The Third Table

05: Dr. Brenman

Chapter V


By Margaret Brenman

Portrait of Dr. Margaret Brenman   By Norman Rockwell

Portrait of Dr. Margaret Brenman By Norman Rockwell

In 1939, after being a psychology major at Brooklyn College, I took a masters in anthropology at Columbia.  In the course of my required reading I came upon a piece by somebody I had never heard of named Erik Homberger. He wrote  about how to work with children and how they are related, in their own development, to their society. I thought, “Wow, this is really something unusual. I don’t know who this is, but I know this is something I had never touched before!” It opened a whole window to me, so I did a big crash report on that paper and I looked for other things that he might have written. I found nothing. Nothing!  Then I thought, well, someday I will find something he will have written, or somebody like him will have written and I can wait. I just stuck that into my  back pocket.

Dr. Robert Knight

Portrait of Dr. Robert Knight by Norman Rockwell

In 1940 I came to the Menninger Clinic as its first intern to serve under David Rapaport. David was twenty- nine although I always thought of him as 50 years older than I was. Dr. Karl Menninger could smell out talent and inspiration. Besides Rapaport, he had Dr. Robert Knight as his chief of psychiatry as well as many other excellent people on his staff.

Dr. Karl (as we used to call him) knew how to train people, how to do research. He found that the best thing he could do for training was to bring the most gifted, the most original, the most thoughtful people from all over the world to Topeka, Kansas -which many of the European refugees called “the desert of the world”- to lecture.  One of the people that Dr. Karl Menninger found in California, I have no idea how, was Erik Homberger Erikson.” I thought, oh, that must be the man whose work I read back in Columbia!

When Erik H. Erikson came to lecture and teach at Menningers, he often used a blackboard, and would speak very slowly. People later thought, wrongly, that he was just getting older and that’s why he spoke so slowly and sort of  rambled on. I can tell you here, for sure, that is not the case. He always spoke that way and when somebody asked him, lots of nerve for little trainees, as we all were, “Dr. Erikson, why do you speak so slowly? You know, as if you really are groping, in a way?” Erikson answered, “Well, that’s because I am groping.” He continued, “You know, your question reminds me of a story about a convention of physicists. Nils Bohr was speaking very slowly to a group of super-advanced physicists and one asked him the same question you just asked me. Dr. Bohr answered, “Tell me sir, why should I speak more quickly than I am thinking?” Erik smiled and continued, “ I do not compare myself with Dr. Nils Bohr. Yet that is the  way I am thinking and therefore that is the way I am speaking.

Erik Erikson     Portrait by Norman Rockwell

Portrait of Erik Erikson

by Norman Rockwell

Maybe Erik did not compare himself to Nils Bohr, but I think of him as a quantum leap beyond Freud just as Spore was beyond Einstein.  Erik  called his connection to Freudian psychiatry his ancestry and thought  that the profundity of the scientific overturning that occurred in the Freudian Revolution was one of the greatest in human science.

Erik was trying to tell people all his life that each culture is different and that, in fact, the whole model of life is that you start with a biology in a system and it is at the same time, interwoven. In fact, weaving,  is a central idea in everything both Joan and Erik Erikson ever thought. To them, life does not start with biology on the bottom then psychology, then social and then cultural things, all layered up with a little cream in between. It’s a whole system of interwoven things that are not additive. In Erik’s last book, “The Development of the Self” he says that people develop in a bio, psycho, social way in a system and it’s not- the image that always satisfies me the most- it’s not a layer cake!

When Erik came to lecture at Menningers Joan was not with him.  She was in the middle of having children but their relationship was very much of a partnership, in every way. They worked together later at Riggs when Joan designed and initiated the Activities Program and collaborated on Young Man Luther and later on Gandhi. Erik once said, and I know he said it in print so I’m not telling stories out of school, “You know, had I not been involved with this wonderful woman, had I not met her when she came to Germany to study dance, I believe that my psychotic disturbance would have ruled my life.” Isn’t that something to say? I mean, in print. “ Psychotic!”  They  were very young, of course, when they met. I think in their early twenties.

