When I ran marathons in seventh grade, I would drive to them with a bachelor professor in his thirties. He may have been the first in my life-long string of substitute father figures.
I’d usually meet him around 4 a.m. at the corner down from my home at Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley and we’d drive to San Francisco or wherever.
This guy would often suggest that everything would be easier if I just stayed at his place the night before a race. My parents always vetoed this though they did let me take overnight trips with him as long as there were other people along from our Seventh-Day Adventist college.
I’d ask them why they wouldn’t let me stay with my friend overnight and they said it was a bad idea for me to stay with an unmarried man. People would talk.
I thought that was crazy.
My friend kept suggesting I stay with him before races and my parents kept vetoing it. It made me feel awkward, like I should suspect my friend.
He never made a move on me, never tried to touch me, and I think he’s now married, still a righteous guy, and the author of more than ten books.
At UCLA in 1988 when I was 22, I developed a friendship with the faculty in residence in Rieber Hall, Jules Zentner, an old bachelor and a Scandinavian Literature PhD who counseled hundreds of pre-med degree and pre-law students.
Jules was born in 1926. He had courtly manners and he looked and lived like a monk. Most mornings, he’d come to breakfast right after his tennis match. He stood about 5’9″ and was usually understated. He devoted his life to scholarship and to helping others. He seemed like a happy guy. He rarely complained. In most respects, he was an excellent role model, an excellent father figure for me.
Jules did not move gracefully through the world. There was something plodding and awkward about his movements. He tried too hard. There was too much strain, too many layers of unnecessary tension.
Jules was quite particular. He was neat and organized and things had to be done his way. I tend to be sloppy and easy and I latch on to those who can show me a better way. I tell them that they’ve changed my life and in response they adopt me.
I did all the initiating with Jules. I kinda followed him around for years and he accepted that I needed his mentoring.
My fellow students wondered what was wrong with a guy who’d live in a dormitory in his sixties.
My parents grew suspicious of Jules. They thought he was gay. I thought they were crazy. He’d told me about asking some woman at Stanford to marry him and how she’d turned him down and things just hadn’t worked out for him in that department.
I knew that his deepest pain, however, was his choice in grad school in the 1950s to focus on Scandinavian Literature instead of his second choice, China, which turned out to be a more prestigious and lucractive specialty.
Whenever I had a choice, I took my Rieber Hall meals with Jules and his older friend, the complicated musicologist Robert Stevenson.
I loved talking to these wise men about the great issues of life, about right and wrong, good and evil, God and man.
Jules was my best friend during the darkest period of my life when I was essentially bed-ridden by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome from 1988-1994. After illness forced me to leave UCLA in June 1989, I made audio tapes and mailed them to Jules every week or two and he’d faithfully write back a letter, giving me encouragement, stories, and highlights from my favorite radio show, Dennis Prager on KABC.
Jules was my poor man’s Dennis Prager. I couldn’t get close to the Jewish theologian on the radio. He was out of reach. Jules was the best I could do.
And friends my own age? They essentially abandoned me. Let me go. Perhaps my collapse made them uncomfortable? They had to dismiss it as psychological. They couldn’t bear to look at me for very long. I was thin and weak and defeated.
By contrast, almost everyone I met who was in the second half of life treated me with compassion.
I came back to UCLA in September 1989 for two weeks before returning to Australia. I stayed with my girlfriend in Westwood, breaking up with her at the end so that I could be free to move on down under. Jules visited me one Saturday night. He said he was being treated for prostate cancer. The prognosis was good. Yes, despite the chemotherapy, he was still able to orgasm.
I frequently took a tape recorder with me as I stumbled through eight months in Australia and then years at my parents’ home in 95658 and whatever was going on in my constricted life, I’d tell the recorder and then send the tapes to Jules. He wrote back faithfully.
Jules spent four days with me in Newcastle, CA, in December 1991.
In 1993, he told me that I had convinced him to become an ethical monotheist, a believer in the one God who created the universe and who has one primary demand for humanity — ethical behavior.
Jules was born Jewish but he didn’t find any meaning in it and no longer considered himself a member of the tribe. Meanwhile, I was converting to Orthodox Judaism.
That Jules joined me in my essential religious belief gave my life meaning when meaning was hard to find. It made me feel important and influential. That it was worth going on.
He announced this change after I sent him a cassette tape complaining about how discouraging it was to be filled with passion for God and Torah and to not be able to convince anybody that this was the greatest cure for human evil.
In 1992, I began working on an autobiography. Here’s some of what I wrote:
Dr Jules Zentner, a 63-year old Northern European expert and the Faculty in Residence person in my Rieber Hall dormitory, is the fourth wise man in my story.
