About the Author
Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He quit his first career—as an almost rock star—to become a writer. He has since taught English at Columbia, worked for The New York Times, and published three non-Freakonomics books.
Read an Excerpt
Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper
The House of Dreams
Yes, I should have known better than to go home again. This couldn't end well, wouldn't end well, and I knew it full well. But I was powerless to resist.
From New York City, my safe and distant metropolis -- this was a few years ago, before madmen had crashed airplanes into skyscrapers -- I drove in the back way, through the Catskills and up into the rolling lowlands. I passed a junk shop, a self-serve farm stand, a rotted-out covered bridge. Spring had just surrendered to summer. Far in the distance I could see the sweet, straight line where the cornfields, a mile wide, dead-ended at the base of steep woody hills. That line still excited me, just as other lines now excite me -- the curve of my new bride's bare arm, the sight of my own byline.
Along Route 30, memories pounced at me. In Middleburgh: the high-school ballfield where I broke up a no-hitter in the last inning. (We must have lost the game but my own sliver of glory is all that comes to mind.) In Schoharie: the ragged, shallow creek where my mother taught me to fish. (We never caught a thing and lost all our lures.) I saw a flat-faced man soaping up a flat-faced school bus and the thought of riding it -- the thought of childhood -- made my insides sag.
Gallupville Road, my road, dipped and snaked through hayfields and hillocks, pea-green in the muted June light. I had biked these hills a million times, a million years ago. I cursed their steepness and the dogs that sprang silently, teeth bared, from behind the forsythia. Now I only had to nudge the gas pedal and the hills fell away.
For twenty minutes I didn't pass another car. It was taking forever. I checked the speedometer: 23 mph, it said. This was a homecoming retarded by memories; Odysseus had made better time.
Up the steepest hill yet and finally, there below, lay my Eden.
Right away I saw that it was all wrong. The house still stood but the yard did not. The yard was gone. It was now a gravel lot, filled with a couple dozen cars.
The yard was the reason I had come home. The yard was a long, sloping spit of crabgrass where we staked our cow and played ball and recited the Rosary in summertime, the eight of us kneeling in a tight circle around our parents. And a momentous event had taken place in that yard. I had come home to stand in the tall grass at its edge and maybe close my eyes and commune with that momentous event.
The momentous event was in fact a dream -- a visitation, really -- that came to me every single night for a few years. The Dream featured a man I never met but who meant more to me than any man, dog, or deity. Jesus included. In my parents' home, Jesus was the only thing that truly mattered and although there was some mystery as to how the family had gotten that way, his dominion was never challenged. Our world revolved around the goings-on at Our Lady of Fátima, where my parents were pillars and where I, the baby of the family, became an altar boy when I was five.
The church, I had been instructed, was named for the Virgin Mary's appearances to three shepherd children in the Portuguese mountain village of Fátima. I had further been instructed that it would be an honor to receive such a visitation myself, and that I should keep my eyes open.
So when my own visitation arrived, I took it seriously. My hero came to me with a force, a grace, a reality that neither Jesus nor Mary could muster. He left me quivering in my sleep, astir with joy and longing. In my waking hours I thought of him always, and tried to walk in his light.
But my hero was a football player. This was plainly a heresy, and I therefore never as much as mentioned the Dream to anyone. Still, I depended on it. Every night I looked forward to bedtime -- which may say less about the Dream than about the unmoored, keening state of my childhood. It wasn't a miserable childhood, only one with a chunk blown out of its center, that chunk being my father. I had returned to the site of this visitation because I had come to believe that it was my hero who had kept me from crumbling into that hollow center.
Just as I pulled onto the muddy roadside, another car turned in. It was a pale green Honda. The man who got out wore khaki shorts, a long-sleeve Oxford shirt, wire-rimmed glasses, loafers with no socks. He walked with an uneasy, mincing gait, smoothing his hair, with no humility in his stride. He was obviously unaware that he was trampling my sacred ground. From the looks of him, he could have been a schoolteacher. It was late June: maybe, I thought, the man who bought the house from my mother was the principal and he threw a year-end party for his employees?
I rolled down my window. "Hello," I called out, friendly. "Something's happening here today, yeah?"
"Um, yes." He froze as he spoke, then started quickly toward the house.