I got to Menningers before the big post-war boom and before they expanded. I think it was the same year  Dr. Riggs died in Stockbridge, which sort of ties things up. Before, during and after the war we saw, throughout America, the height of richness and super training in many disciplines. It  was the one good thing that came out of Hitler. All  these talented people in all sorts of fields were coming to this country and planting seeds with their genius.

It was Dr. Lawrence Kubey who  took the initiative to approach Dr. Ed Howard at The Austen Riggs Center after Dr. Riggs died. Kubey told Dr. Ed Howard that he thought the Austen Riggs Center could be made the finest psychoanalytic training and research center in the world if Dr. Howard really wanted it. Now, Howard was a quietly intelligent man full of tremendous integrity. (Later, during the sixties, he became the  founding father of the multi Berkshire Mental Health Center, one of the first centers of its kind in this country.) He thought Kubey’s suggestion over carefully and got back to him and said, if Kubey could midwife it, if he could produce it, as it were, as a producer produces a show, then, yes, he would certainly cooperate with that endeavor. Of course Ed Howard could have been the Medical Director at Riggs, but he wanted Riggs to be the best place that it could be, for training and for research, both. Certainly, he thought the clinical operation should change because it had become, at least as Dr. Howard later told me, a place where, mainly middle age patients came. Ed Howard thought that the clinical program should be radically reorganized and that it should be reorganized as a psycho-dynamically and specifically psychoanalytically oriented treatment center, in the old sense.

American psychiatry was not what you would call a perfect fit for Riggs, because the people who needed to go to the hospital, at least this is my opinion, were not suited for that kind  of treatment. I’m not sure anybody is suited for that kind of treatment – the old classical psychotherapy.  Nevertheless, with enough talent it was hoped that we could take the best of that tradition and adapt it to a hospital that worked with more disturbed patients.

Dr. Kubey ( I think of him sometimes as a great emperor presiding over psychiatry and psychology in America during this time  putting this force in this place and that force in another place, choosing the governors of the provinces and setting up kingdoms ) went all the way to Topeka, Kansas to discuss this with, not Dr. Karl, certainly not, but with Dr. Robert P. Knight.  That was the man he wanted to steal away. It seemed like such a wicked idea towards Dr. Karl and towards Will Menninger and toward Menningers in general because it required that Robert Knight  bring the best  people like Merton Gill,  David Rapaport,  Roy Shafer, who was still a student, and me.  We were mostly all in analysis with Robert Knight and we all came to Riggs.


Eugene Talbot, Ess White, Edgerton McC.Howard, Eugene Trunnell, David Shapiro, Stuart Miller, Robert White bottom row: David Rapaport, Erik Erikson, Robert Knight, Margaret Brenman-Gibson

If you were to ask me in 1946 when Bob Knight invited me to come to Stockbridge if the openness of Riggs was important, I would not have thought it was. As a matter of fact, I had grave doubts about it and my conscious reasons for coming here were because Bob was coming. He was my analyst and I was very attracted to his ideas.

I don’t think that it was the openness that attracted the others either. But in retrospect it may have kept them here. The flavor of the hospital was in synch with Bob Knight whose whole being was one of openness. He is the only Medical Director I have worked with who in a real non-interfering, non – bossy way could find people who were trustworthy: trustworthy to do their own research or training. Bob was able to convey that feeling of trust to people around him, saying in effect, “I trust you!” I remember when we came here, Bob said to David Rapaport, who could be rather bossy, “What title do you want to have? Research Director?” David of all people, said, “I think in this new place (Riggs) we should none of us have titles. There should be no Research Director, there should be no Education Director, no Director of anything.” David thought that having titles would be in the way of a non- hierarchical community. That is the kind of place we were making. Perhaps because the analytic model was not a totally good fit, we began to look towards the idea of a community program.

Back when we all first came to Riggs, therapeutic communities were not common in American psychiatric hospitals. There were no established models so we were left to make up a community program that would work for us since all of us supported and nourished the idea. By the time Ess White came, there was already something started and it was just rolling forward as a radical departure from other places. As Ess says, our particular contribution to Riggs was to find a way to make the community program truly a part of an analytic treatment program. In other hospitals you might have a community program but then you wouldn’t have therapy. We used both to reinforce each other. I think we  lost some of that once Marshall Edelson came in 1964.