I approached him first one Sunday morning in October to ask for tips on increasing my daily study limit past six hours. After his good advice, I asked his opinion of a book I’d enjoyed, The Closing of the American Mind by Allen Bloom. Dr Zentner liked it too. We became friends.
I shared with Dr Zentner a common belief in standards of objective excellence. For instance, we believed that there is bad art (for instance, the Mapplethorpe photos of men urinating in each other’s mouths) and there is great art (such as classical music composers Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, etc.). We thought Beethoven to be deeper, more profound music than the Beatles (which we were forced to listen to from omnipresent stereos).
Not only did we believe in standards of artistic excellence and literary excellence (Dr Zentner received his PhD in Scandinavian Literature from UC Berkeley) and academic excellence (which UCLA’s undergraduate education, particularly in the liberal arts, frequently did not achieve) but we also believed in objective standards of moral excellence. We didn’t know, however, where these standards came from as neither of us believed in God and revealed religion.
Dr Zentner’s upbringing exposed him to many religions. Some Judaism, some Christianity…
“How wonderful,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “It was terrible. Just an extra day of school. And it left my brothers and me without religious roots.”
Dr Zentner acted as a catalyst for my growth. He listened to my thoughts and then he asked me questions which showed me my inconsistencies.
Along with many of my dormmates, Dr Zentner listened to my increasingly intense discussions with Prager over KABC radio.
…[Around 1991], Jules Zentner wrote to me that I should not be so surprised at my difficulty in finding religious Jewish friends, for in California “most everybody’s Godless.”
Jules writes me towards the end of 1990:
“You have grown and deepened in the time I have known you, especially the last two years. Your progression into Judaism has made sense, both from who you are personally and intellectually. Your tapes have been on a plane upon which I am not accustomed to move. I applaud your entry into Judaism. I attended temple and church without being able to accept either religion.
“You have encountered Judaism through Dennis Prager’s warmth and mental keenness. Its basis in law seems to provide you with a meaningful structure for belief. It may be that had I discovered Judaism in a like manner that I would’ve been similarly persuaded.”
(About a year later, Jules writes:)
“I am impressed with the impact that you make (as you desire) on others. I believe that your ardor and bluntness are not necessarily hindrances. Your sincerity and concern are evident. Some people respond better to your manner than more well phrased ones. I benefit from you partly because of your manner. Your challenge is, sometimes for better rather than worse, personal as well as rational.
“That anyone would ascribe your search for meaning among different secular and religious beliefs to the persecution of your father by his own church was surprising. I take the opposite view, believing that your mental, spiritual and social health is incredible. You are far more solid and mature than when I first met you in the Fall of 1988. I liked the Luke I knew then but I am in awe of the Luke I know today. I’ve never known anyone who’s matured so rapidly.
“Luke, you could accept Prager’s manner because of a combination of being thick-skinned in a vulnerable sort of way and a real desire to learn. You appreciate a logical argument even when it goes against you.
“Your honesty and passion will be misunderstood by some people sometimes, but I treasure that in you.”
The reader now understands why, since meeting Jules in the fall of 1988, I’ve treasured his friendship. He’s done more than anyone else (outside my parents) to support me during my years of illness.
Jules writes from UCLA:
“Thanks to you, Dennis Prager, and Dostoyevsky [who said that “where there is no God, all is permitted”], instead of being agnostic, I now recognize a God (but not any one religious explanation of Him). I acknowledge God’s existence for ethical reasons. Unlike Prager, I don’t have a logical necessity for explaining creation by positing a creator. Instead, I see a moral necessity for acknowledging a transcendent being. That gives authority for moral laws for which human authority is not sufficient. Those commandments… between humans (parents, adultery, murder, etc) are not justifiable solely on secular humanist basis. They must have their origin in a God…. The Ten Commandments are sufficient for me but it is helpful to know the laws and practices of monotheistic religions-including something about their bibles. Information from you about Judaism has been interesting and sometimes useful (not bothering salespeople in shops where I don’t mean to buy…). That said, I see ritual observances (fringed shawls, set prayers, and Sabbaths, etc.) as clever ways to keep people mindful of ethics and of their giver. Thus far, they haven’t seemed meaningful for my ethical needs. For me (organized religion aside), Ethical Monotheism is wonderful!!! Look what you’ve done!”
Jules, your response bouyed me up during a down time. Thank you for letting me touch your life. You’ve certainly touched mine.
