A Man After His Own Heart: A True Story

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Somewhere on this earth tonight, somewhere, I believe, not very far from me, there is a person whose heart I've touched. A person whose heart I've held in my hand. . . .

So begins A Man After His Own Heart, an extraordinary narrative by acclaimed author, essayist, and poet Charles Siebert on that most elusive of topics--the human heart. On a rainy December night one recent winter, Siebert was given the rare opportunity to accompany a team of ...
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Overview

Somewhere on this earth tonight, somewhere, I believe, not very far from me, there is a person whose heart I've touched. A person whose heart I've held in my hand. . . .

So begins A Man After His Own Heart, an extraordinary narrative by acclaimed author, essayist, and poet Charles Siebert on that most elusive of topics--the human heart. On a rainy December night one recent winter, Siebert was given the rare opportunity to accompany a team of surgeons both in the harvesting of a human heart from the body of a young woman who'd recently died of a brain aneurysm, and in the subsequent delivery and implantation of that heart into the hollowed-out chest of a waiting recipient.

Beginning with his harrowing week-long wait for the harvest call to come and culminating with the moment in which one of the implant surgeons suddenly, inexplicably, places the author's hand on the wildly beating reanimated heart, Siebert manages to weave a seamless series of ruminations and reflections about his own obsession with the heart and his often-estranged father's fatal heart disease; about history's ongoing fascination with this most central and vital organ; and about modern science's latest startling discoveries concerning both the heart's biological origins and its long-intuited role in the play of our emotions. The resulting mix is nothing less than a radically new, definitive biography of life's most pondered and poeticized protagonist. This story is a journey into the literal and figurative heart of our being, revealing the previously unexplored ways in which the matter of modern science and timeless metaphor meet.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The story of the transplant frames this book like a rib cage: slender segments of it crop up at measured intervals, barely containing the tangled, too-vivid mass inside. Siebert is trying to write many things at once: a memoir, a work of popular science and a medical mystery story (he investigates and nearly takes part in a genetic study that would reveal whether he shares his father's condition). He pauses now and again to contemplate God, New York City and middle-child syndrome. — Burkhard Bilger
Publishers Weekly
This compelling and complex narrative is based on a New York Times Magazine story by Siebert (Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral) that recounted his involvement with a team of surgeons who "harvested" a human heart from a recently dead person and transplanted it into a waiting recipient. What has evolved from that essay is a combination memoir, biography, science essay, medical history, social study, mythological exploration; above all, it is an excellent piece of journalism. Beginning with a scene in which a sleepless Siebert lies in bed listening to his "heart's tracks" and contemplating his mortality, he ranges widely among topics, including his father's heart ailments and death, Siebert's own heart-based panic attacks and his troubled relationship with his father, a short history of public anatomies from the 16th century to today and, finally, his involvement with the heart harvest, which culminated in an assisting surgeon placing Siebert's hand onto the beating, transplanted heart. Uniting his subjects is his fight against the idea that a greater medical knowledge about the workings of the heart "has led to a diminished appreciation of its abiding metaphysical significance." Siebert wonderfully illustrates how the heart does not serve as the seat of emotions, but rather as "the brain's subtle antagonist, its emotional and psychological counterpoise," and that the mystique of the heart "now requires even newer and better metaphors in order to be conveyed." Best of all is Siebert's exploration throughout of the subtle paradox of "the burden on the heart... which the very life that a heart allows brings." (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Man of letters Siebert (Wickerby; Angus) returns with an account of his self-described obsession with the heart and all its facets. His pensive reflections on his father's death from heart disease led to concerns about his own mortality and a search for the "true matter and nature of the heart." He wrote magazine articles, researched the disease that killed his father, and finally witnessed a heart transplant, during which he was allowed at the last minute to touch the transplanted heart as it beat. A little too neurotic and ponderous, this book leaves the reader thinking that it should be less boring than it is. Sometimes obsessions are funny or heartbreaking; here, they speak of self-absorption. There are some interesting characters-Siebert's family, the scientists and patients he interviews-but they are included only as pathways back to the author's own story. Similar in theme to Louisa Young's The Book of the Heart but less interesting, this is an optional purchase for public libraries where memoirs are popular. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Elizabeth Williams, Fresno City Coll. Lib., CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The mystique of the human heart and its role as the brain's emotional and psychological counterbalance. Poet, essayist, and memoirist Siebert (Angus, 2000, etc.) has been preoccupied by this subject for much of his life. A classmate dropped dead of a heart attack in the third grade, and the extremely religious Siebert, who had accidentally taken communion with a full stomach at a Friday mass dedicated to the adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was convinced this divine punishment had been meant for him. The author's father had a poorly understood disease of the heart muscle later identified as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a condition often linked to a genetic mutation, which caused his death in 1980. Siebert himself at age 23 experienced dizziness, shortness of breath, and a rapid heartbeat, the onset of what he calls "my cardiac Dark Ages." Hearing about a National Institutes of Health study of families with HCM, he tracked down the researchers, learned more about the disease, visited an HCM family participating in the study, and then opted not to find out whether he carried the mutant gene. These events, his experiences researching the heart, and his description of the public dissections performed at the University of Padua in the 16th century are deftly woven into an account of a heart transplant Siebert observed in 1998. The doctor in charge permitted the writer to accompany the medical team as they removed the heart of a brain-dead woman in Newark, packed it in a picnic cooler, and carried it to New York City's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. To his surprise, Siebert was allowed to watch as surgeons removed a patient's diseased heart and replaced it with the healthy one. Tohis even greater surprise, he found his right hand touching the beating heart in the patient's open chest, an unforgettable and moving moment. Adroit blend of personal reflection, science, and history that presents the heart as no mere pump but as the seat of the human soul. Agency: Darhansoff, Verrill and Feldman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609602218
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/13/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 274
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