But back in the beginning we were  building something special and we were terribly fortunate to have had Edith Breed as the head nurse.

Edith Breed at a Morning Meeting  photo by Walter SCott

Edith Breed at a Morning Meeting with Audrey photo by Walter Scott

Edith had been head nurse under Dr. Riggs and I don’t know if we would even have had this new hospital without her, for she was a pillar in this entire community. Oh, Edith, I loved Edith! She was such a respectable, well spoken, Waspy lady who was also so flexible and so ready to move, so open to anything good.  She was the kind of nurse one can hardly imagine.

We were all settled in Stockbridge when in 1950 Erik Erikson ran into some difficulties at the University of California. (He refused to sign the McCarthy loyalty oath). Bob Knight invited him to join us in Stockbridge. Remember we had all sat at Erik’s feet in Topeka, even David Rapaport.

When Erik and Joan arrived they  thought that Riggs should become a model for other so-called mental hospitals. Erik said, “One’s community, one’s experience of one’s community, is as wide as one’s social vision, and therefore,” he said, “I think that we could make Riggs a model kind of community where people participate according to their abilities and according to their needs and their talents and so forth.”

Joan and Erik Erikson

Joan and Erik Erikson

A year or two after they came, Joan Erikson had the idea that there was something important in making a creative address to a patient’s own inner conflicts which had nothing to do with “therapy.” Of course this was something Joan had been working on in her own work as a dancer, a painter at times, certainly a poet. She made a proposal to the Executive Committee that the entire Occupational Therapy Department should be overhauled. Like every other such department in the country, the Occupational Therapy Department had originated at Menningers and had been designed by Dr. William Menninger. It was geared  to keep the patients busy and even addressed particular diagnoses. Joan’s idea was quite different because it had nothing to do with the diagnosis of the patient. It had only to do with what the patient herself was interested in doing. One bright, gifted young woman was so sick of the looms and weaving that she wrote a poem.

Why do I sit at this goddamn loom

Weaving who knows what for who knows whom?”

Joan thought there should be an arena for the patients which was interpretation-free and therapy-free. A place where patients could do the things that they had a real interest in rather than a place where they were assigned to do specific things in order to keep busy or as a means of controlling their depression. The idea had nothing to do with the diagnosis of the patient, only with what the patient was interested in doing.

We used to sit around and have lively discussions about the kind of Activities Program we thought might work. In no way was Joan interested in occupational therapy or recreational therapy. The effect of the program would be therapeutic, in the best sense of the word, for young people who learn something about the principles of change – how people change, if they change, and when they change. There is so much one can tap into that can then have a profound affect aside from psychotherapy. I’m not knocking psychotherapy; I’m simply saying that side by side, these two things, can do rather miraculous things. They can turn people around and pull them back from the edge.

But in the beginning, even the sophisticated staff we had, the cream of Menningers top research people and training people and so forth, were not of a mind to throw out the idea of occupational therapy. Bob Knight was in a sense very orthodox and yet at the same time not the least bit so. Maybe respectable is a better term to describe him. But Joan and Erik were rebels and dissidents, as every overturner in the history of science or the history of clinical work has been. Freud was a dissident.

When Joan brought the idea to the executive committee on which I was a member, I was off having a baby or nursing a baby and I was not at the meeting. (I was the only woman around on the therapy staff and on the executive committee in those days.) What Joan was proposing was really more an education department and that was revolutionary at that time. It was voted down by all those men. Joan was furious because she sincerely believed in addressing the conflicts in people by addressing their positives and not their negatives. That is, to address their skills and talents and to have teachers instead of art therapists or dance therapists or any kind of  therapists. The expression, “dance therapist” used to make her livid.

Joan finally got the program through by determined activity on her part. When her proposition was tabled and she was not given any date when it would be reopened, she decided, “Well, if they don’t want this Activities Program in that room where all those looms are standing around like little soldiers, I’ll just have to open it up in our barn.” And she did.

