonous snake. When you walk away from a bully, you are not being a coward, you are being smart.

Next, you have to tell someone about how you've been bullied. A teacher or principal might help, but it's really your parents who need to know first. They realize that bullying can't be ignored, and they will make sure that other adults know that as well.

This is the part of the letter that's for your parents. If you're being bullied, what should they do?

Well, your aunt Ali taught me what not to do.

When Debbie and Ali were in school, a bully on the bus gave them a terrible time. He teased viciously, swore, and physically intimidated them. When Ali told me about it, right away I called both the bus company and the school principal and insisted they do something about it.

The next day, when Ali came home from school, she was angry with me. Because of my intervention, the principal had talked to my daughters. He meant well, but that was beside the point. From what the principal said, Ali knew at once that I'd told him everything. Then Ali and Debbie had been singled out, which embarrassed them. That wasn't what she and Debbie had wanted when they talked to me. I was supposed to listen to them. Then, together, we were supposed to figure out what had to be done.

As parents, we're outraged when bullies make our children miserable. But we have to understand that it's not about us and our outrage; it's about our children and their needs. We have to put aside our own anger and anxiety to help in the way that's best for them. If a child is in danger, of course we need to act at once. But short of that, we need to listen.

Years after that school bus incident, a patient told me about a bullying episode from her childhood that had left her deeply troubled. But the most troubling aspect was not what had happened to her. It was the way it had left her mistrustful of her own parents.

When this woman was twelve years old, walking home from school by herself, she was approached by a group of older boys who intimidated her, poked her, and touched her inappropriately. She managed to get away from them. When she got home, her mother was not there, but her father saw at once how upset she was, and she told him what had happened. She also identified one of the bullies as a boy in the neighborhood.

Enraged, her father ran out of the house to the home of the boy she had named and forced his way in, past the boy's parents and upstairs to the boy's room. He started beating the boy, and he wouldn't stop until the police intervened.

When the father rushed out of the house to beat up the boy, he had left his frightened daughter alone. He ended up in the police station, of course. The story got around school. His daughter was humiliated. But the worst part was that the battle became all about him and not about her.

Telling me this, the woman realized that her own trauma got worse instead of better because of what her father did. After that scene, she didn't talk to either parent when she was upset.

Sam, I'm quite sure your mom or dad would never do anything like that. But the impulse is there. They have to deal with their own rage in a way that lets them see what is best for you.

So what would I advise them to do?

Let me tell you what my own mother did when I was bullied by a teacher during my junior year in high school. The teacher had given me a C when I thought I deserved a B, and I said so. I met with him, made my case, and thought I must have been convincing, because he changed my C to a B.

Six weeks later, I was called to the principal's office and accused of changing the grade on my report card. I told the principal what had happened. The principal called in the teacher, who denied he had changed the grade. When I got home -- because I was in danger of being suspended -- I told my mother the whole story.

When I asked if she would help me, she agreed. The next day, she came into the school loaded for bear. The teacher backed down. The principal apologized. My grade was restored to a B.

And I was happy my mom did what she did. She fought for me, but first she listened. I asked for help, and she helped me. The battle wasn't about her, it was about me. It was about taking care of her son.

So, Sam, whenever you get bullied, please make sure your parents read this letter before they do anything about it. I want them to be able to act for you rather than for themselves. And I want you to trust that when you need to talk, they will listen.






Dear Sam,

I can hardly bear to think about it, but I know that someday you are going to overhear someone saying, "He's autistic." At that moment, I fear, you will realize that when some people look at you, they don't see Sam. They see a diagnosis. A problem. A category. Not a person.

In May 1969, when I was twenty-four, a woman named Norma taught me how limiting such labels can be. I was a brand-new psychologist working in the acute psychiatric care ward of a city hospital. Treating Norma was part of my training. I really was not a very good student -- I didn't retain information well -- and all I knew about psychotherapy was that it lasted fifty minutes. (That's a slight exaggeration -- but only slight!)

Norma, on the other hand, had experience; she'd been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for more than thirty-five years. Her chart said "schizophrenic." That was the label she wore when she shuffled into my office for the first time.

