The Third Table

06: Joan Erikson

Chapter  VI


by Joan Erikson



Joan and Erik Erikson

Joan and Erik Erikson

I didn’t come to Stockbridge, my husband came to Stockbridge. He had been offered a job and I came along. He chose it and I was right with him.We came all the way from California because  my husband refused to sign the McCarthy oath. He was at the University of California and they started with an oath that you had to take. It was clearly not a reasonable thing. He refused to do that and said, “To hell with you.” He tore up the thing and said, ‘I will never sign this! This is not fair to the pupils, not fair to anyone, and I won’t sign it.” So that was his reason for leaving California. When Robert Knight invited him to come to Riggs we up and moved.

“I didn’t know Robert Knight before we arrived in Stockbridge, but once I met him I began to like him tremendously. He was very outgoing, very straightforward and there was no monkey shine. A great person.

Stockbridge is a nice town.  I liked it. I liked the openness and the arrangement of it but there was nothing there to attract the patients’ interest and curiosity. There was a workshop – a fine old man was in charge of woodworking. Another room offered a couple of looms and two elderly ladies showed interested patients how to weave. I was not in the psychiatric field and I came without the thought of being involved. However I watched the people at Riggs for a few weeks to see what was going on. At the 4th of July picnic the patients and whoever was helping with the “activities” put on a kind of program. Everyone sat outside on the lawn and then there came a moment when a girl – a patient – got up and she recited very pitifully:

‘We sit all day long

At a great big loom

Making god knows what

For god knows whom.’

I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous!  There is so much that could be done.” What could we bring on that would make this all different for people and let them do the things that they are doing with enthusiasm?

I started talking with my husband and with the other people who were in positions there to do things. At first  it sounds ridiculous when you say you are going to have a program that involves everybody. The staff just looked at me in a puzzled way as if to say, “Well, who do you think you are?” And, “What do you think that you are going to do?” They just didn’t know what I was talking about. But  Dr. Knight took it on. I remember saying to him, “Look, I know two people, the Lovelesses from California who know so much about all of the things that we want to teach. If we had them here it would be just great.” He allowed me to call them and tell them to come.

They drove all the way across the country, at my request, and became part of the group at Riggs. David Loveless is a wonderful teacher. He came with his wife and children – the whole bunch.  We set up a little house where they could be and live. We were out for Activities, we weren’t doing any therapy. None of us was even thinking about psychiatry.

Bill Gibson was interested in the plays. He got a drama group moving and he got people who wanted to take part in it.  He was a wonderful director. He did wonderful things for us in the theater. Later Jayne Mooney Brookes gave the theater a great push. Much enthusiasm. She was very, very easy. She did it well and she did it easily.

In the beginning my feeling was that people who were just sitting around and hanging out on the couches were bored as well as reluctant to do any work. I decided that everybody needed to have a job. Everybody needed to have certain responsibilities. No one could be there just sitting on the couch. That gave the new  work program a big push because it was considered slothful to just sit around. And we made it feel slothful. We had people doing all kinds of work and enjoying it. We gave them jobs to do that were work for them. We gave them the basement to build their own kitchen in and a place where they could meet together and do the things they wanted to do. And it was work for them because nobody did it for them. I think they all got the feeling of the fun of it. It was really great fun.

When Erik and I  started we had a big house and there was a big garage on our property. We cleaned out the top floor and we made a workshop of it, as well as keeping the one that already existed at Riggs. But this one was much bigger and we got the faculty to come. There were special days when they came and did the activities that we were promoting. Eventually we organized things better at the Lavender Door and had more space. We knew what we were doing. We didn’t need our garage so much, although we kept it for a long time and let people come and do things there. Everybody was busy. There was no hanging around looking sour. The excitement and enthusiasm was very contagious. It contaged- it really did.

We had a small abandoned building on the Riggs’s property and all of us were interested in having a nursery school there. Everybody prophesied that nobody was going to send their children to this nursery school. For one thing, the staff would be observing it and for another we were letting patients help run it. It seemed to be out of the question that any reasonable mother would send her child there. Those of us designing the Activities Program thought that was very funny and we persisted following the idea up and, lo and behold, it really took hold.

It was such fun. We had such wonderful property to use. There was  the little house – the one that  became the nursery school.  Then there was the  greenhouse: it was heaven-sent. We used it all up. We had the gardens outside. All kinds of possibilities! We were all terrible lucky.

The Riggs Greenhouse

The Riggs Greenhouse photo by Walter Scott

I was proudest of the enthusiasm. Everybody was very enthusiastic about what was being done and there was  a neat answer for anybody that was bored. Anybody that was bored wasn’t making  any effort to take part in what was offered there. Pretty soon they were feeling left out- so they got in. I was so happy with the Shop and the wonderful things that happened upstairs where Leo was. When he got there he took over. There were the patients who were saved by him –  those that would hesitate to belong to any group. He was marvelous.

We started the whole program in order to break the idea that three groups of people: the people who work;  the people who play; and the people who sit around on the couches and look grim.

Now I have been away for a long time. When I get word from there I am amazed at how it has changed, how it is different. Well, Riggs has developed which it has every right to do and should do. It can’t be just like the rock of Gibraltar. Everybody seems to be happy which is of major importance.  So, what the heck, let it grow.


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