Now Joan was a very ladylike person, not given to impulsive behavior or to deadly conflict. But she was also very determined. By starting the program in her own barn she was giving form to her theories about what both the therapist and the teacher in this adult education/activities program could contribute, side-by-side, to address the whole person. Joan used her intuitive wisdom when she moved the Activities Program into her barn, for she invited not only the patients but also the townspeople to come and be part of it. So this was all very much in flux. One thing about Erik and Joan that can’t be mentioned often enough, was their  sense of humor and playfulness. Here is Joan down the road from me on Clark Road in their barn organizing this funny mixture of patients and staff and townspeople and making it all work. Joan, of course, presided over every single meeting of this group. Some people were painting, some were doing pottery, but everyone was doing what they wanted.

The Shop   Photo by Walter Scott

The Shop Photo by Walter Scott

I don’t believe that the Activities Program was ever meant to be just arts and crafts although that happened to be Joan’s main talent and interest.  We had The Lavender Door which made it seem that the whole program was based on the teachings of Arts and Crafts. That’s not true. For instance, once the hospital accepted the program, Joan talked Bill Gibson (My husband) into teaching in his various capacities. First he lectured on the Beethoven sonatas and gave a whole course on them. Then he taught a writing program, and eventually he  proposed a Theater Program to the all-male executive committee who were supposed to pass  on all of these ideas. Several of them said, “Oh, no!  What a terrible idea.  The patients will never be able to learn their lines!” (Certainly Erik was not there for that disrespectful comment!) Somehow Bill got it passed and then, when he couldn’t cast one part from the patients because there was no one who was the right age, he cast a couple of townspeople. They weren’t anybody’s outpatients either.

The truth is he had more trouble with the townspeople than with the patients. That lead us to think about all the rationales people use to keep patients separate from others. When people talk about confidentiality they are talking about “secrets.” Secrets separate and make special. I, however, believe everybody is more commonly human than otherwise and breaking down that separation and specialness was the good part of using Joan’s barn. The program stayed open. When secrecy intrudes it is easy to lose perspective. That is why I thought there was something passionate, heroic, and theoretically very sound in Joan’s maintaining the program in her barn. When it was moved back into the hospital it was different.  It became buttoned up. Everybody at their place – with a few exceptions like the self-recognized dissidents.

When Bill came he was providing a very professional effort to teach how you put on a show  and to teach something about the nature of a production, the nature of scenic and lighting design and all of that.  That was a whole other area besides Arts in the narrow sense.  It was really a different arena.  I have always thought that people should not be restricted to even the expression of some “media”  such as Arts and Crafts or Drama or Music.   It seemed to all of us that it was important to find out if someone might not be particularly interested in, lets say, physics and if so we would try and connect him to the local B.C.C. ( Berkshire Community College)  or somewhere else relevant for where that person was in their life. Perhaps they had even excelled in something back in high school or before they became ill.

The principle is very profound and has to do with trying to give somebody a hand up on their life at Riggs or after.  It is important that illness be looked at from the point of view of what are the special strengths of each individual.

The Patient's Shop at the Lavender Door    Photo by W. Scott

The Patient's Shop at the Lavender Door Photo by W. Scott

Still when I look back, I do think about the miracle that our open hospital somehow conquered the barriers between the townspeople and the “sick” people. Right from the start there was a marvelous revolutionary kind of thinking in the hospital that made it possible to keep Riggs an open hospital – open for all these years. Isn’t that miraculous? I don’t know any place else in the world where this miracle has been accomplished. Considering the fact that as in any other so-called mental hospital there are people with drug problems and other serious behavioral problems, this getting together between the town of Stockbridge and the people at Riggs was miraculous.  And it happened over time . The Activities Program, the Community Program all helped and they were mid-wifed, basically, by Robert Knight , David Rapaport, Bob White , Ess White and, of course by the Erikson’s and me.