"What ... what is it?" I asked.
He seemed to blanch. He froze again -- "I don't know" -- then unfroze, hurried up the front steps, gave two quick knocks and slipped inside.
What a jerk. Do you know who I am?
Or maybe I misheard him. Or he misheard me? Or -- I hadn't shaved in a few days -- he thought I was a hoodlum. Or perhaps there was a funeral going on? But he wasn't dressed for a funeral ...
For a few minutes I just sat and fumed. Then I drove toward town and stopped at Wolfe's Market, where I had stocked shelves as a kid. Mrs. Wolfe was working the counter ...Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper. Copyright © by Stephen Dubner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
|Book 1||A Boy and His Hero|
|1.||The House of Dreams||3|
|2.||Limbs and Loins||12|
|3.||The Immaculate Reception||20|
|4.||A Disastrous Disturbance of the Heart||33|
|5.||The Stealth Messiah||44|
|6.||A Mother Is Not a Man||52|
|7.||A BIRGer Binge||62|
|Book 2||A Hero in the Flesh|
|9.||The Urge to Merge||101|
|10.||Death, Pro and Con||120|
|11.||Give Everyone a Smile||138|
|12.||Feeling Vida Blue||158|
|13.||A Brief History of Hero Worship||167|
|14.||I Am Not a Stalker||184|
|15.||Yanked from the Pedestal||213|
|Book 3||A Hero and His Boy|
|16.||A Mother Is a Mother Is a Mother||225|
|17.||Something Like Love||235|
Reading Group Guide
Stephen J. Dubner's Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper is a true story that reads like the wisest of novels. Dubner embarks on the kind of search that tantalizes every one of us -- the search for a long-forgotten childhood hero -- and in so doing, plumbs the secrets to his own survival.
When he was a boy, Dubner developed a fierce attachment to a football player, Franco Harris, the famed and mysterious running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Dubner's father died, this attachment became an obsession. He dreamed of his hero every night; he signed his school papers "Franco Dubner." Though they never met, it was Franco Harris who shepherded Dubner through a fatherless boyhood.
Fast-forward twenty years. Dubner, by now an accomplished writer, happens to catch sight of Harris, now a businessman, on a magazine cover. His long-dormant obsession comes roaring back. He is driven to journey to Pittsburgh and even move there if necessary. He is certain that Harris will embrace him. He is convinced that he will wrest from his old hero the mysteries of the universe. And he is...well, wrong.
Told with the grit of a journalist and the grace of a memoirist, Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper is a breathtaking, heartbreaking, and often humorous story of astonishing developments. It is also a sparkling meditation on the nature of hero worship -- which, like religion and love, tells us as much about ourselves as about the object of our desire. Dubner also manages to discuss the perils of celebrity, the psychology of nudity, and the vast difference between Jewish and Christian ideas about hero worship.
Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper is a must-read for anyone who has ever had a hero or wanted one; for anyone who considers football, as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote, "one of the really valid and deep American rituals"; and especially for those who read about others to find the truth in themselves.
Questions for Discussion
- Throughout the book, Stephen Dubner makes comparisons between the human need for God and religion and the human need for a mortal hero. What are some of the similarities and differences in these two searches for guidance? How did his Catholicism influence Stephen's own idolization of Franco Harris?
- Stephen places great importance on his dreams, from "The Dream" of Franco Harris in his backyard, to his vision of fleeing the World Trade Center with his newborn son. What do these dreams tell us about his psychological state at each time? Do you think that Stephen pays too little or too much attention to their importance?
- The substitution of one figure for another is a significant theme of the book, culminating in Gina's replacement of Stephen's mother as the grandmother figure for Stephen's new child. What is different about this final act of substitution? How is it more positive than Stephen's desire to make Franco the replacement for his father?
- How does Stephen's early encounter with Earl Hines foreshadow his later meetings with Franco Harris? What are the similarities and differences between these interactions with the two childhood heroes?
- Throughout the book, Stephen uses historical sources such as the 19th Century writer Thomas Carlyle and the Roman historian Pliny to provide context for his own investigations into the problem of hero-worship. How does this more abstract historical background enhance his personal struggle for understanding?
