Dismissed by critics as hokey and by peers as being out of touch, Mitch Albom has sold 35 million books anyway, building a modern empire out of longingly gazing at the past.
There are a few ways to get to the Have Faith Haiti Mission's orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. You can walk, though the city's heat, steep hills, and lack of sidewalks might deter you. You can pay a dollar or so to ride in a "tap tap," Haiti's de facto public transportation system, which are pickup trucks outfitted with open-air benches and a roof stuffed with 10, 12, or more people. Or you can hire someone to take you on a moped or in a private car, with a driver who zooms through the narrow streets, barely avoiding hitting people at every turn. I take a car. It's a hot and sticky Sunday in early November, market day, so the city is clogged with people selling fruits and vegetables, toys, car mats, paintings, soda. Men walk by carrying large plastic containers filled with patties on their heads. There are few stoplights or even stop signs; many of the side streets are not paved.
When we get to the orphanage, a guard with a rifle slung across his chest peeks out from a window in the steel gate and lets us in after checking to make sure that we're expected. I walk into a small compound with a few buildings, including a chapel, and see Mitch Albom — the Detroit-based author of inspirational best-sellers including Tuesdays With Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and a new novel, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto — in a gazebo in the middle of the compound surrounded by around 20 excited children. He's playing them the Mary Poppins song "Spoonful of Sugar" on a laptop. They act like they've never heard it before.
A little girl asks him, in perfect English, "Mr. Mitch. What goes up and never goes down?" He thinks for a moment, and responds, "A balloon?" She smiles triumphantly and says, "Your age!"
"They're such good kids," Albom, 57, tells me later. Today he is dressed in a purple Under Armour T-shirt, gray cargo shorts, and Nikes; his thick, dark brown hair is, as ever, perfectly coiffed, and carefully hides the top half of each ear. He is a small, handsome, smooth-skinned man, with the air of a teacher who considers class participation just as important as your grade on the final exam.
"I mean, what they come from and where they come from, to be this happy and peaceful," he continues. "They don't have very much in the way of possessions and we keep it that way. I give them a toy every time I come down. One toy. And then at the end of the year they have to give them away to charity or the outside. An 11-year-old kid will come over and put his arm around you because he hasn't been taught that it's not cool to do that. It's a great privilege here to see real childhood. Pure, unfiltered childhood, untouched by ads and music — the wrong kind of music — and attitude, and TV shows where the parents are all stupid and the kids are all smart. They respect older people because they've not been told that there's the dundering dad or the overbearing mom. The movies that we show them are very carefully chosen. No internet. So it's a great experiment."
It's a little jarring to hear him refer to 40 people's childhoods as a "great experiment," but also not surprising. Because in addition to the standard Albomisms in his work — that we should keep our loved ones close, and live a charitable life, and that time is worth more than money in the great ledger of your life — is the running theme that the modern world, and particularly the media and the internet, has caused irreparable harm to society. In Albom's books and his work for the Detroit Free-Press, where he's been a columnist for 30 years, there's a longing for a simpler time, a world where internet commenters don't exist, where children respect their elders, where everything is slower, more thoughtful. It's not surprising that he has a flip phone.
You see it in his newspaper columns; in one about the incompetence and short attention spans of service workers, he writes, "I blame TV. I blame video games. I blame the mindless blare that our kids have been weaned on, noise, explosions, blasting music, 100 images a minute. No wonder we can't stay focused long enough to remember soup or salad." On people sending Christmas greetings via text message: "Yes, there are still people who put great effort into Christmas greetings. But there's a growing trend toward, like everything else, making the whole thing easier, faster and more efficient, presumably to give us time to do really important stuff, like check out Kim Kardashian's behind."
It's in his books, too: "Yet despite all they accomplished, they were never at peace," Albom writes in his 2012 novel The Time Keeper. "They constantly checked their devices to see what time it was."
It may seem retrograde, but his message has long resonated with audiences. His publisher claims his books have sold over 35 million copies worldwide; all of his books from Morrie onward have been No. 1 best-sellers. (Presto entered the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list this week at No. 4.) The Oprah Winfrey–produced made-for-TV movie of Morrie had an audience of 25 million when it aired on ABC in 1999, and won three Emmys; in 2004, the adaptation of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, again on ABC, was the most watched TV movie of the year.