CHARLES SIEBERT’s essays, articles, and poems have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Men’s Journal, and Outside. He is the author of two books, Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, a New York Times notable book, and Angus: A Novel, available from Three Rivers Press.
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Read an Excerpt

A Man After His Own Heart


By Charles Siebert

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by Charles Siebert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0609602217


Chapter One

Somewhere on this Earth tonight, somewhere, I believe, not very far from me, there is a person whose heart I've touched. A person whose heart I've held in my hand.

One Sunday morning four years ago, in the early winter of 1998, near the conclusion of what was, without question, one of the longest and most peculiar weeks of my life, I reached my right hand into a man's open chest and placed it upon his beating heart.

I have no idea who this person is. I never saw his face. He was lying on an operating-room table at the time, entirely covered but for his split-open chest. I remember, now, only the look and the feel of his heart, the complete otherness of it against my palm, the beats flush and firm, like the blows of a fist, resonating the full length of my arm.

It is often at this hour of night that I think of him, the man whose heart I held: around 4:00 a.m., my "insomnia hour." When all angles and attitudes of sleep reentry-on the back, stomach, left side and right; limbs straight, half-furled or in full-foetal-have been tried and aborted, as has the book I've been reading, and, finally, the writing notebook in which I nightly record all those charged insights that I'll promptly discharge by morning.

This hour when, even as your wife sleeps soundly beside you, all that's left for you is to prop up the pillow and wait for your unattended, your unespyed brain-ruthless scavenger of sleeplessness-to move in and start making you feel bad about things. Bad enough that you'll soon be forced to turn over again, and, with one ear or the other now pressed to the pillow, there have to confront the more plodding but no less poignant protestations of your heart, that other essential antagonist in this inherently discomIting drama of being consciously alive. It isn't much of choice we come to at the insomnia hour: whether to listen to the organ that makes us want to die, or to the one that can't help reminding us of how soon we will.

Outside my sixth-story windows now, New York City softly whirs like a huge, idling office machine. Here and there through the drifting rain, passing cars sound the two-beat clanks of manhole covers and then splay the night air, which, like mercury, quickly melds again. Stunning how quiet millions of people can be, how synchronous in the simple quest for sleep.