- Stephen gains most of his information about Franco from stories told by the football player's friends, family, and associates, yet Stephen feels that he still has not gotten to the "real" Franco Harris. How much can we truly know about a person from second-hand sources? What are the limitations, if any, of such second-hand knowledge?
- Near the end of the book, Stephen arrives at the conclusion that it is mothers who are often the most heroic. How did he come to that opinion and how true do you feel it to be?
- After years of investigation -- and questioning himself as to whether his curiousity borders on harassment -- Stephen finally places himself in Franco's shoes, and understands his deep need for privacy. How would you react to Stephen if you were in Franco's position? More generally, how much do you think celebrities, especially athletes, owe their public?
- Throughout the book, race and religion provide a rich subtext for Stephen's meditations. Do you think that Stephen's own mixed religious background caused him to regain interest in his mixed-race hero? Did the fact that Gina is Italian perhaps influence Stephen's conflation of her and his mother? In general, how do religion and race inform and effect Stephen's actions?
- Did Stephen's story awaken memories of your own childhood heroes? Could you personally relate to his situation and, if so, how? Discuss your own childhood idols and how your perceptions of these individuals changed as you matured. Is there any individual who would inspire you to seek them out? Discuss the idols of the children in your life, do you find them to be influenced moreso by popular culture, or by a deeper need such as Stephen's.
- Stephen ultimately realizes that "The key to not being needy, I discovered, was simple: being needed." Aside from fatherhood, what forms can "being needed" take? Is this quality attainable or primarily the result of situations beyond our control?
- How do you think that Stephen resolves the issue of exposing his private life to the public through his books? Do you see any parallels between what Stephen is doing when he writes publicly about his family and what athletes like Franco are doing when they attempt to balance their public and private selves?
- Do you think that professional football today -- or any professional sport -- is able to produce the kind of hero figures, like Franco, that came out of the '70's? If not, what do you feel has changed about professional sports?
About the Author
Stephen J. Dubner is the author of Turbulent Souls: A Catholic's Sons Return to his Jewish Family, and is a former writer and editor at the New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York City with his family.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Stephen J. Dubner is the child of two first generation Brooklyn Jews, who had each converted to Catholicism during the second world war. They met, married, moved to Upstate New York and had eight children. Stephen was the youngest. When he was nine his father died, and Stephen began dreaming about a mysterious, black Italian, Pittsburgh Steelers football player named Franco Harris. Stephen signed his school papers Franco Dubner, and wore a Steelers Jersey. He fiercely followed Harris' life and career for all the years of his lonely childhood and adolescence. Twenty years later, a grown man, a published author, a New York Times magazine editor and writer, Dubner caught sight of his boyhood hero's picture on the cover of Black Enterprise magazine. He was seized by a strong desire to find his boyhood hero and try to understand the meaning of his long and passionate hero worship. Dubner's search is an extraordinary story of love, loss, and healing. The writing is beautiful and honest. I laughed and cried. Even the descriptions of Harris' football playing held my interest, and I am no sports fan. This is a tremendously moving, authentic story of how the human spirit can transcend the most terrible tragedy, with glorious grace.
This young boy who loved a man he didn't even know? Like most of us some time when we are young there is someone in your life that you look up to. Whither it is someone you know such as a mother or father even someone you don't know like a professional athlete. We tend to but that person up on a pedestal, even if we don't know them in a personal level we just assume they are good people; we also believe that that individual can do no wrong. But like Stephen most of us find out that this person that we think so highly of is really not that great, or I should not any greater than the average person. Yes they may be good looking or a great athlete but they too have their troubles. So don't always put your faith in one person because someday that person may not be what you expected and be a big let down. A very good book I enjoyed reading this book and I am not big reader so it was good for me. Anyone could read this book, good story for both men and women. Not many dislikes from me overall I really enjoyed the book, it got me hooked and at times I could put the book down.
After reading Turbulent Souls twice, and recommending it to our study group, as well as to others, I was eager to read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed Mr.Dubner's writing concise style and content. I found this book to be disjointed, rambling and repitious. It needed much editing and consolidation.
I don't watch football or know much about sports. But I started reading this and couldn't stop. It's a great story about one man's search for meaning. It's funny, smart, surprising, a little strange. I was really sad when it ended. A must-read.