Albom has no children of his own and visits the orphanage — one of 10 charities that he runs; the rest are in Detroit — one weekend a month, sleeping in one of the bare-bones guest rooms. This weekend, his wife of 20 years, Janine, is home with Chika, a 5-year-old girl from the orphanage with a brain tumor for whom the couple have been caring, with their access to American medicine, for the last six months. Albom first came to Haiti in 2010, right after the earthquake that devastated the country and left the orphanage in disarray. He got a team of friends from Detroit to help him rebuild it, constructing a three-room schoolhouse and installing bathrooms and a working kitchen. Then he set out to retool the way the orphanage operated. There are now 40 children, boys and girls ranging in age from 3 to 13, who live there. The kids had never been to school — there's no free public education in Haiti — so Albom installed his sister Cara Nesser, a psychologist and educator, as the school director. She designed a bilingual French and English curriculum and hired Haitian teachers.
"Mitch is definitely a godsend from the way this place was," says the orphanage's head teacher, a 25-year-old Haitian-American woman named Anachemy Middleton. "They didn't have beds; they weren't eating three times a day."
Now, they seem transfixed by the simplest things — jumping on a trampoline, singing, playing for hours with a game that involves moving colored squares on a grid to make a pattern. No one's whining, no one is fighting over an iPad, no one is even listening to music with headphones. A group of boys have brought a container full of squishy little balls that grow when you put them in water to the table where we're sitting. "They'll stare at those things for like an hour," he tells me, "just watching them grow."
I ask Albom if he's worried that the children are going to be too sheltered, growing up in this kibbutz-like utopia that has allowed them to flourish but is also wildly divergent from the way people live outside the steel gates.
"I think that's a worry of anybody who operates an orphanage," he says. "On the other hand, it's dangerous out there." He tells me that they take the kids on field trips, that they do charity runs at Christmas and Easter, that they have summer programs with other kids. "It's really important to get them socialized, because otherwise they're only going to have crushes on their brothers and sisters. So we're going to evolve and we're going to have to deal with puberty as an issue." He pauses to have a brief conversation with a visiting teenage girl whose family Albom helps support; she's having trouble in school.
"It's a balance between the real world," he says, watching the kids put their hands into the box of balls, "and keeping them as beautiful as they are and as untouched as they are."
Albom, who was born in 1958, grew up in South Jersey and Philadelphia, the second of three children of an interior decorator mother and business executive father. (His mother, Rhoda, died in January.) He went to a Jewish day school and was active at his synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom, in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, where he was the frontman for what one classmate recalled as a "50s-style band called Lucky Tiger Grease Stick Band. ... For Jewish girls from South Jersey in the 1970s, Albom was our Mick Jagger."
After college at Brandeis University, Albom moved to New York and worked nights as a musician, volunteering at the Queens Tribune during the day. He eventually realized that he wasn't going to make it as a musician and enrolled in Columbia Journalism School. After a short-lived stint as a features writer and columnist at the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel, he took a job at the Free Press in 1985, at age 27 — and hasn't worked anywhere else full-time since.
"I was offered to work at the New York papers and the L.A. papers, I was offered to work for the national things when they started, I was offered to work for ESPN, I was offered to work for some of the networks," he says. "I kept saying, No, I'm happy here, I like where I am, I like where I live, and eventually they stop asking because they say, he's not going anywhere, and they're right, I'm not."
But it's his books that have made him truly famous, to the point where everyone feels like they've read a Mitch Albom book — everyone has an idea about him, whether or not they've actually read his work. It all started with 1997's Tuesdays With Morrie, which his publisher says is the best-selling memoir of all time. It's the story of Albom reconnecting with his college professor Morrie Schwartz in the 14 weeks before Schwartz died, and how Albom — then, at age 37, obsessed with work, money, and material things — learned that there was more to life than the big house on the hill, to cherish our loved ones, to be charitable and good, to try to leave this life with no regrets. In addition to the TV movie, it's also been made into a Broadway play and has been translated into 42 languages.