When we all came to Riggs in 1947 I was Bob’s right hand woman.  In fact that had already started in Topeka.  I have to say that life in Topeka was incestuous  I was in analysis with Bob Knight – lying down and telling him all my dirty little secrets four of five times a week. ( Everybody thinks that their secrets are dirtier than everybody elses, which simply can not be the case as we are all more commonly human than otherwise. ) There I was  in analysis with Bob Knight  and, at the same time I was running the department of psychiatry as his right hand woman.  By the time we came to Riggs I was through with my analysis but in Topeka that had been a bit sticky.

In the late forties the hospital was full of a  lot of middle aged people and some older depressed folks . By the end of the ’50s it was hard to find anyone who was not between the ages of 18 and 22.  I suppose that was partly because all of us senior people were so fascinated with them.  I don’t know whether that’s why they came,   but we sure got them.  And, that became Rigg’s reputation at the time: a place for gifted adolescents.

When we first arrived in Stockbridge fresh from Menningers our offices  were still in the old building.  I remember that David Rapaport  was asked by Bob Knight, “Where would you like your office?” he answered, “In the library,” which he got. That was, of course,  very wise for a serious scholar since he was  right there and could then  run around the corner and look up whatever he wanted, more or less.  It was very important to David to keep his office in the library. That’s where he and Erik, incidentally, had most of their important high level talks, which once in a while I was privileged to be in on. Not all the time. But some of the time.

Erik once said to me years later, “I learned about  adolescence at Riggs.  but you know what? I have no idea what goes on in adulthood. Margaret, we must think about adults.” He went on, “ Freud, from whom I derive my ancestry, made a  tremendous advance in psychology –  in the nature of human psychic evolution.  The idea that we are motivated by processes that we are not conscious of. Oh, what an idea!  But”, he continued, “ we’ve come to the place now where everyone, even in popular jargon and language, takes for granted unconscious processes. You know what we understand and have explored very little?  Consciousness. That’s the I-ness. The nature of I-ness, that  is my next big project which, in turn, relates to  this adulthood business. I would like to develop the idea of adulthood in a book, just as I followed the development of childhood in  Childhood and Society, and adolescence with Young Man Luther.

He said that much later, yet it was roughly during that first ten year period,  1951-1960, that Erik did most of his important thinking and working. He went  beyond where Freud left off  by saying, “Every child grows up in a society and we can’t talk about human beings and their development without the society as a container.”

To be sure he took off to Mexico in the 1960’s to write Young Man Luther, but the inspiration, the break-through and insight for that magnificent life history came about because of an extremely gifted, articulate young man who was seeing Erik here at Riggs during the  fifties. Erik applied the insights gleaned from that particular young man to his book about how a creative human being, given certain gifts,  matches what the society needs. If the society has enough of a vacuum to feel the need then those gifts it can turn a person into a leader or a religious dissident, which is what Luther became. It was really quite a rich, wonderful book.

During the fifties at Riggs I had administrative work as well as seeing anywhere from three to ten patients per week, supervising a great number of the staff and consulting with the department of Student Mental Hygiene at Yale.(In fact the road from New Haven  to Stockbridge was nicknamed the Sigmund Freud Highway.)  Merton Gill, Robert Knight, Cyrus Friedman and many more of us collaborated on papers and books, gave lectures and seminars and were busy with exciting projects that studied life histories and creativity. Early on I was appointed as a training analyst to the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis. Under the auspices of the New York Psychanalytic Institute Robert Knight, Joseph Chassell and I taught dream interpretation. In the sixites I was having my children and  I saw fewer patients but I still supervised the Fellows.

As you know from Ess White’s story, Ess was one of the many staff I saw in therapy. Now I don’t have any trouble with Ess White talking about his therapy with me. The story he tells shows that even at that time I was not staying in “role.” I always believed in spontaneity and diversity. The idea of being in “role” as a patient or a therapist is an arbitrary theoretical construct and makes me terribly uncomfortable.

In September of 1963 I announced that I would be doing a clinical biographical study of the late playwright, Clifford Odets.