“I’m surprised and saddened by your lack of faith in yourself… (unfortunately enhanced by your faith in Judaism, Dennis Prager, Jules Zentner, etc)…. What prevents you from accepting the brash confidence that marks your personality? Why stifle the primordial Luke energy with doubt? How is it that you can’t give yourself credit for mental fortitude and physical bravery in not allowing yourself to be worn down by long term illness. I can’t believe that you are unable to acknowledge the astonishing and enormously worthwhile intellectual and spiritual feat you’ve accomplished in finding a spiritual direction and incorporating it into your life! Why doesn’t that give you a sense of worth? If you knew someone else who had struggled years to discover a life that would benefit the lives of others and was currently making considerable intellectual effort to learn more about how to lead that life as well as subjecting himself to rigorous discipline to follow the rigorous religious dictates of that life, wouldn’t you admire that person as possessing unusual worth? I liked you during a time that I felt that your beliefs were misguided and not helpful to others-so my affection for you was not and is not based on your beliefs. I liked you because you were honest and trying to do good. In times when people find it easier to be concerned with themselves, you were honest and trying to do good. In times when people find it easier to be concerned with themselves, I found you to be a genuinely good person who was concerned with others. I wish you had the courage of your convictions in a personal way as you do in a social way. You frequently cite other good people, describing how and why they are worthwhile. But you don’t give yourself credit for the same things you cite in others.
“I don’t know enough about Christianity (as I don’t about Judaism in other matters) to fully understand what impact the idea of Original Sin and consequent feelings of guilt as sinners on young Christians such as you were. That guilt, as I understand it, is supposed to be a warning and a guide to lead people to exert themselves to become better. One of its dangers, however, is that such guilt can undermine one’s idea of self. Although not a Christian, I grew up in a guilt society and had my share…. Judaism, as I understand from you and Prager, judges by acts rather than intentions…. I’m suggesting that your acts of study… and of endeavoring to spread the word of Judaism or of Prager ought to give you a sense of value. That you are having trouble writing as well as you would like can’t compare with those other things. Why is it that you don’t value yourself?… Is your lack of faith a means of spurring you on or a weight holding you back? I suspect that greater acceptance of yourself would free your energies for the things you know to be important.”
“[Re: my autobiography.] … Put down obscenities, blasphemies, “pornographies’, etc., so that you can see them and get to what you really mean by them. It’s in the writing process! You have powerful feelings about Christianity, Jesus and sexuality that have to be in your autobiography…. Put them down… transforming them into an explanation of who you are – rather than an expression of your resentment, bitterness or desire to shock.”
…My best friend Jules Zentner (along with other people) tell me that I owe my father an apology.
“Why do you increase the hurt to your father?
“I admired you for the rigorous personal and religious soul-searching that you undertook before converting because you were mindful of his feelings…
“Even with your explanation of the wish by Adventist friends to learn of your religious process…. I can’t fathom why those reasons weigh (in an ethical sense) against adding to the hurt of someone who has… [been] good to you…. Becoming a better person through striving with the task that may be hardest for you (your relationship with your father) may be the greatest test of your Judaism.”
I am sorry for the pain that I’ve caused Dad by my public proclamation of my differing values. I haven’t told Dad this directly.
On another topic, Jules writes:
“Forget about remarks about your being crazy – even by serious people you respect. Having different ideas and a flare for the journalistically dramatic may well startle and confuse others but claims that you are near any breaking point could only be done by a highly trained psychiatrist.”
Jules Zentner writes from UCLA:
“Was surprised… to receive a call from Lana* (my girlfriend)…. She is concerned about understanding you. I suggested that she forget this….You have… intellectual, affectional, and sexual desires… and you are fiercely independent while also being needy…. While caring deeply about people, you can be a bully and insensitive to individuals. But you are also honorable and, beneath your primordially savage exterior, mostly decent…. It’s not a good idea for either of you that you be allowed to remain a barbarian. I’m not sure that you wish or have the talent to become a gentleman but, to get to where you want to go, you need greater civility…. Lana oughtn’t be a rug to you at significant cost to herself. It isn’t healthy for you to tear down others.”
Jules writes to me:
“I don’t wonder that you were surprised that…[the recording of “Sweet Lucy” cat eating mice]…was the only time that I had been really irritated with you, but your response to my irritation was the source of my unease. You noted that some of those you played the incident to were amused and some disgusted. As a friend who was disgusted by the content and tone of your narration and irritated that you would subject me to it, I was sorry that you expressed no regret for disgusting me (even if you feel that I, and others, may be unduly sensitive or misguided).”
