• Email
  • Print

Love in a Cold Climate

Children of Crisis

by Robert Coles
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 401 pp., $8.50

The Americanization of the Unconscious

by John Seeley
International Science Press, 456 pp., $6.50

The Healing Partnership

by Bernard Steinzor
Harper & Row, 264 pp., $5.95

It is difficult to believe that three men wise and humane enough to have written these books should have survived in our world at all, let alone flourished personally and professionally. That they should so largely share a set of values, and that those values should have led them to common concerns about the fate of human beings in our society is itself an important social datum. All three authors are fundamentally concerned with the loss of community in our society, and with the way that loss affects what we may become. Yet they occupy different positions, and have very different responsibilities. Their agreement, then, on a common evaluation of our social circumstances and of the difficulties those circumstances create is reassuring evidence that the loss of community cannot be total and may not be irredeemable. We still have enough root-stock to grow what we need, if only the climate permits.

Robert Coles is well known both as a psychiatrist of exceptional range and humaneness and as a “participant observer” in the civil rights movement. In this book, he brings his training and experience to bear on the individuals, of all ages and mixed motives, whom he came to know through his work in the South. John Seeley, a Canadian sociologist now serving as a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, is the senior author of Crestwood Heights. Of all sociologists now working in the popular field of community studies, he is easily the most explicitly concerned with social values. He is less explicit, however, in focusing on specific social situations or institutions in the thirty-three short essays that comprise this book: which makes his writing harder to follow than that of Coles or Steinzor, and his thought more difficult to summarize.

Bernard Steinzor is a practicing psychotherapist, trained by Carl Rogers, refined by years of Freudian analysis, and strongly influenced by Thomas Szasz. What saved him from wandering eclecticism is his unswerving emphasis on what he and his client experience in the therapeutic session and his often unhappy awareness of how this experience is limited by the technical prescriptions peculiar to each school of psychoanalytic thought. This has brought him and Seeley to highly complementary positions; for just as Seeley is “psychoanalytically oriented” in his interpretations of how social institutions like schools, suburbs, and especially psychiatry itself function, so Steinzor has come to perceive the formal therapeutic devices of his profession as, for the most part, social artifacts that reinforce the unexamined assumptions and hang-ups of the culture that has brought the patient to the couch—and decreed it to be natural that he should lie there, with his healer unseen and largely unheard behind him.

ALL THESE BOOKS are engrossing; but Coles has the advantage of some of the most fascinating human case material available to the general reader since Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood. He shares with Capote the virtue—essential to the humanist these days but nevertheless rather chilling—of being able to treat the destroyer and his victims with equal respect and full compassion. And, without demeaning the young people who have suffered beatings and imprisonment in the civil rights movement he shows in depth what their sainthood has cost them; not just in suffering, but in rigidity, bitterness, and ultimate loss in range of human response.

This is not ethical neutrality. Coles is wholly, and often at the risk of his life, on the side of love and freedom. But he keeps his cool on those desperate occasions—more common than we like to think—when love and freedom are on opposite sides and strangling each other. He does not hate the South; and, significantly, he did not come there initially as liberator and adversary. His book opens with a moving account of how, after living in Mississippi for two years as chief of an Air Force neuropsychiatric hospital, he became aware of what was happening quite suddenly, when he accidentally observed the police, with whom he had been working quite amicably, break up a Negro “wade-in” on the gulf coast. He is fully aware of the hideous deformation that racial discrimination imposes and expresses; and occasionally illuminates it in such phrases as that which describes a middle-aged poor-white woman in New Orleans, who took her pleasure each morning by going down to the school to tell a six-year-old Negro girl, “in a high-pitched but determined voice… ‘We’re going to poison you until you choke to death.”’ “She herself,” Coles observes, “is an obese woman, plucking candy from cheap assortments during every visit I made.” Still, he made those visits and portrays Mrs. Patterson with understanding. Affection would have been bizarre.

Even more valuable than his portraits of civil rights workers and Southern Negroes, I think, are his portraits of Southern whites. He is one of the few writers—and certainly the only clinician—to deal with these as people rather than as political cartoons. Not all of the whites are anti-Negro. One is a college student whose humanity is different from, and goes much deeper than, political liberalism. Some are teachers, fearfully struggling against their own traditions, and enjoying their victory over them. One of the finest portraits in Children of Crisis is of a Mississippi lady, last of a vanishing breed, who calmly accepts a life of police harassment she could never have foreseen, but which her upbringing actually prepared her for quite well. Elderly Southern ladies know quite a lot about the weight of tyranny from their own domestic experience, and have also been taught not to compromise nor to allow others to compromise them. But the hateful and the compromising predominate, in Coles’s book as in reality; and the fact that he does not hate them makes his portrayal of them all the more macabre. What is terrifying about these people is their familiarity. Fascism is everywhere made of cheap, everyday materials, readily available in the home and no less effective for that.

