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This mixture of registers makes Fierce People a charming but oddball book. Sweeping the graying hair from his forehead, Wittenborn says, "That's what life is like—it's sad and it's funny. Even my memory of going to the hospital and being ripped apart is sort of comical. Right before the operation this guy wakes me up . . . and he shaves all my pubic hair off. I'm thinking, 'A man's touching my penis and I don't even know if I like it or not because I'm too scared about the operation!' And that's what growing up is like."

Wittenborn is currently working with his nephew on a documentary that covers some of the same ground as Fierce People: The topic is growing up rich, and his nephew happens to be a member of the Johnson and Johnson clan. (Wittenborn's older sister married a painter from that family.) Although he's hesitant to discuss the project, he says some of the subjects viewed his nephew as a traitor. "Others really wanted to talk, because who else are they going to talk to about this but other kids like them? The rich know they're hated, that whenever they achieve anything people say, 'It's because they're rich.' Our whole educational system is based on making it big," he says with a dramatic pause."So what if you're born big?"

Not many of us are sobbing in our boots over that dilemma. But as Wittenborn points out, missing out on the chance to dream of success is a hefty trade-off. "Reinvention is the American way," he says with a hint of a smile. "We're all works in progress. I certainly am."

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