Clifford Odetts

Clifford Odets

Primarily I meant it to be a study of creativity. I tried so hard in my biography of Clifford Odets to think in terms of a life history. And then to think of it as a bio, psycho, social thing which is not a layer cake, not  additives, but rather as the Eriksons emphasised , an interwoven experience from the beginning. Erik used to sit with me twice a week going over what I had done and what I had planned to do and the steady emphasis was on seeing the interweaving of all the elements. He took a great deal of time and energy with me to try to weave the life history of this one artist and playwright with the context of the history he was born into, which Odets, of course, didn’t create. I was  taking seriously Erik’s model of human development. Larry Friedman, Erik’s biographer, tells me that this social interwoven concept of human development was already in Erik’s diaries written when he was a young man of nineteen.

In late 1963 Bob Knight asked me to sit in on an interview with Marshall Edelson.  Bob wanted to hire someone with an interest in, and experience with, organizing communities which Marshall certainly had. He was extremely bright, although there was something a bit rigid about him. By this time, in the growing Community Program, people really had accepted the idea of ‘work’ as something that they wanted to do. A community program involving work and participation was important. So Marshall was hired, and the program grew.

Dr. Marshall Edelson

Dr. Marshall Edelson

Staff didn’t have much trouble with Marshall at first. He was very low-key, although there was a sense of competition between some of the senior staff and this new man. Gene Talbot, Bob White, Stuart Miller and Ess White had been the main movers in establishing the Community Program up to that point.  They were not trained in Tavistockian theory, as Marshall was, and they were primarily interested in patients doing work around the place and helping each other in a spontaneous way — not helping each other by staying ‘in role’. Marshall’s Tavistockian group dynamic held that if you left a group of people to find their own place, they wouldn’t. And, I postulate, letting people find their own place meant the leader of the group couldn’t control every minute of the whole thing. Basically, the word was control from the top with rules that insist you stay in a role.

Edelson was so much brighter about group dynamics than Talbot and the Robert Knight group. The competition for influence on the patient group and even on the younger staff was profound. Marshall was an impressive thinker in many ways, and he seemed to care about the ‘us’ in a group. But he insisted on absolute control, almost to the point of dictatorship. Freud was far more clement, tolerant and less a patriarch than Marshall.  Freud – and Erikson, his descendant – were intellectually more humble than Edelson was.

After a while Edelson’s true colors began to show. There developed a sense that the patients’ first loyalty was to the community. That kind of loyalty to the group always drove me crazy. People should be permitted more genuine spontaneity and much more personal authenticity. They should be allowed to strive to find that authenticity rather than having an assigned slot.

As time went on stories began to filter in about Marshall’s rigidity and about growing dissension within the staff.  Furthermore, his attitude about his files was – there is no other word to describe it – paranoid.  One day I went into his office for an appointment.  He wasn’t there yet, so I sat down in a chair to wait. When he came in he said, flushing, “What are you doing here?” I said, “We have an appointment, Marshall.” He suggested that I might have come in to look at his files.  Well, doing that would never have occurred to me. At that moment Marshall seemed crazy to me. Of course, stories about Edelson’s files became legendary, since many of the secretaries, staff and activities teachers had similar experiences. I think his attitude about his files was more complex than just protecting confidentiality. All that secrecy implies holding some great secret. A great secret reflects on the grandiosity of its keeper.

While the Activities Program linked the patients to the general human population, the Community Program, when it was pushed to its logical extreme under Marshall Edelson, seemed to create a chasm between patients at Riggs and the people in town. Belonging to the Riggs community was like living in a special little pond in the middle of a valley. In my individual therapy with patients I always kept one eye on the world outside the magic mountain called Riggs and encouraged people to get out of the community, go to school or get a job. So when the community declared that each patient’s first responsibility was to stay within the group, and then to move on to outside activity only when ready, I was puzzled and unhappy. This happened with two patients of mine. One was ready to go to school and one was ready to take a job. But the community was furious – they felt my patients were abandoning them. It was like some extremist sect or cult – you stay in, or you are a traitor.  It made no sense to me, and I never understood how Marshall rationalized it.  How could a community pounce on a patient who was so much better that she wanted to go back to school? When any group program or community program develops this kind of religious fervor it’s very dangerous because it is easy to lose track of the purpose of the program – in this case, preparing for coping with life outside.