When Morrie came out, Albom had already been a sports columnist at the Detroit Free-Press for 12 years and had written two popular sports books — a biography of legendary University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler and The Fab Five, about the Michigan basketball team. But Morrie put him on another level. Suddenly he was a true star, appearing on Oprah, being played by Hank Azaria in the TV movie adaptation, traveling the world promoting the book. And it made him wealthy, in a long-struggling city and a restive newsroom that had just endured a brutal strike.
Schwartz, says Albom, told him he had an obligation to use his platform for good. "He said, 'You've been given a voice that you need to use for more than just aggrandizing yourself,'" says Albom. Thus his 10 charities and his five No. 1 best-sellers since Morrie, all concerned with similar Big Life Questions. (The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, his sixth post-Morrie book, came out Nov. 10.)
In the novel Five People You Meet in Heaven, an everyman named Eddie dies in a freak accident at the carnival where he's worked for decades, and when he goes up to heaven, he meets five people whose lives he affected in ways he never realized. In For One More Day, a washed-up ex–baseball player decides he's going to kill himself, but then he encounters his dead mother and gets to spend one more day on earth with her. In The First Phone Call From Heaven, residents of a small town in Michigan start receiving calls from their dead friends and relatives.
The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is about a now-dead musician in the vein of Frankie Avalon meets Elvis Presley, whose fable-like life story is told through the omniscient narrator named...Music. It's probably his most ambitious book — for one thing, it's more than twice the length of most of them, clocking in at 489 pages, and for another, it features a wide-ranging cast of characters, including oral histories about the made-up Presto from real musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Mat Kearney, Darlene Love, John Pizzarelli, and Ingrid Michaelson, all of whom worked with him on an accompanying soundtrack of covers and original songs in the style of the fictional Presto. "I really love the whole 'Is he real, is he not real' thing, like intertwining him into these true stories," says Michaelson, who recorded a song called "Our Secret" for the album. "It's like Forrest Gump but with music. That's kind of how Mitch explained it to me in the beginning."
Albom's books bring to mind the 1974 Harry Chapin song "Cat's in the Cradle," the song about a father who is too busy with work to spend time with his son, and so his son grows up and in turn starts to ignore his father, and his father realizes, too late, that this is learned behavior, and that you can't get back that time you spent in the office when you should have been spending time with your loved ones.
That theme is present in all of his books; take this exchange between the baseball player and his mother in For One More Day: "I wish we'd done this before, Mom, you know?" "You mean before I died?" My voice went timid. "Yeah." "I was here." "I know." "You were busy."
Or this exchange from The Time Keeper: "There is a reason God limits our days." "Why?" "To make each one precious."
Simple messages, simply delivered: "I don't think character first or plot point first," Albom tells me. "I tend to think big theme." For Five People You Meet in Heaven, he says, "I just kind of concocted this whole world out of the theme that everybody affects somebody." For Frankie Presto, Albom says, he was influenced by his time playing music starting in high school. "It was in my head, that the relationships you have in a band are paralleled by the relationships you have in your life. And somewhere in my head popped this sentence: 'Everybody joins a band in this life.' And that became a theme."
Everybody affects somebody. Everybody joins a band in this life. These are not complicated themes — they're basically just infinite variations on It's a Wonderful Life — and so it's not surprising that in certain circles Albom has become a cultural touchstone himself, shorthand for a book or movie that is sentimental, possibly emotionally manipulative, and definitely oversimplified if not cliché.
His books are rarely reviewed. When they are, they are not treated kindly: The Washington Post's review of First Phone Call notes that it was "badly written" and "Hallmarkish," and that Albom commits a host of "literary sins" including "too many interchangeable characters, weird plot devices, dangling modifiers, the passive voice used for half-pages at a time, the verb 'mumble' used over and over again." Or as Bryan Curtis wrote in Slate around the release of For One More Day: "Albom's writing is deeply felt, and dimly thought. He's a huckster evangelist for the soccer-mom set." That said, Presto got a short write-up in People magazine — prime Albom territory — that gushed, "Albom's fable about the power of song carries you along like a beautiful melody."
