Hans Steiner – A View From Within

I was born in Vienna, Austria, the year after World War II ended. Sixty some years later, I find myself teaching in California at one of the world’s best known universities.

Looking back, I see that I have come a long way, in time, space and development.

I was born into a time and place of utter destruction and desolation. An account of the events surrounding my birth can be found in the section on my creative writing. It is my mother’s voice which brings to life what Vienna was like then. It is her indomitable dedication to life and survival that carried us then, as it did for many decades. She shall never be forgotten. I owe her everything. Her love of music, children, people, curiosity about how things work, her refusal to break when loads were overwhelming has always been a source of inspiration and motivation for me. And although she could not completely follow me into the life that I have lived, she mostly spurred me on and encouraged me.

I grew up in a quintessentially working class neighborhood, in a small apartment without luxuries, such as running water or bathrooms or a telephone. My parents struggled during their entire lives to make ends meet. But the socialist structures of Vienna, the oldest socialist city in the world, supported them and ultimately me in our efforts to cope with life. The wise political leadership of this city that I love, committed to creating opportunities for those who were deprived, opened up paths of education and achievement previously unknown in my family. I was the first one to go to university. As much as this was a source of pride to all of us, it came at a price. The cost was that it created distance between those who I loved and owed everything to and me. I still remember the dinner the family put on for me in a fancy Vienna restaurant, the Kupferdachl in the first district, on the occasion of my graduation to Doctor medicinae universalis – doctor of all of medicine from one of the world’s oldest universities, the University of Vienna, the Rudolfina. There they all were, decked out in their finest, enjoying a good meal, but all nervous about the unusual surroundings, the army of waiters, and the fancy wines, sauces and names. But worst of all, I could feel how they were shy to talk to me, Hans, whom they raised, because now I was Herr Doktor. The more I pursued them, the quieter they became. I got the message: I had left the working class. I was a trophy and a “class enemy."

Years after this dinner, my mother and I were in our spacious house in Palo Alto with four bathrooms and seven bedrooms. She stood in front of a bookshelf, where some of my books were displayed. She asked: “So, explain to me again: what is it exactly that you do? You are a doctor, and people come to you and tell you about their worries and fears. And then you talk. And they pay you money for that? A lot of money……Hmmm.”  She took one of my books, the one on Treatment of Adolescents, written in English, which she did not speak at all. She looked at the cover, and then turned it over to look at the back. There she saw my picture, a smiling portrait in the Stanford main quad courtyard. She looked at it for a long time. Then she smiled wistfully: “I guess you are an important person now."  She gently put the book back in its place, came over and brushed my hair back from my forehead, the way she used to do when I was a boy. I always had this shock of hair on the left side of my head which refused to fall into predictable places. For a while she had made me wear a hairpin to keep it in place. But once turned ten, “a big boy,” I refused to have that hairpin there at all. Let it fall wherever it may.

I also am indebted to my father. Johann, who - just like Mutti - did not graduate from high school. Growing up in the aftermath of WWI and the Great Depression, he started working around age fourteen, trying different trades in an effort to secure income. He ultimately landed a job as a swimming coach, training one of Austria’s finest women’s swim team, the SC Diana. He earned the Republic’s silver Medal of Honor in recognition for his efforts. Sport was his life. He lived it, breathed it. He also was insistent, though, on balancing hard work with play. In the midst of all dire demands for income, he always had free weekends and many weeks of vacation in summer. Such dedication did not go unnoticed. At his funeral, hundreds of his former students and charges came, surprising all of us family members. They gave vivid testimony to his importance in their lives. His inspired teaching and coaching under conditions of extreme adversity has always been an inspiration to me, as has his insistence on the importance of free time: I must be one of the few professors at Stanford who made absolutely certain that I did not leave a single second of sabbatical time unused before I went Emeritus.

I still remember a walk in the Vienna woods in April, shortly before my graduation from high school. These walks in nature were a staple in the family, an important tool for touching base and recharging. He asked me what I was going to do now. He really did not understand that the Matura, the most stringent of all oral exams was in fact still ahead of me. In his head, I already had made it. For a second I thought I would discuss with him what I still had to do to graduate and instill in him the proper respect for my studies, but I relented. I said I was ready to become a car mechanic, securing employment and a good income. He said nothing for a while. He was indeed a man of few words. Suddenly, he bowed down and picked a snowbell which had penetrated a patch of snow and mud. He stopped, looked at it then showed it to me. “Isn’t it beautiful, how tough this little thing is? Right through ice and snow, to the sun." He put the flower on his hat. Then he turned to me and said: “Whatever happened to your plan to become a doctor?” – I said nothing for a while, as we walked on. “Careful," he said, “it’s icy and slippery here." He just had lost his job, the swimming pool where he had taught all his life was being torn down to build a new business building downtown, in prime real estate, facing the core of the city. At age 56, it was not very likely that he would get another job with any security soon if at all. His private lessons were not sufficient to care for the family. I took a deep breath. “Well I would like to study, but I don’t see how……” He lifted his hand, to silence me and said: “If you really want to do it we will work it out.”

And we did. Being a son of the working class, I did not pay tuition. I found out that I could get stipends from the city which helped us all. And I could work small jobs in labor union camps as a youth counselor which my father arranged through his friends and connections to earn extra. We made it work. And although he was disappointed that I never was interested in becoming a cardiac surgeon, and he never really understood what a psychiatrist does, he always was proud to be my father and of the fact that he had made it possible for me to become who I am.

From these brief sketches of my early life, one easily can understand how I became interested in helping youth, athletes, people in all kinds of trouble, with few resources, and how I to this day relish teaching as a tool to bring forward in time the wisdom and knowledge of past generations.

Coming to America, the land of endless possibilities (Amerika, du hast es besser), has enriched my life in unthinkable ways. The seed to this move was sown, as I had contact with the occupying forces in the city of Vienna up until 1955. The city was divided into four parts, occupied by the English, the French, the Russians and the Americans. To visit family and go shopping, we had to cross into all four zones. They were distinct in their atmosphere: in the French and English zones, one was treated with indifference. The soldiers hardly acknowledged our presence, once they were done with the tedious checks of documents. In the Russian zone, there was a profound sense of uncertainty: on a good day, the soldiers would joke with the children, dance with the women and share bread and cheese. On a bad day, they would randomly discharge their machine guns and molest women to the point of rape, while holding men at gunpoint. Crossing into Mariahilf/Gumpendorf, into the American zone, was like entering a New World: without exception, the soldiers were friendly, funny and polite. They would give us packages with candy, pink Bazooka bubble gum, cheddar cheese and shoe laces. Sometimes they gave us things that completely puzzled us, such as jars of brown, oily fluid labeled PEANUT BUTTER. After careful examination of the matter, my father declared that this clearly was not butter, but by the looks of it must be shoe polish. He promptly and much to his regret applied it to the only pair of Sunday finest, despite my mother’s protestations. When we told this story to the people who had given us the jar, it was a source of confusion, consternation and ultimately hilarious enjoyment. It was this easy generosity and way of being, engagement and interest, paired with an optimistic can-do attitude that instilled a deep curiosity in all of us about this western land of milk and honey. I ultimately heeded that call and landed in the heart of the wild west, a place my father had profusely read about for many, many years. At his bedside there always was a stack of Zane Grey novels in German, which he religiously read every night before going to sleep.

As committed as I am to being an Austrian with deep roots going back hundreds of years in the ethnic diversity of the old Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (I have Hungarian/Slovakian, Carinthian/German, Tyrolian/Italian and Czech grandparents – all four pillars of the ethnic mix, a fact that I relish and am very proud of), I am also in love with this society which takes the downtrodden, burdened of this world and turns them into gems like no other society has done before. Living here for the past decades, I have come to love the spirit of adventure, entrepreneurship, optimism and openness which is not easily found in Europe with all its ancient grudges and atavistic memories. Being a citizen of both of these worlds has been a privilege, a source of my inspiration and creativity.

The people in this country who have helped me on my path are too numerous to mention. They are very much acknowledged in the dedications of all my books I have written so far. I have encountered them in classrooms, meeting rooms, consulting rooms, jails, hospital wards, court rooms, living rooms, kitchens. They have been patients, students, mentees, colleagues, family members and friends, bosses and employees. As they continue to accumulate, I will be certain to acknowledge them properly in forthcoming works (but watch out: you never know when I will write a poem, a story or a novel about you – my way of saying thank you).