In spite of their predominance, Coles does not expect the committed racists and people-haters to win in the South; nor will the humanists, who are even rarer than their bitter enemies. There is desolate irony in the fact that a more humane future for the Negro in the South, though clearly emergent, reflects the triumph of no moral imperative, but the gradual shift in position of a white populace that doesn’t care much one way or another but is changing its mind about which is the winning side. “In fact,” Coles observes, “I can offer three categories of white Southerners: the haters, the indifferent and the timid.” The noble, some of whose portraits he presents, are not numerous, confident, or well-organized enough to feel themselves a category or to act like one. They are encapsulated in their own awareness of the hostility of the surrounding society, which will come round to their position soon enough, no doubt, but meanwhile—and any time—can’t stand troublemakers. Their isolation gives them a curious kinship to the embattled segregationist whom Coles quotes: “You never can tell in a democracy how long people will believe anything. That’s why I don’t like democracy. Everyone changes his ideas too much.” These are hard times, and not just in the South, for men of principle.

COLES’S WRITING is so forthright and unobtrusive that the reader may not notice how much his work owes to its methodological sophistication. This is evident both in his treatment of interviews and, particularly, in his use of children’s drawings as evidence of their emotional state and view of the world. Thirteen of these are reproduced in color in the book; they alone are enough to damn the Rivers and flood the Eastlands of our legislative halls, if rational evidence could do it. Apart from the absorbing content of the book, it is a delight to see data handled with such canny simplicity. Though Children of Crisis does not deal explicitly with psychoanalytic theory as Steinzor and Seeley do, it is a nearly perfect example of the kind of deft and humane application of psychology to the understanding of man in a social situation which Seeley advocates and Steinzor, as a therapist, practices.

Seeley and Steinzor are concerned with the same basic things, and start from similar assumptions about the nature and value of man in society, but their books are very different. Seeley is as much occupied with psychological theory as Steinzor. But his range is much wider and his book, being a collection of work published during the past seventeen years, is quite unorganized. He writes less clearly than either Coles or Steinzor. Like them, he is a very personal writer, but deals much more than they do in abstractions.

Essentially, he is a “soft-data” sociologist by commitment and choice. He has divided his book into three major sections: “The Revolution: Psychiatric and Sociological,” “The Psychoanalytic Stance of Social Science,” and “Society in Psychodynamic Perspective,” and he provides in the second section a masterful assessment of what the social scientist gains, and loses, by subjectivity. He is an epistemologist of social science; but the epistemology of social science itself involves the study of social phenomena, for what we take to be a social problem, and what we will accept as data are themselves aspects of how our particular society works. Even more fundamentally, our conception of the self is as much a social as a psychological datum. Thus, in the area of mental health, which is one of Seeley’s major concerns, there has been a considerable shift in emphasis even within the past decade. The basic problem is now less often seen as one of adjusting the individual to group norms, and more often as that of placing him more in touch with himself and, particularly, with his own feelings, so that he may function more autonomously. We are also beginning to realize that people—including psychiatrists—become alienated from feelings not just, and perhaps not primarily, through repression, but because our society has so long and so vehemently insisted that feelings were too personal to be data. Our empiricism, and its anti-poetic obverse side, permitted even the psychiatrist to consider the patient’s feelings only as indices of what might be wrong with his perception of reality. We are now beginning to grant that they are the moral core of his reality and that the mentally ill suffer from the effects of systematic betrayal, first by others and then habitually by themselves. The therapist’s problem then becomes that of restoring the patient’s awareness that he is worthy of respect, and hence capable of sustained self-respect. This is almost wholly a subjective matter.

THIS VIEW of mental health and the therapeutic function is common to both Seeley and Steinzor. But their emphases differ. Seeley, being a sociologist, deals with the fate of self-respect at the hands of different institutions and under a wide variety of circumstances. The shift in emphasis in mental health to which I have just referred is, for example, also closely related to social class. The lower the status of the recipient, the more likely he is to receive service intended merely to readjust him—that is, to make him useful to society if not to himself. If the social value placed on him is low enough, he receives only custodial care and, in California, not much of that. The higher his status, the more likely he is to receive private care, and the more likely his therapist is to approach his patient with the respect typified in Steinzor’s work. Psychiatry itself is correspondingly divided, as Seeley shows in a brilliant essay, “Psychiatry: Revolution, Reform, and ‘Reaction.”’ Only its vanguard is prepared to see its work as “an interpenetration and interplay between the actual best in one person and the latent best in another, with no other aim in view but the release in the one who—momentarily—has the less to give of that latent best crying for its own liberation into reality.”

Seeley’s words; but the vision is common to himself and Steinzor. Steinzor’s writing is much easier to deal with. The style is light, clear, and unassuming; a man can only write like this if he is absolutely certain that what he is writing about is so serious that he need not be solemn about it. Having experienced so many formal approaches to psychotherapy himself, Steinzor devotes this book to distinguishing what it is that enables psychotherapy to achieve its aim—as it sometimes does—and how the probability of its doing so is affected by the setting in which psychotherapy occurs. “The aim of psychotherapy,” he observes, “could be defined as the development of a relationship which, in its openhearted readiness to consider the ambiguities and uncertainties of hope, faith, love and indignation, makes it desirable and feasible for the patient to act in the world with others.”