"The books I write usually have some kind of positive message to them," says Albom, "but that's not the point of them. The point is to read them and enjoy them, usually. But when given a choice between writing about a serial killer and dark things or whatever, or things that have a little more light, I tend to choose the light."
I ask Albom if it bothers him that people accuse him of being sentimental. "No," he says quietly, looking away from me. "It doesn't. I don't know how else to say it but it doesn't."
"I get frustrated that there are readers who believe that they won't enjoy his work," his HarperCollins editor Karen Rinaldi tells me. "We can't complain, he's got a ton of readers, he's been enormously successful — but I almost feel like I get frustrated because people will dismiss his work, the more serious readers, because they think it's faith-based or spiritual or something else."
"I try not to be very heavy-handed about faith or religion, and certainly I don't say what I believe is even a smidge better than the next person or the next person or the next person," says Albom. "And that's why I try not to write in a dogmatic fashion, even when my books touch on the world of faith or touch on God."
Rinaldi says that all Albom is trying to do is write about the human condition in a sincere and straightforward way — how can that not be a noble enterprise? Regarding Frankie Presto, Rinaldi says, "I don't understand in a book like this why everyone wouldn't come to this, except that there's a pre-existing bias. That pre-existing bias totally fascinates me, because I get the high-low, commercial-literary — that conversation I've been having my entire adult life, and I just think it's sort of bullshit. You have to be pretty hard-hearted not to sort of find pleasure in it."
Albom seems skeptical of almost everything involving the internet. Of Twitter, he tells me, "I'm not trying to create a new audience with outlandish things said on Twitter. That 'Let me say something so the world can hear me yelling' — it's a dangerous phenomenon. When I see people, when it's clear that they're just trying to get somebody's attention, I feel sorry for them," Albom says. "They're usually younger, and they're coming up in a world where loud equals good. Because all that's really good is clicks. And they're going to click on the most — the internet is full of clicks on cats hanging from wires. That doesn't mean they're important."
Among his contemporaries, the feeling is mutual. "It's this sort of this old-school, 'There are certain people who deserve to have a platform and I am one of them and you are not' attitude," says Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin and a culture writer at Bloomberg Politics. "There's an almost willful ignorance on Albom's part as he's gotten older to any changes in the business at all, and any possible value to changes in the business. The last thing that Mitch Albom would want is exactly what's happened and, frankly, exactly what readers love, which is a variety of voices. The irony, of course, is a lot of the things I think he's spent his career trying to defend — inclusion and goodness to your fellow man — well, the internet is not just a terrible place where terrible things happen."
Albom has hammered home this wariness in his books and his columns. In The First Phone Call From Heaven, a video of a purported phone call from heaven goes viral, and he describes it like this: "It was tossed onto the Internet and whisked into cyberspace. There was no filtering, no editing, no vetting or verifying; someone watched it, passed it on, and the process was repeated not once or twice but in tens of thousands of occurrences, in less time than it takes water to boil. The tag on the video — 'Phone Call from Heaven' — accelerated its rapid spread."
To Leitch, this skepticism towards technology is actually at odds with the truisms Albom espouses. "I feel like one thing that he and a lot of those old-school journalists have missed more than anything else is, they're all obsessed with the idea of telling people's stories," he says. "But it just willfully ignores the fact that people can tell their own stories now. And I think that when you take a step back and read Albom's stuff, you realize that the story he's really telling is his own."
Albom is contracted for a three-book series — "a good and evil sort of epic thing" — with HarperCollins, but he tells me that he might shelve that for the moment in favor of a book about Haiti, that the experience taking care of Chika, the 5-year-old with the brain tumor, has changed his thinking. "Everything that she's gone through and everything that I've sort of learned about becoming almost a parent at age 57 of a dying child — I was always going to do a book about Haiti at some point. I can't think about anything besides this little girl, and this place."