Norma came to that first meeting with a sheaf of papers clutched tightly in one hand. Of course, I had to demonstrate right away that I was the knowledgeable professional and I would be able to help her! As soon as I started talking, Norma began ripping the papers. I didn't want to ask her why. I was afraid the question might make her mad. I had the notion that if the patient gets mad, that's bad therapy, and if she doesn't get mad, that's good therapy!

It was a long fifty minutes, but finally we were done. Norma got up from her seat and shuffled toward the door, clutching the shredded paper.

As she got to the door, she turned to me. "You know what?"


"You're full of crap." She shook her fist at me. "And I've got the papers to prove it!"

That was the beginning of my relationship with Norma and my first glimpse of the person behind the label. She was right about me. She knew it, and I knew it, and after that, I didn't have to pretend I was something I wasn't. I didn't have to make her believe I knew what I was doing, because both of us knew I had very little idea what I was doing.

And somehow this was okay with Norma. Certainly, her brain worked differently from mine, because she had schizophrenia. But she was not "a schizophrenic." She had told me I could stop pretending, and she had the papers to prove it. Now we could see each other clearly.

Norma never frightened me, though her appearance could sometimes be frightening. She looked very old and wizened. Her mouth was always parched, and she made a constant pill-rolling motion with her thumb and index finger -- a common side effect of medication. Also, she could get very agitated at times, to the point that she would need to be restrained. But I wasn't afraid of her. During all the time that Norma and I spent together, I was quite sure there was nothing to fear.

Shortly after your aunt Ali was born, I brought her into my hospital office to introduce my first child to my colleagues. The baby in my arms immediately drew an audience. Though my attention was on Ali, I noticed Norma out of the corner of my eye. She was about thirty feet away, standing in the middle of the public space, making odd gestures as she often did. She seemed pretty lost inside her own mind. But gradually her attention was drawn to the admiring crowd and the object of their attention -- the little pink bundle I held in my arms.

Slowly, Norma began to calm down. Over the next several minutes, she made her way toward me. By the time she got there, her eyes looked perfectly clear. She didn't say anything. She just held out her arms, wanting to hold Ali.

I placed my child in her arms and watched her -- this scary, disturbed woman -- be as sweet and nurturing as anyone could be.

Then she handed the baby back to me, went back into the public space, and got lost again in her mind.

Would I hand my infant daughter over to "a schizophrenic"? Of course not. But I entrusted her to Norma. Norma's illness was a disease of her brain. But her soul was unimpaired.

Sam, I know your mother struggles with having you categorized as "autistic" in school. While she realizes you must be classified that way in order to receive the services you need, she also knows that you are so much more than autistic. She fears that once you have that label, that's all anyone will see.

As I'm watching you grow, your abilities change almost every day. When you were first diagnosed with PDD, your parents and I did all the research we could to find out what was in store for you. We learned that you would have language difficulties. We anticipated that you would first communicate in sign language -- as you did for the first three years of your life.

From our research into PDD, your parents and I also knew that it would interfere with your ability to be flexible and to pick up social cues. We were told that you would have trouble with fine motor dexterity, but no problem with gross motor skills. We continue to see that. You still can't put on your coat or open a Ziploc bag. But you've become quite a golf and baseball player.

So the label we learned -- PDD -- helped tell us some important things about your disability. But it was only a starting point. Now you are talking quite a bit, and we're learning more about who you are. Every day, we make discoveries about your abilities and limitations, your likes and dislikes, what you can tolerate and what you can't.

I know that when other kids are talking, you are not able to go up to them and join in. You sometimes become upset if you can't put on your Spider-Man pajamas right after school. If you open a candy bar and it's already broken, or if you open a box of crayons and they're in the wrong order, you get very frustrated. When you were at Disney World, you couldn't go on some rides where you had to fasten a seat belt across your lap. Finally your mother understood what the problem was. You were wearing shorts and, to you, the pressure of the seat belt on your legs was terribly painful.

So it's quite true that you have to deal with autism. But autism is not who you are.

