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Dialogue Underground: II

The following is the second of three excerpts from conversations between Daniel Berrigan and Robert Coles which were held last July, two weeks before Dan Berrigan was captured on Block Island. The third excerpt will appear in the next issue. The complete text will be published in September as The Geography of Faith.

The Editors

BERRIGAN: I’d like to ask you some questions—I mean, ask what issues you believe your profession ought to be struggling for in times like these. Do you think a professional man like yourself is free to inquire broadly, free to do and say whatever he believes right and proper?

COLES: I feel that all too many psychiatrists and lawyers and teachers and architects in New Orleans or in Boston or in Seattle manage quite successfully to come to terms with the powers that be, and never once start asking themselves what assumptions they have to make every day about the structure of the world around them, where their money comes from, who pays them, who rewards them, whom they don’t see as patients or clients, whom they never get to represent, who cannot purchase their time. I remember one day when I was taking my residency training in psychiatry I heard a supervisor of mine say, “We are in the business of selling time to people.”

Because I fancied myself somewhat idealistic, that seemed like a rather crude way of putting things, so I turned upon him in my mind and said to myself (not to him, because I wanted to get through and be awarded my certificate!), “What a vulgar man, to think of a psychiatrist as one who sells his time to people.” I thought of myself as sincere and generous and anxious to give my time to anyone who came to me, so that we could all help one another to grow as individuals. But more recently I have thought back upon that moment, and now I’m not so sure the doctor wasn’t right in coming out with that kind of almost vulgar confrontation which in turn compelled me to look at certain brute facts, and stripped away from my mind, one might say, an almost fraudulent idealism.

The facts are that I do sell my time, or if I personally do not, most people like me do. We sell our time to people who can afford to pay thirty or forty dollars an hour for it. In that sense, of course, some of the confrontations now going on in our society may have a liberating effect on the society. The obscenity, the pornography, the greed, the self-aggrandizement, the parochialism that are protected and considered to be part of everyday life are being confronted—and the result is a great deal of outrage on the part of people like me, who don’t want to think of ourselves as “up for sale,” as “purchased at a going rate” by a certain class of people, but who rather have been accustomed to think of ourselves as noble and idealistic and decent and honorable. No wonder we squeal with pain or, for that matter, turn on people who would compel us to moments of self-analysis as well as of social or political analysis.

B: Why is it that there are no psychiatrists in jail at this point in American history?

C: I think your question is interesting indeed—in view of the fact that we are secular moral leaders of sorts, called upon for advice about anything and everything by anyone and everyone; and in view of the fact that so many people ask us for opinions about all kinds of ethical issues, about how to bring up children, about what is right and what is wrong, what is sane and what is insane, what is “good” and what is “bad” for the “person,” for the “personality,” for the family. Even more to the point is what do psychiatrists think of those who are in jail or who take stands which the federal or state authorities want to punish with jail sentences? What do they say about Dr. King or Dr. Levy or Dr. Spock or Cesar Chavez? Do they call such men “immature”? Do they call them “anti-social”? Do they call them “self-destructive” or “masochistic” or “unrealistic”? Do they say that in some way those men are “acting out a neurotic problem”?

Many of us, and not only doctors, do just that, think in just that way. We think of people who are taking up one or another eccentric position in relationship to our society as troubled people who need help, who need “treatment,” who need to be analyzed, who need to be looked at, who need to get rid of their “problems,” so that, presumably, they will be better “adjusted,” more “normal”—and the words go on and on, and reveal how both we here and (needless to say, in a much worse way) the Soviets have found a certain kind of psychiatric nomenclature all too convenient.

Then of course there are those psychiatrists who say that their profession has no values, that they are only interested in “understanding,” in “learning.” But of course, having said that, they don’t usually try to understand, to learn why it is that they see one set of patients rather than another, and what effect such a practice has on their view of the nature of the mind.

