Wednesday, November 02, 2011

In Stitches: A Memoir by Anthony Youn, MD

Periodically, I receive unsolicited requests by publishers and media agencies to review books here on Digital Doorway. In return for my services, I receive a copy---or several copies---of said tome, and the satisfaction of thinking---and writing---like a critic. There have been a few books that I've decided to not review after having read them since I don't want to hurt the author's feelings, and there are several that have been equally a pleasure to read and to write about.

That said, a number of months ago, I received a request to review "In Stitches: A Memoir" by Dr. Anthony Youn, M.D., one of the most famous cosmetic surgeons in the United States. I did not peruse Youn's many websites until after finishing the book, although based on the personality communicated through the book, I was not surprised to find the sites ranging from significantly tacky to unsurprisingly tacky. The book, co-written with Allan Eisenstock, strives to rise above the glamorous veneer exuded by the websites, and manages to do so from time to time in its more sober moments, but the book is, in the end, a disappointment on many fronts.

In his memoir, Dr. Youn paints a portrait of a young, second-generation Korean-American who grows up in a household ruled by a nearly tryannical father (a successful OB-GYN) who Youn, along with his brother, both fear, respect and obey almost unquestioningly throughout their lives. Developing a jaw deformity as a teenager, Youn undergoes a series of surgeries that we are led to believe have an eventual impact on his decision to become a cosmetic surgeon. Sadly, although he briefly tells the story of his father's family, Youn's parents remain two-dimensional characters, as do most of the other individuals portrayed throughout the book (including his wife-to-be).

Unfortunately, Youn spends dozens of pages reminiscing over his sexual failures and inadequacies in the world of dating and women, and we are treated to multiple stories of the exploits---or lack thereof---of Youn and his adolescent and college-aged friends. This aspect of the book is most painful and tedious, and I found myself sighing in impatient consternation when faced with yet another anecdote about his hopes as a wannabe Romeo being dashed once again.

Youn makes it explicit that his Asian background and cultural heritage account largely for his feelings of being an outsider in a majority caucasian world. To his credit, he often uses self-deprecating humor to his advantage, and he clearly describes a moment in his life when his judgment and derision of another outsider (a gay roommate), causes him great shame and regret.

Still, although Youn rhapsodizes about realizing the errors of his ways and tells us how he has grown as a person through his many trials and tribulations, within this book he manages to propagate and give further power to many misguided notions regarding beauty and outward appearance. And while Youn clarifies that he has become a doctor---specifically a plastic surgeon---because he wants to "fix people", it is no surprise that he has become the "plastic surgeon to the stars", nipping and tucking his way into American living rooms via numerous television appearances.

Just as Dr. Youn refers consistently to women he wants to date as "knockouts" or "Penthouse hot", he demonstrates his judgmental attitudes regarding beauty and "otherness" by referring to an elderly professor as "an old witch" and a neighbor in his college dorm as a "mountain range of hairless flab". Youn could have taken the road less traveled, sharing tea and sympathy with other outcasts and societal rejects, but instead he takes the easy way out and utilizes cliche and occasional self-deprecation as a tool to elicit sympathy for himself while simultaneously attempting to elicit loathing by the reader for those less handsome, less rich, less successful than he wanted to be (and eventually became).

When he is serious and earnest, the author is at his best, as in this passage where, while in gross anatomy lab, he sees the humanity within the cadaverous body parts populating various plastic tubs:

"I drift over to the bodies that we will study, some under tarps, some lying naked, their innards exposed, and certain details that I'd never noticed jump out---tattoos, dental fillings, scars---and I feel lightheaded. I am in awe of these people. Most of all, instead of feeling detached from them, as I assume most doctors do, I feel attached to them. Committed to them. 

"I can't say that I feel this way constantly, every second of anatomy class, every moment of medical school. I will often lose this feeling of reverence toward these bodies, especially when I'm grinding through my notes, preparing for an exam. But I'm able to bring myself back, to locate the humanity easily. 

"Especially when I look into the bin of hands."

It is in moments like these that Youn's compassion shines through, as when he holds a crying baby all night or convinces a man who feels unloved to have a life-saving surgery.

Youn also uses humor well in certain passages, painting hilarious portraits/caricatures of medical residents, interns, doctors and surgeons that many in the medical field will most likely find highly entertaining and evocative of some of their own experiences.

Over all, Youn's book is a chatty, breezy and lightweight read with a modicum of entertainment value. He offers rather pedestrian and less than insightful advice about medical school, and apparently fails to grasp or elucidate the depths to which he could have plumbed the role of outsider and societal outcast that he managed to only hint at throughout its pages.

As an Asian American from a hardworking upper-middle class family with a father who works as a successful doctor, Youn is not exactly a kid from the other side of the tracks. Still, his theme of being an outsider---a theme driven home ad nauseum in the first half of the book----falls flat based on the life that Youn describes and the relative privilege that he enjoys. Sure, he once had a Thanksgiving meal from a convenience store, but there is no doubt that Youn had his sights set high and managed to achieve his goals, perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. I applaud the author's professional tenacity and his ability to create the life he always wanted, but Youn's attempt at a memoir offers too little in terms of moving passages describing humanity's many frailties, and too much of his sentimental and simplistic summing up of the world according to Anthony Youn.

This memoir is one to read, for example, when waiting in an airport during a long layover, and then leave on the seat for the next weary traveler who needs an unchallenging and moderately entertaining ---yet forgettable---memoir to pass the time.

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