The first few weeks of Presto's publication have found Albom on a cross-country tour: the Women's Club of Ridgewood, New Jersey; the Miami Book Festival; Jewish Community Centers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas. On a recent Tuesday, in a half-full private-school auditorium in Santa Monica, an audience who paid as much as $46 for a ticket watches a short video about Albom's love of music, as well as interviews with some of the musicians in the book about Presto. There's a range of faces in the crowd — while it's certainly dominated by middle-aged white people, there are young people of color here, too.
"I'm always a believer in 'things happen for a reason,'" says Albom when the video ends and he comes out onstage. He's wearing a light-gray suit with a royal blue shirt and black loafers. "There are no accidents in life. Think about all the things that tumble out of one singular event." If his uncle hadn't gotten a brand-new piano when Albom was 8 or 9 and sent his old piano down to Jersey, where it took up residence in the Albom family's basement, and if his older sister and younger brother hadn't hated piano lessons, then he never would have wandered down to the basement and taught himself to play, and if he had never done that, then he wouldn't have been in a band in high school, and he wouldn't have told his parents he wanted to be a musician, and if he hadn't done that, then maybe he wouldn't have been so quick to just up and travel to Europe with a friend after graduating college.
And then he might not have found out their Eurail passes weren't valid on the ferry from Brindisi, Italy, to Athens, and then they wouldn't have had to take a train, and Albom might not have given all his money to his friend who had run out of money and had to go home, and Albom wouldn't have gotten to Athens too late to pick up the money his parents had wired to the bank. "Remember what I said about the little things?" he reminds the audience — the little things, yes, of course — and in any case, he wouldn't have been stuck for the weekend and he wouldn't have met the guy at a hostel who was reading the classified ads in an English-language newspaper and he wouldn't have seen an ad for a piano player at a resort on Crete and he wouldn't have used his parents' credit card — "only for emergencies" — to buy a suit for the interview, and he wouldn't have had an America-loving cab driver pick him up in Crete — "This was in the days when America was actually popular. I know that's a foreign concept nowadays."
He stayed on Crete for a few months and then decided to try to make it as a musician in New York. It didn't work out. "Sometimes you think your talent is going to be recognized in one area, and then it's recognized in a different area," he says. "So I thought, maybe I can channel some of that and put it into being a writer." The audience murmurs with appreciation.
When it's time for questions, a young Latino man wearing a hoodie from the streetwear label Stolen Garments is the first to stand up. "This book is your eternal gift to humanity," he says. His voice breaks as though he's about to cry. The other questions are similarly effusive: "I'm just so starstruck right now," says a blonde woman in the front row. "Tuesdays With Morrie is, like, my bible."
In Haiti, the only time Albom gets prickly is when I ask him about the only real scandal of his career, when he wrote a column in 2005 about a Michigan State basketball game in St. Louis. He wrote that there were two former MSU players watching the game in the arena, when they in fact weren't there.
"I learned a lesson from it — it never happened before and it never happened again. And it wasn't like somebody made up heroin babies or something," he says, in what is presumably a reference to the Janet Cooke hoax, the 1980 Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer Prize that the Post had to return after it was discovered Cooke had made the whole thing up. "I had to file a column on a Friday, the guys told me that they were gonna be there, and instead of me putting in a word saying they told me they were gonna be there, I said that they were there. It was the wrong thing to do and the editor should have caught it. But people turned it into a huge thing." The paper's investigation didn't turn up any other similar cases, but found that Albom and other columnists had used quotes from other outlets without attribution. Since the Free Press didn't have an explicit policy against doing this at the time, the columnists weren't disciplined, and the newspaper subsequently changed its policy.
The publisher of the Free Press at the time, Carole Leigh Hutton, says she regrets the way she handled the situation and thinks the controversy was an example of the general critical animus toward Albom. "It was a stupid mistake that Mitch made that others failed to catch but not at all indicative of some problem that required the response we gave it," she says by phone. "I allowed myself to believe that we were doing this highly credible, highly transparent thing, when really in hindsight what I think we were doing was acquiescing to people who were taking advantage of a stupid mistake and hoping that it would somehow come back to bite Mitch."
One of the central plot points of The First Phone Call From Heaven is that a young TV reporter, Amy, is pushed by her boss to "get the story" at the expense of her personal life and the lives of the townspeople. After she realizes how empty this has made her feel, she tells one of the sources she's befriended, "We milk things until there's nothing left, then we go. Scorched earth. ... I'm a part of that."