I have to keep on emphasizing that we psychiatrists are, like those in any other profession, part of a given society, and very much attached to it; and the nature of that society affects our assumptions—the way we look at people and the conclusions we come to about people—which is particularly painful and ironic in our case, because so many of us talk about being “scientific,” which is supposed to mean “objective” and “value-free.” Now of course an architect would similarly have to ask this: for whom am I designing this building, and who will use it, for what purpose? No profession can free itself of these ethical issues, and yet I guess we always try—by accommodating ourselves to the conditions around us.

I have to mention again and again that during the Sixties in the South I saw psychiatrists used by the courts in order to pin labels on protesters, confine them, judge them. One youthful dissenter after another was sent to a mental hospital for evaluation, and the courts considered such an approach “more humanistic”: a person would go to a hospital rather than to jail. Certainly the violent response to the segregationist “law” which dominated the state courts of the South could in that way be somewhat masked or made less obvious. Those who were involved in sit-ins and demonstrations were called “troubled young people,” “delinquents”—“potential sociopaths” I once heard them termed—who needed “help,” who needed some “insight” as to why they were behaving so irrationally, so bizarrely. Needless to say, judges and psychiatrists and district attorneys in those states never thought of segregation (in all its various forms) as irrational or bizarre.

B: Would you allow for the possibility that there was something important going on in the minds of those students, something extraordinarily significant for professional men to look at?

C: Yes. And I’m afraid it’s something that, as a psychiatrist, I’m ill-equipped to comprehend—and you can see it in the tenor of the questions I’ve been putting to you. I am equipped to comprehend deviance, disorder, rivalry, tension, animosity, belligerence, truculence, nastiness; not only am I prepared to comprehend such things, I in fact manage to see them everywhere. And if I don’t see what I’m looking for, I ask why and look harder and eventually, to my own satisfaction, succeed in what is a quest of sorts, I suppose. If I am thwarted, I can always say that the person who is not displaying this or that to me is extremely well guarded or “defended,” and that itself is a sign of the difficulty I’m looking for. So, one way or another I’m going to find what confirms my way of looking at the world.

And my way of looking at the world is, again, to see the problems people have, the struggles they go through, the sly and devious mental maneuvers they put themselves (and others) through. In a sense I see a jungle everywhere, in everyone’s mind: “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory,” to quote from the song in Casablanca. Now there is that struggle—and not for a moment should we whistle in the dark and deny how difficult and mean and self-centered and grasping people can be, children can be, even before they go to school. But by the same token we are also many other things—capable of decency and honor and kindness and generosity, capable of sharing solidarity with those less fortunate, capable of being, in our own small ways, like Bonhoeffer.

We psychiatrists are often less interested in “studying” that side of “human nature”; our training often ill equips us even to look for that side, nor do we often enough ask ourselves what price both we and our patients pay for such a psychiatric “philosophy” of the mind. Instead we try to help our patients “live within the world they’re a part of.” I heard that phrase over and over again when I was in training. I wonder why we weren’t encouraged at least to discuss other possibilities—to consider whether both we and our patients didn’t have more of a responsibility to be skeptical, uncompliant, and in some spheres thoroughly angry and rebellious.

B: What we both can tell one another about our respective periods of “training” comes down to this: professional education in America, maybe everywhere, is both valuable and dangerous because one acquires important tools, but one has to fight hard to stay loyal to one’s values, to stay spiritually alive. That training at least gives one the ability to do something, and also gives one a certain world view, a certain limited but important competence; but that training must now itself be submitted to scrutiny and evaluation and examination, even as thousands and thousands of medical students and law students and seminarians went through quizzes and tests to prove themselves. I mean, the professions must ask themselves if they are responding to the needs of people for medical care or legal assistance or spiritual energy—rather than hypnotically pacifying ritual.

Nor can one at any point in his training, or at any point after his training is done, feel that he is securely prepared for what is ahead. I said to myself last June: Well, I’ve been in my order thirty years now, and I’ve been an ordained priest for about eighteen years now, and I know that I have had to change more in the last five years than I had to change in the preceding thirty, and I know in my heart (though I dread saying it even to myself) that I am going to have to change more in the next year than I have in the last five.

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