The Third Table

a. More: Brenman

A:  More

By Margaret Brenman

It is really remarkable that in a town as ‘respectable’ as Stockbridge used to be, town and hospital managed to coexist creatively. Let’s put it this way: since many of our alumni, patients who were at Riggs, have become residents of the community, Stockbridge has changed.  But in 1947, Stockbridge was an uptight, upper crust Wasp community. When we first arrived in Stockbridge,  my husband Bill Gibson, a person of Irish/French/Roman Catholic background, wanted to play tennis at the country club. He  thought he had better ask Bob Knight, who was already a member, since he was an upper crust  Wasp, an entirely presentable person, and the Medical Director of Riggs. Bob said, “ Let me find out.”

When he came back a week or two later he said to Bill, “I’m very upset about the discussions I’ve been  having at the club and they haven’t agreed on anything yet. There’s no question about whether you can join and play tennis, but there is some question about whether Margaret can.” At which point Bill  said, “Well, if they’re having so much trouble with it, I guess I ‘ll just stay home. We’ll build our own tennis court.”

Of course the townspeople had hoped, before Bob got here, that he’d be as acceptable as old Dr. Riggs had been  and as attentive to the town’s upper-crust. They were hoping that the new staff would be suitable candidates for the Lenox Club. Bob Knight was in a sense very orthodox and yet at the same time not the least bit so. But Bob certainly looked the part and was invited to join the country club. Shortly after Ess came in 1951, the country club wanted Bob to be their president (they needed somebody with a little sense to run it ).  He refused unless they allowed me to be a member. It was the first major instance, at that level, of Jewish -Protestant integration in Berkshire County.  So you see the interaction between the hospital and the town did perform miracles!

In those early days Erik and Joan used to come over two or three times a week to swim and have dinner. We’d talk  theory or end up discussing what was going  on in the world. One day when  I went out to the pool Erik was there and he had just taken off all of his clothes. As I came around the corner I saw him and said, “Oh, Erik, I didn’t know you were here!” He whirled around so I would only see his backside. I said, “Oh, come on,  Erik, we’ve known each other long enough  that you don’t have to be modest.” He answered, “Margaret, I turn around not out of modesty but because I have so little to hide.” It was so like him  – charming, witty, quick. Erik’s gentle playfulness and self-effacement gave him a rare natural humility. And we all cultivated a sense of the ridiculous about ourselves – that is what saved us all from paranoia and megalomania.

Although Erik left Riggs to go to  Harvard in 1961, he continued to be involved and to teach at Riggs throughout the sixties. Then during the  seventies, when the Eriksons were living in Tiburon, California, Erik agreed to conduct a seminar with the Fellows every Spring. So, even after they left Stockbridge, their influence at Riggs was still very  strong.

When Erik first left us, McGeorge Bundy at Harvard decided that Erik was a true genius. Bundy was then the dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and he wanted Erik to teach there. Now Erik never had gotten any degrees, but Bundy got around that by  designing  a department of one – the department of Human Development. Erik then became the Professor of Human Development. When Bundy asked him,“ Where would you like to have your office?” Erik responded, “There’s no question about that. I’d like my office in Widener Library.” And that is where his office was.

Erik  was called “Professor of the University,” which was meant to be a larger title than professor. He had the kind of position which Bill once teased Margaret Meade about, saying, “You think you’re the queen of all the arts and sciences” (which, in a way, she was). Well, Erik  was the royal monarch of all professors of all departments at Harvard. To be a full Professor at Harvard carried a lot more weight than being a professor at the University of California which he’d left for Riggs in the fifties. But at Harvard he was the professor of Human Development – there was never one before and there’s never been one since.

That period at Harvard during the sixties  was very difficult for Joan who had been a creative contributor to the Riggs community. At Harvard  she was the Wife of the Genius Saint, Professor Erik Homburger Erikson.

Erik didn’t do anything much to help out the Psychology or Psychiatry departments. Instead he gravitated towards the  Sociology department where the undergraduates named the course which he gave every  year “From Bust to Dust”,(from the mother’s bosom to the grave). Why didn’t psychology latch on to him? I suppose because Erikson wasn’t trained in a formal psychology and because he wanted to teach how a life history works out – the primary, huge discovery which nobody has yet, in any field, managed to really clarify.

It was during those years at Harvard when he was teaching this overarching course that he was really trying to move, in some detail, from childhood to adolescence and then to adulthood. He said,  “I understand so much about childhood and infants and children. That’s been mostly my experience.   Adolescence also. I learned about that at Riggs.” But  as the years went on and as Erik got into the idea centered on I-ness, he decided to choose Jesus as the last life history he was going to write. I’m sure Joan’s steady and pervasive influence steered him toward the thought about what it is to confront the ultimate other.

Joan was the daughter of a minister and she went to the Episcopal church in Stockbridge. I thought it made  her very sad that Erik would not accompany her to church on Sunday mornings and did not really share, at the deepest level, an affinity to what she meant by the word  “God”.  Erik felt that the most central concept lay not in religious self-identification but in identity.

In the middle of the process of reasoning and writing the book on the life of Jesus, Erik  came back to Riggs. (As part of Erik’s assignment at Riggs they came back to Stockbridge for three months at a time through much of the sixties and seventies.) While they were working here, Joan came back to the Activities Program to consult with the staff and again made wonderful contributions. The Activities Program was her baby –   a child that she had  given birth to, and she loved her part in its continuing evolution.

Erik made his last big speech before the Joint Committee of the American Psychiatric and American Psychoanalytic Society. His interest in political and international matters was always  very high. The whole nuclear issue was very important to Erik. In that last speech to some four thousand people he said, “The race is not between the Soviet Union and the United States in terms of who has the most nuclear bombs. The race is between where the technology of the world is and where human consciousness is.” He said, “We might possibly win that race, but we might not. I see the gap between the technologies and the evolution of human consciousness which as Einstein said, ‘If it doesn’t change, the jig is up.’ It is this  gap between technology and the human consciousness that is the problem, and I am concerned that this little human race on this tiny little pearl of a planet may disappear.”


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