“Thanks for the 14 incredibly candid pages…
“I hardly know how to respond…I am impressed with the candor with which you describe humiliations…shortcomings. I’m heartened to hear of the good times you have [with Deb] and of your often mentioned appreciation of Deb.But I’m also saddened by the difficult times you both have…
“…Your parents were very kind to me [during Jules’ four-day stay with me 12/91] and I have always regretted (although I understand the reasons why) that things have been so difficult between you and your father. It was wonderful to hear of his assurance on your leaving that had “loved you for 27 years” and still does…His letter appeared to be a very honest effort to describe how he felt, and, given his religious beliefs, his wish that you become “whole.”…Your stepmother [Gill] wrote me, indicating her confusion, hurt, and concern for you. Given their Christian faith and thus a belief that you have done wrong, your parents were struggling to absolve you of responsibility both for those wrongs and for the anger and hurt they felt, by blaming your ill health.
“My basic point is that you are a good person who has tried to find ways to better yourself and others. I think that both your father and stepmother can be similarly described (…Deb too). When there are so many people of ill will who do not care if they harm others, why must good people make other good people suffer so much? What you, your parents, and Deb are suffering from and are making each other suffer from are the flaws you perceive in one another’s behaviour and beliefs. Why do these absorb your emotional and other energies more than the actual injustice and evil in the world? Once you decide that someone has personal worth, isn’t it possible to bend your mind and heart to reach an accommodation with that person, despite your faults and theirs?”
“Am really glad that you liked my response to your 14 pages, the news that your parents had written me, and that I was saddened by good people (you, your parents, & Deb) having difficulty achieving harmony that can accomodate differences, in views, habits, vulnerabilities, and flaws. Thus, was heartened to hear that things are smoother between the two of you and that your stepmother had called (and it sounded as if you appreciated that). From your tone on the tape and the continuing pages, it sounds as if you and Deb are closer to coping with the things that bother each of you and are thus closer to enjoying those things that have brought you two together. Dr G appears to be a sensible person with good perceptions and ideas! Hope, with his help, you can work things out…
“Was relieved to learn that you were NOT making love, when you were crying out for lubrication, making pornographic sounds, and uttering chauvinistic phrases. Have no wish to hear the tape again although it is only about opening windows. I don’t like coarse provocative language. It bothers rather than excites me. Have nothing against you behaving that way when you are alone. Seems to me that whatever like each of us does in private whether alone or with someone else, is ok (providing that that someone else truly wishes to share it). But I neither like the language nor wish to share, first hand, your experiences of indulging in the feelings behind it. Again, those feelings are harmless as long as they are not directed at some one who is unwilling and I don’t mind hearing that you may sometimes have the feelings of a rapist or whatever. But hearing that you have thoughts or feelings is not the same as actually hearing you acting them. I didn’t like hearing you delight in Lucy’s torture and killing of a mouse. I don’t mind hearing that you do it or even that it is pleasurable to you but you violate my privacy when you don’t keep the sounds of that delight (killing or macho sex) to yourself…I don’t like intruding on others’ privacy unless I am certain that I’m sharing that privacy rather than intruding upon it…I still feel uncomfortable listening to you talk about Deb (while she is there) when it seems as if you are not simply telling me about her but also talking to her, using me as an excuse to say things to her that you might not otherwise…”
“Your voice and writing have seemed generally more robust since Florida…That Deb sees that you are dressing and grooming with greater care is a happy development – especially so since it is important to her (Good for her! You are barbarian enough inwardly so it is nice not being reminded of this outwardly!). What Deb is doing by civilizing you is not only making you pleasing (or at least acceptable) to herself but she is also helping you learn social habits and skills that you will need if you are to talk with (as well as write to) people whom you expect to influence toward a more ethical life…”
Early November, 1993
“Quite apart from how you and Deb go together and from the way you both try to work things out, my impression is that even were you both perfectly healthy and that even were each of you a completely different person, your situation would not be unlike that which you now face. Luke, it seems to be a tremendous strain on both of you to have to get to know one another without any buffering experiences that could regularly separate you….
“Right now it seems [Luke, that] day and night all of your hours and emotional and mental energies are focused on Deb. With the exception of your study of Judaism which does not nearly occupy that much of either time or energy, you have nothing else that significantly occupies you. Even Judaism and your study of ethics and personal development involves Deb (to some extent, to her discomfort). You are forced into a closeness to her in thought, feelings, and action which grants good moments but, by and large, stifles you both. If you had to go to work every day and contend with other social and intellectual problems, you would be compelled into some respite from constant concern with yourself as measured by the state of your relationship with Deb. Being in another place, dealing with other people, not occasionally, as now happens, but as routine, would give you… necessary distance.