After 30 years at the paper, though, Albom says he's basically given up any pretense of being a journalist. "I'm on a very limited schedule with the Free Press" — he's contracted for 30 columns a year, he says — "and it's mostly because I love Detroit and I love that paper and I've been there a long time. But it would be an insult to the people who work full-time at that paper or anywhere else to say that I'm a full-time journalist." Whatever the case, the newspaper just seems grateful to still have him on staff. On the Free Press website, he's in the menu bar alongside sections like Life and Business; the paper regularly runs news stories on Albom's books, plays, and charity work ("Albom's 'Ernie' still big hit in 5th year on stage"; "Mitch puts the D on ice," about an Italian ice stand benefiting his charities that Albom opened).
Yet he maintains a near-obsessive discipline for the writing that he still does: He starts the day around 6:15 every morning, has a cup of coffee, and writes until 9:30 or 10. "I don't have any more in my tank after that," he says. By noon, he says, he's at one of the nine charities under his S.A.Y. Detroit umbrella, including a rec center built with the help of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Tigers (a person and an organization he writes about regularly, though no one seems to mind), a day care, and a health clinic.
But his days at the paper might be coming to an end. His longtime editor, Sports Editor Gene Myers, took early retirement in October after 25-plus years at the paper. "I'm totally lost," says Albom. "I don't know what I'm gonna do. I'm sure there's no other editors that want to bother to do that with me, so that might be a signal that it's time for me to get out."
He seems resigned to the idea that his way of life is quickly becoming obsolete, but is nonetheless still clinging to the pieces of it he has left. "I don't want to sound like some old man of journalism, but it doesn't mean I don't have opinions about it," Albom says. "I see it as a pretty tough time. I don't think I'd want to go into it if I was coming out of school now."
At 7:30, the children at the orphanage spend around half an hour singing devotional songs. A boy named Kiki bangs on drums to keep the beat — he's really good — and the kids, all 40 of them, sing a medley of mostly Christian songs; there are no hymnals or song sheets. As they sing, some of the younger children start to get sleepy, and one little girl curls up next to Albom, laying her head on his leg, and he taps his hand to the beat on the other.
At the end of the music session, another boy, Jonathan, leads the group in a prayer in English. He prays for Chika's recovery, he prays for the well-being of everyone inside the orphanage's walls and for those outside. I'm Jewish, but I find myself saying "amen" along with the group. Earlier, I'd asked Albom about his own religious beliefs — the acknowledgments of The Time Keeper open with "First, thanks to God. I do nothing without His grace" — and he'd told me that his wife is much more religious than he is and often reminds him, "You didn't do this by yourself, and you need to step back and be grateful about this."
"We have this discussion quite a bit," Albom says, "and I espouse it to these kids here, on a daily basis."
Soon, it's time for the kids to go to bed. They sleep in bunk beds, five or six to a room, divided by gender and age. I say goodnight to the little girls, and then to the little boys, and then I sit on the floor in the older boys' room as Albom tells them a long-running story that he makes up as he goes along that's loosely based on Superman, and even though I'm not totally following the story, the boys are rapt, and let out howls of protest when Albom finally tells them it's time for lights-out.
The oldest girls — Junie-Anna, Samanza, and Esterline — get to stay up an extra hour, and they can hang out in the orphanage's living room, which has couches, books, toys, DVDs, and a locker for each child. But the girls are more interested in hanging out in their cramped room with me and Middleton, the head teacher, who is moving back to the U.S. in a couple of weeks to be with her husband. They ask me how long I'm staying, and when I tell them that I'm going back to my hotel that night and will be flying out in the morning, one of them offers me her bed.
Then one of the girls ask if I know how to Nae Nae, and I get flustered and say that I'm bad at Nae Nae–ing (true, though the sample size is low), and then Middleton tells them that they should show me. Junie-Anna, lounging on her bottom bunk, sings while Samanza and Esterline do the Nae Nae. It seems unlikely that this is something they learned from Albom; nonetheless, they were excellent at it.