A Prince of a Book by
(49 Stories)

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I had a lot in common with Tom Wingo.

“I am a teacher, a coach, and a well loved man. And that is more than enough.”

— The Prince of Tides.

A self-prescribed book helped complete my recovery from self-anger, along with the help of a very good psychotherapist.

In the mid-1980s, I was dealing with some anger issues that never produced physical violence to others, as they were more directed inward toward me. But the anger didn’t make me  much of a person to be around at the time, so I decided to do something about it.

What I did was to start consulting with a gifted psychotherapist in Boston, where I was living and working as a professor at Northeastern University. His name is Dr. Sandhu, he followed the thinking of Freud, so Mom became a regular person of interest for us in our visits.

I’ll always be grateful to my ex-wife for encouraging me to get his help.

News to me

Still, since I was in my 40s at the time and my folks were living more than a thousand miles away, I had assumed that none of my issues were related to them. I felt we always had a close family, although I did know Mom often exhibited bipolar symptoms.

Once, on  Christmas day as our guests were just taking their first bites of Mom’s cooking, she stood up and announced, “Well I’m sorry you don’t like it! Someone else can cook next time!” And then she marched right out of the den, into her bedroom, and slammed the door.

We all sat there in silence wondering what could have prompted that.

My role?

I somehow felt it was my role to fix what got broken in such times, but I was never sure how to or why it was my job.

So there was a fair amount of anger stored up, and I directed it at myself for not being more of a fixer.

Sandhu and I were making progress in Boston now, and I came to a point of realizing I had some work to do in standing on my own, without Mom’s still-intact influence. My love for her and the fact I’d put her on a pedestal were blocking out some honest reflection on her influence. I discovered there was no need to defer to it in my adult life.. I could write my own script myself.

Along comes a book

So it was that, in 1986, a book called Prince of Tides was published. I knew of its author, Pat Conroy, having already read The Great Santini, about the heavy-handed way in which a Marine officer dealt with his older son and wife. In Tides, Conroy decided to set his sights on the relationship of a mother and her son. Like Santini, it was also set in South Carolina, but quickly jumped to New York City for most of the book. Tom had gone there to help his sister Savannah, who had just tried to commit suicide. In so doing, he met her psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, and wound up learning as much about himself and how he and his sister had been under the influence of the same emotional trauma.

The paperback was over 700 pages long, a daunting length. But once I got into it, I could not put it down. I felt it was describing my relationship with my own mother, although Tom Wingo knew his mom was off the rails, while I still believed mine to be a saint.

Turns out, as is often the case, the truth was somewhere in the middle.

Not a saint after all

Mom was human, which meant flawed. She also loved me dearly, but she was dealing with her own longstanding insecurities about herself which sometimes prevented her from being the mom she wanted to be.

Since both Tom Wingo and I were seeing a psychiatrist at the same time and both talking about our moms, I felt a special attachment to him and his story. I was getting a lot from visits with Sandhu, but I found myself getting just as much from Prince of Tides.

Once I realized that Mom was only a mom and not Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom,  and that she herself was the victim of her own parental chain reaction, I quit blaming her for my own issues.

It was time to take responsibility for me now.

Comes fatherhood

A couple years later when my then-wife and I adopted our first two sons and I became a dad, I began understanding the challenges of parenthood even better, and gave Mom credit for doing as good as she knew how.

In the film version of The Prince of Tides, Tom (Nick Nolte)  is led from darkness to light by his psychiatrist, (Barbra Streisand.) The film, which reduced me to tears as these characters came to life on the screen, hit home just as the book had.

So much so that I went back and re-read all 700+ pages again.

Sandhu vs. Streisand

I mentioned seeing the film to Sandhu, and I expected some insightful, clinical evaluation of it, since I thought he had seen it, too.

What I got instead was, “Yeah, I liked it. But Tom’s psychiatrist had better looking legs than mine.”

I figured that if this was the response my psychiatrist felt was most appropriate, he must have thought I was cured.

I don’t know about Sandhu’s legs, but I do know he helped me save my life. Along with Pat Conroy and Tom Wingo, of course.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Thanx Jim for sharing your personal story of how literary therapy – as well as rapport with a good therapist – helped you.

    Years ago we were in Charleston, my hometown, and went to Beaufort which as you may know was Pat Conroy’s hometown. The town was deservedly proud of their native son who was gravely ill at the time. Conroy died soon after we left South Carolina

  2. I remember being engaged, even enthralled, with the narrative of that novel, at least on the level of wanting to know “what will happen next.” But strangely, I recall very little about the plot or characters or anything else, didn’t remember that there was a therapist or psychiatrist in it, and I don’t think I’ve turned it over much in my mind after finishing it. This is In stark contrast to certain other novels whose characters, themes, and so forth have dwelled powerfully within me. (For instance, All the King’s Men, Blood on the Forge, or My Name is Asher Lev.)
    It’s an interesting reminder that humans respond in quite divergent ways to artistry of all kinds, including literary arts. Thanks for your sharing of your very meaningful and deep engagement with that work..

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks, Dale, and I’m pleased to know I’m not the only one who found the book engaging. As often can happen, when I read a book AND see its movie adaptation, I get scenes from each mixed up. I think the film was a pretty good representation of the book, albeit condensed because the book ran 700+ pages.

  3. Loved the description of your interaction between your interior narrative, Conroy’s book, and your psychiatrist. You distilled what must have been a long, intense, and painful chapter in your life into an articulate and compassionate tale. I haven’t read Prince of Tides, but I certainly recognize plenty of your interior battles. Loved Sandhu’s comment. It does sound as if he was saying, “you made it, Jim. Get outta my office.” Thanks, pal.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but you describe your journey beautifully, and maybe I will check out The Prince of Tides. I think that many people start to realize that our parents were only human and they did the best they could (especially as we get older ourselves). We become more forgiving and kinder perhaps with a little wisdom. At least that is what I tell myself.

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