One, two, three . . . I count the seconds now until the next disturbance comes, and then, in seconds, it does, an ambulance siren threading its way through the neighborhood's streets. I trace the siren to its very last, slow wobbles on the horizon's rim, then turn onto my side, place my ear against the pillow and wait for it, a sound which, prior to that December night four years ago, I would have remained on my back like bound Prometheus and let my brain eat me alive rather than hear.

You often have to shift around a bit to find it, tilt your head slightly off the pillow surface, creating a small hollow between the encased feathers and the ear's cupped inner drum. Sometimes two or three tries are required. You'd think yourself dead if you weren't aware of having that thought. Then, at last, they come: faint, brief snare-beats, like bootsteps through wet snow.

One after the next, I tune into and, because I care to—or because I have cares enough to—I begin to follow them, follow, quietly, in my own heart's tracks, as though trying to skulk away from my brain without its noticing. There is no real escaping, of course. The brain is orchestrating this entire procedure—is propelling, at once, the heart's beats and the pretense of being able to follow after them. I am, we all are, that prototypical prisoner who keeps getting to the apparent edges of his prescribed confines only to be met there by some omnipresent, monitoring orb.

Still, I've found that once the brain is pushed past its initial resistance to hearing its own thrumming life source, there exists some leeway, a little breathing room wherein the aim simply becomes to keep going, to keep listening to the heart in order to lure the brain away from itself and further down toward the core of the very body it airily oversees and, especially at 4:00 a.m., so deeply disdains.

I've no real sense of how long this all takes. I am not looking at the bedside clock when I am at last about to drift off to sleep. But among the things I do consistently see in this demi-conscious nether realm is an image of myself, rattled and worn, suddenly emerging from a tangled warren of city streets out to the lulling, mist-drifted rim of a great circular fountain.

It is, even for a sleepy, stupefied brain, a fairly predictable simulacrum of the inner biological reality that I am only apparently willing, and yet it does explain why all of my actual, everyday experiences of city fountains and the peaceful trances they induce, are always vaguely marred for me by this nagging sense of redundancy.

And it is precisely at this stage of my sleep reentry—with my brain brought once again to the brink, my consciousness made to see itself again for what it truly is: a mere prismatic arc framed in the mists above its own inner fountain's flow—that he appears beside me: the man whose heart I held.

It's as though I've somehow drawn him there to my side, a feeling similar to the one I'll often have when I'm still lying awake here in bed at night, and the world is silent, and it seems that if I were just to reach my right hand, cupped, into the air and give it a slight turn, I would be able to pull this same man, wherever he is, up out of his sleep.

Or it might be that he has drawn me toward him, has brought me there to his side at the fountain's edge. This too is a scenario I've imagined countless times since that winter night four years ago: I'm walking along a crowded street when my right arm begins to tremble and then, like some built-in divining rod, pull me, irresistibly, in among the passersby, until I'm brought, once again, hand-to-chest with him.

All closed up now, he is wearing a plain gray business suit, and—because it is usually the first one off my mind's dream shelf—has my dead father's face. We stand, silently, side by side, within the fountain's thrum and spray, me all the while trying to recall why we are there together, and how it is that I've come to know this man.

It is, I now understand, a story that has no clear beginning or end, but, like the blood itself, keeps coming back around, full circle.

In each heart, at one time, two motions, the spent blood returning even as the renewed rushes out.

At one time, in each heart—yours, mine, at this very instant-two leanings, two dispositions, two emotions: the urge to go to the very edges of our existence followed by that dire sensation of having gone too far, of being way out on a limb and needing, at all costs, to get back home.

In each heart, at one time, both thrust and thrust's acceptance, an ongoing, self-contained act of inner coition that at once mimes and moves the outward one to its perfectly mindless redundancy. More and more now I know the outer world to be a recapitulation of our own inner biology.

Outside, the city slumbers along with my brain. I've just doubled back on it, followed my heart's footsteps back around to what I'd taken such pains to escape, found myself standing before some late-night, domino-lit office tower, dead migratory birds strewn at its base.

Where, then, to begin? At what point in the heart's motion to intercede without disrupting that ongoing simultaneity? It has a mind of its own, the heart, for which our minds have yet to find the words.



Excerpted from A Man After His Own Heart by Charles Siebert Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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