“You, Luke, are not suited to have as your overwhelming preoccupation, a relationship with Deb or any other woman. Your health and past life may impel you into that situation but…you have to somehow find a devotion (to writing, reading, volunteer activity…) that distances you in concern and, if possible, physically each day from Deb, from concentration on Deb, and from her house. Doing so will give her respite from you, time for herself, and privacy. She appears to need and desire independence and privacy. Whereas it is not easy for you to separate yourself from her and her house, I believe that it will be easier for you to feel a sense of accomplishment and of manliness if you either can demonstrate your accomplishment before others or, if your effort is solitary, to have time to see your own progress, using your own measure of how much more insight you have gained (into Judaism or whatever) or how well you’ve been able to express your thinking in your articles or books. Even given present physical and emotional fragility, you still need to depend primarily on yourself and less on the esteem of others – especially on that of a woman (Deb or other) who is also fragile – precisely because she feels vulnerable as she tries to open herself up to you. I think that besides having space between you, your best long range chance with Deb (or other woman) is to take at least a year with less urgency to get to know her before living in a pressure cooker. You need space to regain your balance.”
Jules, you give good advice. But I have objections: (1) Though generally it may be a good idea to get to know someone for a year before moving in together, I don’t believe in hard and fast rules in this area. (2) What got me through my first few years of illness were my close relationships with Tien (not her real name) at UCLA and then my Adventist girlfriend in Australia. I lacked the strength during most of my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to do anything beside lie in bed.
Jules writes to me November 10:
“Question: What is the current meaning of Judaism in your life? Why are you studying it – is it primarily intellectual and/or theoretical stimulation; does it give you a plan for your future career direction; has it a present daily meaning in your behavior toward others, especially toward those who are, in one way or another, closest to you, or has it other significance(s)?
“Although I have known you for some time, I don’t know what part(s) Judaism plays in your life. Not knowing makes responding to your questions difficult. (Most of what I know about Jewish law and custom has come from you.) As I understand it, Jewish laws are intended to indicate ethical ways of interacting with others or to acknowledge God. I was struck by the idea that it is unfair to arouse expectations in shopkeepers by asking them prices of wares that one has no intention of purchasing from them. Until hearing this, I was guilty of it. It is still tempting to ask a quick question of sales clerks but, accepting the rightness of this Jewish ethic, I fight not to do it – tough at first!!
“What struck me when you told me about this was how delicate the sensitivity of Judaism is on matters of seeming lesser moment and how you were guided by this. It appeared that one principal attraction Judaism had for you was that it showed you an ethical system that, through writing, speaking, whatever, you could devote your life to helping others. It also, as noted above, had immediate personal meaning to you. Now, judging from the imperfect and incomplete knowledge I have of you, I am not so sure.
“Although touched by your candid accounts of the difficulties you have been experiencing and both sorrowed for and sympathized with you, I’ve had reservations. Leaving home, embarking in a new relationship in a strange place, and changing medications are all transitions that are hard for everyone and, given your health and early family experience, especially hard for you. But you have unique assets which could affect your ability to cope with major obstacles: a keen mind, an upbringing that has encouraged you to expand and use that mind, and an ethical awareness of the worth of others and an acknowledgement of a deity. My reservations about some of your reactions to emtional and sexual pressures is that they seem to have come about without reference to these assets. Whereas you made clear your strong feelings for Deb and your view of her as a good person, I think you lost sight of your ethics and of her worth. While allowing yourself to pursue (not solely platonically) other women, you wished to deny Deb’s contact with other men. You wanted “commitment” from her while demonstrating your own lack of commitment. (What I missed in your tapes was any ethical consciousness of Deb’s or others’ worth, any struggle over this, or any resulting guilt over defeats or satisfaction over victories. You may have had this consciousness but your tapes/diary indicate none of this – and tend to indicate the oppose – self-righteousness about your behavior.)
“You speak lightly in your recent tape of “experimenting with feelings” and with “sexuality” without seeming to be aware that that process, as narrated in your tapes, has entailed experimenting with people. (How does that square with your Judaism?) Noting that your experimentation has involved “letting them (your feelings) rip,” you allow later that “perhaps” you have “acted unethically and “perhaps” you have “used people,” and refer to T. & L., acknowledging that you knowingly told T., at UCLA, something you knew to be untrue. Regardless of where you were then in your ethics, what do “perhapses” signify now about your sense of ethics? Are you truly unsure of whether or not you acted unethically?
“I was heartened to hear that you were taken aback at your partner’s unprotected intercourse and endeavored to do something about it afterwards! But I wasn’t as glad to listen to you as you humorously, rather than seriously, asknowledged that you were a silly boy” in not having brought condoms, despite anticipation of sex and thoughts of buying rubbers earlier in the tape.