Even before Marshall’s era one of my patients told me she thought it would do her more good to take a field trip to Yucatan and continue the anthropological dig she had been working on before she turned up at Riggs with anorexia nervosa. I said, “You may be right.” But the community viewed her desire to leave as a way of ducking all the conflict involved in trying to get along with her peers. (God knows this particular woman was full of such conflicts.)

When I told Bob Knight that she might be right, that the Yucatan might be the place for her, he asked if I were giving up on psychotherapy. I replied, “No, I’m not giving up on therapy, but I think in certain situations a person may have a passion to do something that does not involve her pathology. That passion may be more helpful than therapy.”

I remember a story told about Menningers. One day a new patient took a cab from the train station to the hospital. He told the cab driver on the way, “You know,  I met a couple of doctors on the train and I didn’t feel all that different from them. I’m coming here to be a patient,  but honestly I’m not sure why.” The cabby, who had driven many patients and doctors back and forth, answered, “You want to know the  difference between the doctors and the patients?” He watched his passenger through the rearview mirror. “The patients get better!” Such issues about who is a patient and who is a doctor are all very relevant stuff for psychotherapy.

In the early sixties Robert Knight became ill. I don’t remember the effect of Bob Knight’s illness on the hospital. I only remember its effect on me. I went over to his house every single day for eighteen months. First he went to  Boston for radiation treatment at my insistence and that kept him alive for about six months. We all thought, “Oh great, he is cured.”  But of course he wasn’t. After he took to his bed I went over every  day after work to visit and to talk with him about what was up. I  needed his opinion in order to do my administrative job. My sadness and grief were overwhelming,  so much so that when I came home I would very uncharacteristically pour myself a double Martini. It was one of the most difficult  periods of my life until my parents died.

At Riggs suicides and deaths  always pushed  the community to try to understand what happened. The whole Riggs professional community got together and there was always a great deal of discussion and also grave depression. As far as  Bea and Molly’s deaths, I don’t remember that  drugs were involved, but we were all very dumb about drugs in those days. We knew a little about pot and acid, but back in the fifties and sixties we  were very dumb.  On top of that, after Dr. Knight died the professional staff at the hospital were in confusion so I don’t remember all that was involved with Bea and Molly’s death. At the M.O.B. we  needed to find a new Medical Director right away. We  inquired of all our informal and  formal networks and started a serous search. We wanted candidates  to come as soon as possible and we hoped that whomever we found would continue in the same vein as Robert Knight. We definitely did not want someone who would be  restrictive.

Otto Will Medical Director After Robert Knight
Otto Will Medical Director After Robert Knight         Photo by Walter Scott

I was the chair of the committee to interview all the candidates. A number of people applied; all of them seemed  stuck in the mud – stuck in a religious psychoanalytical theory. None of them had even heard of Erikson. Then Otto Will showed up and there was something  arresting about him. He was  open compared to the people we had been interviewing.  He had been analyzed by Harry  Stack Sullivan and you could hear in every sentence  he uttered the way he would be the Medical Director. He was like a breath of  fresh air. Like Sullivan, Otto Will  was an original and open thinker. Otto would say such things as, “My analyst was probably the only analyst in the world who was simultaneously schizophrenic and alcoholic. And,” he would continue, “that sounds like he would be a terrible analyst – but he was wonderful.” That is the way Otto talked. He had a kind of candor  with no bullshit. I’d read several of his papers and I thought the guy was a natural. On top of that I heard from people who worked with him at Chestnut Lodge that he was one of the most devoted clinicians they had ever known and that he would not mind stepping out of role to do anything that he believed would help his patent. That recommended him very highly to me and I thought he was terribly attractive compared to what else was available. There  was something about him that was so fresh – not the polite professional baloney I kept interviewing. I found him head and shoulders above these other polite middle-class people who you couldn’t say what they were like after an interview. So I pushed to get him on board and I had to push hard. What I didn’t see were his  profound flaws. First, it took me a while to understand how competitive he was. Everything that he sensed might compete with his notions of therapy was bad. Second, I didn’t know at that early interview that Otto was an alcoholic himself. Unfortunately my  impression of Otto got worse  with every month he was here.


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