A couple of weeks after my accident, I was lying in my hospital bed and I heard my doctor in the hallway saying, "That quad in 301 -- did he get his medication?" Just a couple of weeks earlier I had been Dr. Gottlieb in some circles. In other circles, Dan. In others, Daddy. And now I was "the quad"?

Well, Sam, over the years I have learned that I am not a quadriplegic. I have quadriplegia. You are not autistic. You have autism. Because of our labels, some people will be afraid to approach us. Others will be cautious about talking to us or trusting us. With my spinal cord injury and your autism, we look different and act different. But we can also teach people, as Norma taught me, that no matter what happens to our bodies or our minds, our souls remain whole.



Letters to Sam : A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life by Daniel Gottlieb,


"Dear Sam, my life was changed the moment you were born."

So begins this remarkable collection of thirty-two intimate and compassionate letters that Dan ("Pop") Gottlieb wrote to Sam, his grandson. Frank and honest, they address the same challenges we all face, each in our own way, and reading them delivers an inspiring and emotional punch.

Although the themes of the letters are universal, they draw from a highly personal well of experience. Dan Gottlieb has been paralyzed from the neck down since a nearly fatal automobile accident twenty-five years ago. His grandson Sam was diagnosed at fourteen months old with Pervasive Developmental Disability, a severe form of autism. Dan wrote these letters with the hope that Sam would one day be able to read them and, through them, get to know his grandfather.

Yet you will find no self-pity or regret in these letters. They sing with the purity of a grandfather's love, understanding, concern, and wisdom and cover universal life lessons: dealing with parents, coping with school, falling in love, living with disappointment, experiencing joy, and achieving personal success.

Written with keen intelligence and hard-won sensitivity, these are letters that illuminate the moments a man and a boy share. Dan's healing voice of tolerance, hope, and experience is inspiring and serves as a wonderful reminder that, regardless of our abilities and limitations, we all share in the human condition.

Letters to Sam : A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life by Daniel Gottlieb,


Daniel Gottlieb, a practicing psychologist and family therapist, is the host of "Voices in the Family" on WHYY, Philadelphia's National Public Radio affiliate. A columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he is author of two books, including a collection of his columns entitled Voices of Conflict; Voices of Healing. He is the father of two daughters, and Sam is his only grandson. The author's royalties will benefit Cure Autism Now and other children's health organizations.

Letters to Sam : A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life by Daniel Gottlieb,


"Within the first minute of reading this book, I had already begun to ask deep questions about my life. And within the second minute, I knew he was speaking as much to me as Sam. But by the third minute, I forgot I was even reading, and I felt more like I was in the great classroom of life, learning lessons that I will treasure forever."

-- Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus With My Sister

"Dan's love of Sam is indeed an exquisite love . . . After reading these powerful words, I look at my own beloved grandchildren in a different light."

-- Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate, President and Founder of World Centers of Compassion for Children International

"What a delicious read! Daniel Gottlieb's Letters to Sam touches us deeply in ways that can help us all learn to live richer, more satisfying lives. Its wisdom and insight justify him as one of America's favorite psychologists."

-- Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards and How Babies Talk

"Letters to Sam is heartbreaking and heart-mending all at the same time. Dan has the authority of living through the extremities of pain and loss, so when you bite down on his wisdom, it's gold. I want to give this book to everyone I care about."

-- Ellen Bass, award-winning poet

"Letters to Sam is a remarkable book that I want to give to my wife and friends and family. I also want to share this book with my son who has special needs, along with his teachers and the parents at his school because it does a beautiful job of describing the beauty and richness of being unique and highly sensitive."

-- Leonard Felder, Ph.D., author of The Ten Challenges

"In irreducibly simple yet profound words, Dr. Dan Gottlieb shares the wisdom he has derived from living in a wheelchair, battling his own inner demons, and practicing psychology for the past 35 years. Letters to Sam is a guide for the soul, and a wonderful gift to all families."

-- Robert A. Naseef, Ph.D., author of Special Children, Challenged Parents and co-editor of Voices from the Spectrum.

"Letters to Sam is the manifestation of a brilliant mind inside a giant heart."

-- Gerda Weissmann Klein, author and historian

Letters to Sam : A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life by Daniel Gottlieb,

We have reviewed this book.
Link to our book review.