“You sound uncertain as to how to handle unpleasant experiences and possible errors. “Think positively” and “move on” doesn’t seem like a formula for personal or moral growth. How well does thinking positively function as a guide to treating others? I don’t know about Judaism but traditional Christianity maintains that the individual takes responsibility for his/her actions and, when erring, acknowledges the error, shows remorse, does penance if necessary, and resolves not to repeat the sin…The process is generally one of learning from mistakes and ensuring they won’t occur again. Thinking positively and moving on implies a different act intended to comfort oneself with “positive thought” that distances or masks the mistake – without internal or external action that does something about it…
“Finally, while your desire to find “the right one” is understandable, I think that you are going about it unrealistically. To find a woman who is sexually exciting – even satisfying, is easy and it is only somewhat more difficult locating a woman who has a good and active intellect. Far less easy is determining if her interests and attitudes are compatible with yours – or if you can happily modify yours – or she, hers. You’ve experienced how tough that is. What you may not have noticed is that determining compatability and the desire or ability to change (on either part) takes time – probably a year or so…. Accounts of your relationships with women suggest that having sex becomes central, reducing your energy to deal with all else. That is even more reason to stretch out the living together “engagement” and not to use quick marriage as a method to achieve commitment.
“Well, you asked for it!! While concerned about you for the above reasons, I have faith (not certainty!) that you will come through in intellectual and ethcial good shape – and thus, in emotional good shape, too. Can’t end without admitting that I see your relationship to your parents as the test of all this.”
Jules, I’ve hardly related to my parents since moving to Florida. It’s time for me to make it on my own without them. We communicate about once a month.
On the 11th of December, Jules writes to me:
“Our correspondence has been so intense and open that the added detail and perspective in your autobiography, while meaningful, is never startling….
“Knowing what your autobiography means to you and what other people have meant and mean in your life, I am honored at your dedication of your book to me, “your best friend.” Should you ever, at another stage in your autobiography, choose to dedicate it someone else, I shall not be unhappy, knowing that you have a number of people from whom you draw intellectual, religious, ethical, and/or personal support. Being honored at this time by your present dedication is not only a surprise but more than sufficient.
“Your manuscript is continuously interesting, thanks to your clever organization of it. I like the way that you vary the perspective on yourself by shifting time and viewer. You narrrate what happened years before you began these pages, interjecting quotes from those years from both yourself and from others. Occasionally but not often, you pass a judgement on events that differs from these quotes. I like those passages in which you simply register others’ views of you. You follow your prologue with “What People Say About Luke Ford” and commence chapter eight with “Friends Comment.” Your quotations, followed by answers are fun, too, as in that section of chapter eight where you quote Robyn and others. I don’t always agree with the kinds of things you say about others, the way you quote responses which may have been intended as private communication between just the two of you, or your responses to some criticism, especially since you are sharing your autobiography with third, fourth, and goodness knows how many other parties. Yet, indirectly, in repeating and in giving considerable space to the most telling criticisms others have of you, you are acknowledging the worth of those who criticize – quite apart from your sometimes acceptance of the criticisms themselves. (It’s interesting that your least persuasive writing, at least to me, is when you defend yourself whereas your most convincing and captivating writing is when you narrate things about yourself that you appear to realize are questioned by others but about which you take a defiant pride. Your writing is then wittier and more eloquent.)
“While not learning anything new in kind about you, I have gained further insight into the degree you are Luke. Although knowing of your dedication to ideas and to your intellectual and physical goals, I was continually impressed with your will, not least in driving yourself physically – marathons, push ups, etc….. I still marvel at the will you displayed in maintaining a positive attitude during years of bedridden illness. Your tapes contained no self-pity and made no complaint. Despite nausea, headaches, etc., and an absence of medicine’s ability to compe with your syndrome, you kept whatever frustration you had to yourself. Your tapes contained your intellectual, not your physiological, struggles. To turn your thoughts and energies to a search for a religious and ethical way of life, with the scarce physical resources you had was extrememly impressive.
“…Dennis Prager says that male concern with laws rather than with feelings may relate to lustful male nature.
“Men believe that they need rules to control themselves. Whereas women, who are not as continually lustful as males, don’t experience a need for law to restrict themselves – and therefore can assert (in accord with their nature) that people “should express their feelings.” For females, this is suitable. But, in urging males to express their feelings, they show ignorance of male nature. Ready male expression of feelings of constant and insistent promiscuity, would undoubtedly shock or outrage most women.
“This reminds me of my question about your dedication to a religion based on laws. I’ve always been surprised that you find Jewish Law so meaningful…What does the primordial Luke find in laws? Does he instinctively feel that he needs the restraint of law on his thought and behavior? Or is it that you think that the rest of us need laws? Which came first: your feelings of your need or of ours?”