But if this is the aim of therapy, the traditional methods seem to impose unnecessary handicaps on their efforts to achieve it. Classical psychoanalysis deliberately impoverishes the response of the analyst to the patient in order to force the patient into solipsism. The analyst’s parsimony of expression is intended to deny the patient any basis for response to the immediate situation he is in; so that whatever the patient says or does may be attributed solely to his own state of mind, and hence treated as data about his own personality, unprovoked and uncontaminated by that of the therapist. Analysts do, of course, develop strong feelings about their patients and respond to them in subtly but fundamentally revealing ways. But, according to classical theory, this is a problem, not a possible therapeutic resource; the analyst may and should discuss his difficulties with “countertransference” with his own control analyst, but must not burden the patient with them.

The result of this interpersonal impoverishment, Steinzor maintains, is that therapy is dulled and prolonged because the healing relationship that the therapist might have established by expressing his own feelings and assessment of life is aborted. That this outcome should be assured by the rules of the psychoanalytic game is itself a fascinating social datum. Psychoanalysis, as Thomas Szasz has justly observed, is an educational, not a medical, process; and the fact that we should have developed a technique for deliberately making the most intimate variety of education as nearly impersonal an experience as possible tells us a great deal about our society. It is, in fact, just this continuous experience of objectivity—of being treated like an object—that brings many patients to seek help. Surely, it is ironical, as Steinzor points out, that there should be a profession like his own of men who are paid just to be human. It is even more ironical that this profession should adopt a set of procedures that tend to keep them from allowing themselves to be human enough to make a real difference.

Historically, this is understandable. Freud’s much quoted statement of the goal of therapy as “Where id was, there shall ego be” suited his times and their customs. This was the golden age of the self-disciplined entrepreneur; and the replacement of id by ego is surely in the interests of management. But the interests of the whole psyche may be better served by an open, equal relationship that confirms the integrity of both its members—in the consulting room or out of it. In a world grown so impersonal that patients may not have had much experience of what a genuine relationship—even a bad one—with another person is like, what they need is not a laboratory but a trustworthy and recurrent opportunity to become more human. It is surely reasonable, as Steinzor suggests, that the therapist may be more helpful in this undertaking if he, too, participated as fully in the healing partnership as the realities of the situation permit; relying on his own good sense, his real feelings, and his professional judgment rather than on the established routines to set limits, and revealing as much of himself in the process as he dares.

Even classical psychoanalysts are doing more of this than the rules, technically, allow and more than Steinzor leads one to think; the process is becoming more flexible and the analysts are becoming less guilty about being human—an abuse of professional discipline which, in my experience, they occasionally permitted themselves even in the past. For what is occurring is much more than just a technical improvement in psychotherapy. It is rather a change in the quality of interpersonal relationships generally thought to be desirable in society and, hence, necessarily, in the goals of therapy—exactly the kind of change Seeley discusses in the papers in the first section of his book. The restrictions of classical psychoanalysis are not attributable merely to the primitive state of the craft. They were reflections of the limited character of its goals, and of the anxieties that affected the Freudian pioneers as they did the rest of their society. As Norman O. Brown has emphasized in Love’s Body, classical psychoanalysis sought a very limited kind of freedom, and did so by techniques that were well-designed to keep Dionysus in check. The emotional parsimony of the analyst, which established a procedure directed toward insight rather than expression and denies that the patient’s feelings present confirmation in the tenderness and anger of another, insures that even the more successfully analyzed will still remain, as we now say, up-tight—though they will derive a certain advantage in living from knowing more clearly what they are up-tight about, and from being able to loosen themselves up a notch or two when conditions seem to warrant. What is happening is that fewer and fewer of us still believe that we can control our destiny by operating on the world from a prepared position as it, in turn, operates on us. There aren’t any more prepared positions. One either survives immersed and struggling in the stream, enjoying the delicious plankton and the other creatures—spectacular, though fishy—or not at all.

This implies, surely, that the distinction between the therapeutic situation and life in a decent society, if we can conceive of such a thing, is a matter of degree, not of kind.

The existence in the world—the same world where men have uses!—of the therapeutic alliance serves to raise an un comfortable question about every alternative relation.

And, earlier,

Only if we can bring out of the consulting room into the society (as well as the ideas we have already brought out) the intelligent affection that contains and domesticates the otherwise threatening possibilities of insight, only if we can institutionalize these in public life (revolutionizing other institutions in the process if necessary), can we hope that we have called out the forces of life rather than tapped upon the door of death’s angel. Insight is mere technique; Eros and Thanatos still dispute whose, and their representatives in us will determine.

These two passages fairly summarize, I believe, Steinzor’s basic position; and Coles’s observations prove their soundness. But neither man wrote them; Seeley did. This is the point where three roads meet.

  • Email
  • Print