The Agony Column

December 28, 2015


Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman and Chef Dave Wells


kt-wisomBy Rick Kleffel  | The Agony Column Literary Magazine Show - Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen: “Creating and Teaching the Curriculum for The Healer’s Art”, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman: “Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry” and Chef Dave Wells: “From Hunger With Love”.

Tonight on the Agony Column Literary Magazine, in a season of spectacle and special effects, we celebrate the power of storytelling and a single, soft voice with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.  She’s the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.  She’s also a founder of the Cancer Help Program at Commonweal Institute, better known as Commonweal and the founder of a medical student curriculum called “The Healer’s Art” used in medical schools throughout the United States.
We also hear from Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman about the untold story of psychiatry and his book Shrinks, now out in trade paperback, and chef Dave Wells, on the power of story in cooking and cooking for cancer.  The first half of the show features Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen; the second half of the show feaures more from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, followed by a short segment with Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman on Shrinks, now out int trade paperback, and a Narrative Species segment with Chef Dave Ells discussing the import of story and narrative in recipes, cooking and cooking for cancer patients.

We’re often told that the stories we tell about our lives, the small truths that seem to us lend our lives meaning, are not scientific. They are anecdotes, and the quote goes that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” But this does not detract from their power, their ability to affect our feelings and even our physiology. All of this is of course, very unscientific. But it turns out that stories, and feelings, matter.

Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom’ is simple as can be. It recollects stories, and offers them in peerless prose. Remen is an MD who, upon attaining her goal of becoming a doctor, found that she had lost something that impelled her to take the journey in the first place. Her work in a cancer ward soon changed that, and reading the stories in her book, you’ll understand why, even as the stories change, you, the reader.

‘Kitchen Table Wisdom’ offers readers, not glimpses, but stories. This is an essential understanding to take with you as you read the book. Each story is complete, but what exactly is completed is difficult to say. Remen is attempting, and in each case she succeeds, at capturing the ineffable. She records events and crafts characters, which is to say, portraits of real people, which in turn create an emotional or even spiritual understanding in the reader. This is a book about life, at its most indescribable level.

While you can expect to embrace the full spectrum of event and emotion here, the underlying feeling is clearly one of joy, of awe and wonder. Yes, again, every bit of this is what we might feel compelled to call unscientific. But the power evident in these stories, and in story itself, suggests what is in many ways obvious. Science itself has some learning to do.

rachel_naomi_remen-3A 2015 Interview with Rachel Naomi Remen, MD : “All the beauty you’ve loved has turned to truth…”

To be a doctor in America in the 21st century, you must first be a scientist. That’s the education; that’s the legality of the occupation. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD became a doctor and then found herself to be a recovering doctor. What she had to recover was her humanity, the core of caring that led her to become a doctor in the first place.

I spoke with Dr. Remen in her home in Mill Valley, California, a beautiful white cabin, an aerie hovering above the top of the world. In spite of the quiet here, I found myself worried that I’d not be able to record her voice accurately. I ran a test, brought the results in my computer, and verified that I could capture the power of her near whispers. Then we started to talk.

More than an hour later, we were still talking. Dr. Remen is actually more powerful as a storyteller in person than she is on the printed page. Listening to her, you can actually hear and understand the layers, and our society’s interest in the stories of doctors. In order to get in the door of being a doctor, you must learn the science of the human body, easily the most complex thing on this planet and in the known universe. That’s the first layer of knowledge that you find when you listen to Dr. Remen.

But that is dwarfed by the second layer of knowledge that all doctors acquire; the emotional connection of the doctor and patient. And there is a conflict between these two types of knowledge that can hurt the human being in which this war takes place. Dr. Remen found herself creating a course to teach a way to unteach doctors; and she told me her story about doing just this. This is the story you will hear in this recording. This is a story about discovering the power of telling and listening to stories. It is about how story changes lives. Listen – and learn to listen.

Author Interviews: Karen Armstrong; Michael Pollan


karen armsrong

Author Interview: Lisa Randall


Physicist, cosmologist and bestselling author Lisa Randall talks about the awe and wonder of the universe, from the Big Bang to the demise of the dinosaurs and her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

Plus, Ernest Cline discusses how video games both reflect and influence our culture, and his new novel, Armada.

Author Interviews: Howard Martin; Dave Barry


Howard Martin of the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek talks about the neurology of the heart, the power of appreciation, that is to say, giving thanks, and a the HeartMath Solution. Plus Dave Barry experiments with Barbie so you don’t have to.

Author Interviews: Ruth Reichl; Nick Hornby and Lisa Randal


Ruth Reichl,  editor of Gourmet Magazine and author of My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, talks about cooking and offers an easy quick recipe for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.

Nick Hornby author of High Fidelity, on writing the screenplays for Wild and Brooklyn; plus physicist Lisa Randal on, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.

Author Interview: Russell Moore and Alison Hopelain


Moor_This is CaminoThe Agony Column Literary magazine takes a culinary journey with Russell Moore and Alison Hopelain via their book – with recipes and cooking philosophy, This is Camino.

Author Interview: Married Literary Bliss


Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede discuss the power of love and social change and their book Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an African Slum.

Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor discuss the science of corporate culture and their book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.

Author Interview: Steven Johnson


how weSteven Johnson discusses developing the “long zoom” narrative to explore interactions between humanity and technology in his TV series and book, How We got to Now.

Plus, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor on the science of corporate culture.

A look at Unconventional Autobiographies


Santa Cruz’s Greg Arche, plus Mellisa Cistaro, Carol Ruth Silver and Kyle Boelte  join host Rick Kleffel at LitQuake.

Australian writer and Man Booker shortlist nominee Steve Toltz splits his own personality to create the characters for his latest novel, Quicksand.

And PBS TV host Steve Johnson explains the “long-zoom” perspective he used to create his book and TV series How We Got To Now.