“I was fascinated to hear Paula. Listening to her speak to you so forthrightly about you and your housemates, was interesting. She’s keen, quick-witted, and candid. I liked her ability to criticize you for what she sees are your considerable faults but still say that, weighing them against other things, she still loves you. A mature person! I believe it is more difficult for women to be so precisely conscious of a man’s faults and accept him for his virtues without convincing herself that she can and will change him. The tendency in women is either to be purposely blind to a man’s faults or, when acutely aware of them, to be certain that she is capable of overcoming them by love and of curing him of them – as she would her little boy. Paula didn’t sound as if she was thinking of training you.”
In 1993, I developed a string of girlfriends who would comfort me on my sick bed. I had some of them join me in making tapes to Jules.
One, Lana*, had a particularly sexy voice. Jules wrote back that “even P was aroused.”
“Ewww!”, said Lana.
I thought there was nothing wrong with the good doctor’s remark. It was just normal guy talk.
My normal conversational state is raunchy and when I’m in an outgoing and affectionate mood, it looks to some people like I’m bi, hitting on everyone in sight, but the truth is that I’ve only had sex with women and it always freaks me out when guys hit on me.
After I partially recovered my health and thought about moving back to Los Angeles in 1994 to work for Dennis Prager, Jules said I was welcome to stay with him for a few weeks. He was in another dorm at UCLA. I moved in March 30 and stayed rent-free until June 15. I was 27. He was almost 70.
When Jules was out and about those weeks in April, May, June, I made ample use of his two porn video compilation tapes. If they were any guide, we had similar tastes (the young Marilyn Chambers, now dead, and young Desiree Cousteau, now insane).
One of the first things I did in LA was to place and to answer singles ads.
One night in April I came home and told him about my hot date. The woman was obviously attracted to me (now married, she called me after my 60 Minutes appearance in 2003 to try to meet for coffee, I didn’t see the point, she’d had her chance). We got into a clinch outside her place that. She said she couldn’t let me inside. I wanted to push things with her but held back due to my high morals.
I told Jules my story about the groping and went to bed. A few minutes later, he pads into my room.
I’m weirded out. Nothing like this had happened before. Not with Jules. Not with anyone.
He got down on his knees beside my bed. I was turned away from him.
I’m trying to recall his exact wording because it was more literary than just, “Would you like a blowjob?” In essence, he placed his hoary hands and mouth at my disposal.
“No, thank you,” I said, staring at the wall, my heart racing.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”
And he padded out of the room.
I woke up the next morning with dread. I was hoping Jules wouldn’t be around, but he was in the kitchen. He looked the same.
“Morning,” I said.
“Morning,” he said evenly. “I think we should talk about what happened last night.”
“OK,” I said.
Even in this awkward circumstance, he was still teaching me.
“I’m bi,” said Jules.
“I’m straight,” I said.
“I respect that,” said Jules. “When you were talking about struggling with that girl last night, I got excited. But I respect your decision. I won’t bother you again.”
He never did bother me again but our friendship was never the same.
A few weeks later, while giving me a lecture on my sloppy ways, Jules said he had considered offering me a free room in his new condo at 923 Levering Avenue, 90024. Instead, I was homeless for much of 1994, sleeping with a nurse by Beverly Hills for a few weeks until she said that everyone in her life — her friends, her family, and her therapist — thought that I was using her, and in between that drama I stayed for three weeks with a rich girl on the Upper West Side of Manhattan until her therapist declared that I was using her, and then I slept for more three months in my 1976 Datsun station wagon usually parked in the finest neighborhoods of West Los Angeles. Jules allowed me most mornings to shower at his place. The two weeks he didn’t, I went without a shower.
I noticed that occasionally he had former students staying with him and I wondered about the exact nature of their relationship.
I got a part in a non-union movie towards the end of 1994 and stayed in Hollywood with these two old guys, a director and a producer. The producer, Hal, had me apply a massage machine to his back and butt most evenings and he even asked me to rub him his butt with my hands but I refused.
One night I found a gay video lying around. Desperate for some form of porn, I started to watch it but was repulsed.
Hal moved me out after a few weeks. I then met someone in synagogue and had a free place to stay for 15 months in exchange for typing his screenplay.
After that, I lived with an old Holocaust survivor for $200 a month in exchange for me cleaning up after his two dozen cats. The old guy kept bugging me to write about him, he said his story was more interesting than Schindler’s List, but I was more interested in writing about porn stars.
I kept my mailing address at Jules’s condo until 1997.
After I no longer needed him for anything, I rarely called and never wrote.
I haven’t spoken to Jules since about 1999. When I’d ask him in my yearly calls about how he was doing, he’d joke about “galloping senility.”
I found this: “…the late Jules Zentner who dedicated his life to students. Mr. Zentner spent 20 years interviewing pre-Law and pre-Med students at UCLA and he personally assisted more than 1,000 students. He was the single largest scholarship donor in the world.”
