ALEA III salutes Lukas Foss, an American master, on Wednesday, March 20,
at 8 p.m., at the Tsai Performance Center
Week of 15 March 2002 · Vol. V, No. 26


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MED pediatrician turns daily routine into prize winning fiction

By David J. Craig

In Perri Klass' short story "The Trouble with Sophie," a "psychobabbling, jargon-jabbering" kindergarten teacher shocks an educated young couple by suggesting that their daughter has behavioral problems. Sophie's father, an attorney, expertly deflects the charges against his child. Rages, yelling, biting? "How many times, under what provocation?" he demands. "Sophie had bitten Emily only after Emily had bitten Sophie? Aha!"

  Perri Klass, an assistant professor of pediatrics at BU's School of Medicine and the medical director of Reach Out and Read, an early childhood literacy program affiliated with MED, has been writing fiction and nonfiction that draws on her experiences as a doctor and as a parent for almost 20 years. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Scenes like this occur repeatedly in Klass' latest short story collection, Love and Modern Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 2001): boiling with frustration, adults unintentionally forsake the best interests of their children and later must rethink the image they have of themselves as ideal parents. "I have become someone . . . who is taking time off of work to attend to the needs of her troubled child. What's next?" thinks Sophie's mother, driving her daughter to the therapist, while her husband stays home, drafting plans to sue the school.

Klass, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the BU School of Medicine, the author of two collections of essays about medicine, two novels, and two short story collections, and the mother of three children, believes "the worst thing parents can do is take themselves too seriously." It leads, she says, to the "terrible parental delusion that you have a lot of control.

"People think that if they feed their children the right diet and speak to them in the right accents of compassion and caring, then their children will grow up to always do this or never do that," she continues. "But that's not the way things work. The very, very serious and self-absorbed parents can be a real hazard."

For almost 20 years, Klass, 43, has been using her devilish sense of humor to turn such insights into works of fiction that the New York Times Book Review has called "subtly astonishing" and "very funny." Frequently featuring young, independent female protagonists struggling with issues relating to parenting, relationships, and careers, her short stories have earned her five O. Henry Awards.

Klass works in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Boston Medical Center and practices primary care pediatrics at Dorchester House, a community health center in Dorchester affiliated with BMC. She says she draws inspiration for many of her characters from the young mothers and children she meets as a doctor. "My ideas for fiction definitely come out of my daily life, and medicine is rich in encounters," she says. "It's kind of like journalism in that you always have a reason to be asking people questions. You never catch yourself thinking that everybody in the world lives the same way you do."

For the sanctimonious parents who often are the butt of her literary humor, however, Klass says she needs to look no further than herself and her friends. In a column published recently in Knitter's Magazine, for instance, Klass pokes fun at the inordinate pride she derived from having knitted her youngest child a hat. "I'll catch myself saying things like, 'Okay, so my kid has cold Chinese takeout in his lunch box, but you probably bought those mittens, right?'" she says. "And then I'll feel guilty for it." Writing, she says, is a way to "deal with such anxieties, with criticism people have of me, or that I have of myself."

Some of the most poignant moments in her fiction involve the revelations adults experience when dealing with children. In "Necessary Risks," from Love and Modern Medicine, an anesthesiologist has been spending an unusual amount of time with her boisterous four-year-old while her husband vacations. "Oh, my sweet, darling, determined little monster from hell, this is making me hate you," she thinks. "This is making me hate myself."

Small children have a "fascinating way of undermining all of your fondest plans and fantasies of yourself," Klass says. "You can see yourself as organized, efficient, executive -- as someone who can get things done -- but none of that is relevant with a two-year-old. When it comes down to it, if the two-year-old disagrees, the two-year-old wins.

"I think many pediatricians have a secret sympathy for that kind of anarchy," she adds. "There's a reason why you're drawn to work in an environment where instead of a patient saying, 'Hello, doctor, do you want me to lie down or sit up,' your patient says, 'Oh, no you don't,' and screams and tries to climb out of his mother's lap. This job is a lot more fun if a part of you is saying, 'Yeah, kid -- go, go, go -- see if you can outrun me!' As frustrating as it is for me when I'm the parent, I can't help appreciating the way a two-year-old will stand up to the adult world like that and say, 'Try and make me.'"

Klass, who currently is working on her third novel, has served since 1994 as the medical director of Reach Out and Read, a childhood literacy program based at the MED pediatrics department. It provides books for pediatricians to give to patients and teaches them how to discuss with parents the importance of reading to their children. Founded by BU faculty in 1989, Reach Out and Read has grown into a national nonprofit organization with offshoot programs in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.


15 March 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations