A quiet Sunday morning in March 2005 turned abruptly terrifying for Dr. Steven Berk, who, writing in his study, suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun, a desperate and irritated criminal nervously gripping the weapon and demanding cooperation.
Panic began to surge through his body and he pictured how gruesome gunshot wounds look in the emergency room, Berk wrote in his autobiography “Anatomy of a Kidnapping: A Doctor’s Story” that details his ordeal of March 6, 2005. The book is due out next month.
No doubt it would be easy to wind up dead in a situation like that, a strange man threatening death in your home unless he gets what he wants. But Berk, a former faculty member at East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine, credits his training as a doctor with his and his family’s survival that day in Texas. He was led from his home at gunpoint and forced to provide valuable family heirlooms and credit cards for his kidnapper in an unimaginably stressful ride through that state.
“Most people in that setting wind up doing what they have to do, so they bring all of their resources to their disposal,” Berk said in a recent phone interview from Texas, where he is dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. “It’s certainly easier for a physician.”
Traits like remaining calm under extreme pressure, the ability to deal with myriad personalities and relating to people are just a few of the qualities many physicians possess, Berk said. Berk began learning these skills as a medical student at Boston University’s School of Medicine in the 1970s and continued honing them at ETSU, where he came as a faculty member in 1979 to help establish Quillen. He left ETSU in 1999 for Texas Tech.
Berk’s autobiography is centered around his kidnapping and how he made it through unhurt, but instead of just focusing on how that event affected him, he reveals how his entire life affected the kidnapping. While he has written several textbooks over the years, this is his first book for the public. Throughout “Anatomy of a Kidnapping” is insight into his life, from just before entering medical school and his friendship with two terminally ill boys to his internship in Arizona and his interaction with and appreciation of Native American culture to his time at Quillen and his experiences with AIDS patients in the 1980s and 1990s.
It took him five years to write the book.
“I don’t think I would ever have tried to write an autobiography or a memoir if not for the kidnapping,” Berk said. “It’s an attempt to describe how your life can be affected, how a single event can be determined by the experiences of your whole life.”
Another theme in “Anatomy of a Kidnapping” is learning from your mistakes, Berk said.
“That’s actually an important theme in medicine right now,” Berk said. “Learning from mistakes is important for everybody. One of the problems with my kidnapper is that he never learned from the mistakes he made and kept making them.”
In fact, learning is a theme throughout the book, as well.
Take for instance Berk’s attitude toward guns. He said it is certainly reasonable to see how people argue for gun control, especially if they have experienced the death of a loved one due to a gun. He knew nothing about guns before his kidnapping, so he thinks attitudes toward guns are likely based on life experiences.
“But if you’re someone whose house has been invaded by someone with a gun and the only difference between you and him is that he has a gun, you start to think of things differently,” Berk said.
He bought a gun shortly after his kidnapper let him go, because the man had threatened to return for blood if Berk talked to police. Berk is married with two children, one of whom was living at home at the time of his kidnapping. In fact, that son was home when the kidnapper was pointing a shotgun at Berk in his study. Berk managed to keep the situation calm, so his son left the house without becoming involved in the situation.
“I haven’t taken it (the gun) out very much but I definitely know where it is,” Berk said with a laugh.
Berk’s story made news across the state in 2005, probably more than usual due to his position as medical dean. In fact, the Johnson City Press interviewed him shortly after the kidnapping.
“I spent 20 years there (in Johnson City) and still know a lot of people in the medical school,” Berk said. “I haven’t gone back to East Tennessee very much, but still have a lot of students, faculty and friends there.
“I developed as a teacher, a physician and an administrator (at ETSU). I was very proud of the progress we made then and I’m proud of the progress East Tennessee has continued to make.”
Berk faced both support and criticism for his handling of his own kidnapping. Some argued he should have done more to escape, while others praised his success in surviving unscathed. The book details more of what Berk was thinking and how he thought the situation should be handled as he tried to oblige his kidnapper.
“Different people have different views on what you’re supposed to do,” Berk said. “There’s no one plan or diagram on what you’re supposed to do when you’re kidnapped by an armed criminal.”
He said his example was not meant to be absolute advice, because each situation is different.
“It may not be the model or best approach for those in the future,” Berk said.
“Anatomy of a Kidnapping” should be available for purchase in September at many book retailers. For more information about the book and Berk, visit anatomyofakidnapping.com.