This: “Dr. Jules Zentner dedicated his life to his students. He received his doctorate from UC Berkeley and taught Scandinavian Languages and Literature at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota and UCLA. Dr. Zentner’s legacy gift will continue to educate young people throughout Greater Los Angeles.”
In 2001, Dr. Zenter signed a Petition to Overturn Columbia’s Sexual Misconduct Policy: “We the undersigned are dismayed by Columbia University’s decision to eliminate due process protections for those accused of sexual misconduct.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Jules always refrained from hitting on active students and instead restricted himself to those no longer, strictly speaking, his students.
In my every dealing with Jules except the one outlined above, he acted honorably. It just freaks me out to think that he was dying to blow me the whole time he knew me.
I wish I wasn’t so beautiful. Perhaps people would take my ideas more seriously.
These reviews of Jules’ teaching — even though I never took a class, I heard him talk about his philosophy of pedagogy — seem pretty accurate: “plain and simple, if you want an A, dont take zentner. no matter how intelligent you are and how hard you work, he is not open to any sort of creativity or any interpretations of things that aren’t exactly what he is looking for. he knows what he wants, but what he wants is not clear and he wont help you find it because he feels that is giving away the grade. no matter how confident you are when you turn in your paper, you will end up with a B. on the first paper no one recieved over a B-. he is perhaps the most frustrating professor i have come across in my 3 years here. sure quizzes are easy, but quizzes account for only about 12 percent of your grade, where each paper is 25. his lectures are quite boring. our class spent a good 15 minutes on a couple occasions arguing with him about his grading style and his closed-mindedness when it came to our papers, and he would just get huffy and say “this is what i want, good luck”. sure he is a smart man, but a smart man does not make a good professor. a good professor, especially for a writing class, is to grade you on your effort, writing style, and grasp of the concept….not on your ability to figure out exacltly what vague thing he is looking for. steer clear bruins….”
“Prof. Zentner is a very nice, and well-meaning professor, but he is also an extremely frustrating on. I took him for Scand 187, which is the Bergman class. We watched some wonderful films, but he regularly shouted things out in the middle of them, or stopped them to discuss a point he was trying to get across. It pulled me right out of the story, and it was really annoying. Then, during “discussion” he would act as though there was only one way to interpret a film. He would usually disregard unique interpretations the students had, and even disagreed wit things Bergman had said about his own films. He feels that there is only one way to understand the films, and nothing else need be discussed. He always asks for your thoughts, but then barely lets you get a sentence out before interupting you with his own opinions again. And if you asserted an opinion that contradicted his theory on a film, he CONSTANTLY says “Remind me to get back to you about that,” and never did. It was a tremendously frustrating experience, and the only thing that kept me from going mad was the wonderful films. I will say this, though – Zentner clearly knows the films well, and helped me to see them differently than I would have had I just rented them on my own. He helped me to find very interesting and exciting connections between the films, even if he was convinced they were the only connection the films had. I wouldn’t reccomend him, but I definatly believe the class has some value.”
I fear that the internet reports are wrong and Jules is very much alive and he’s going to call me. I know he’ll use the word “betrayal.” People always do with me. Everyone ends up feeling used.
“I can’t fathom the depths of your cruelty,” Jules will say. “I was your friend when you most needed a friend and this is what you write about me? I don’t know what to say, Luke, except that I’m very very hurt.”
And then there will be silence for I’ll have nothing to say.
My God, the grief is just starting to hit me now. Jules Zenter played a big role in my life. He did more than anybody outside of my family to keep me going while I was bedridden by illness. I spent more time talking to him from 1988-1988 than anybody. He was such a good man and I’m memorializing him with a description of his lowest moment.
Jules only did good by me. He never said anything stupid (aside from asking to blow me). He was a wise man.
I often spoke to Jules about faculty-student sex. I thought it was hot and the number one reason to become a professor.
I only thought about it in terms of a male professor with a female student.
Jules would patiently list off for me the many reasons why this behavior was unethical.
I remember one particular conversation I had with Jules Lambert Zentner over dinner at Rieber Hall in 1989. I was overwhelmed by my sex drive. Nothing in the world compared to my desire to satisfy it. I said that if the world was coming to an end that night, my number one priority would be getting laid. Nothing else would compare with that need. That would be more important to me than touching base with anybody.
Jules found that extreme. He suggested that instead of a frantic search for sex, I listen instead to a good symphony.
I suspect that’s how Jules left this world. Listening to Johann Sebastien Bach.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Et in terra pax hominibus
Glory to God in the highest.
And peace on earth to men
of good will.