Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Chapter 30 - Saint Elizabeths: Part 2 - "Korzybski is in St. Elizabeths"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred wryly recounted an incident that occurred soon after his arrival at the Government Hospital for the Insane. He had become friendly with the doctor in charge of the hospital’s unit for the criminally insane. Speaking in front of a group of psychologists—some of whom were familiar with Alfred’s work—the doctor had said, ”Do you know that Korzybski is in St. Elizabeths?” One of the psychologists answered, “I knew he would be there, but I did not expect so soon.”(4)

Alfred’s story had a serious point. The mechanism of time-binding (logical fate, abstracting, etc.) worked for better or worse in everyone, himself included. Human behavior could be viewed on a continuum of time-binding power. At one end, the mathematical approach—including physico-mathematical method—showed the extreme of efficiency. At the other end, ‘insanity’ represented the extreme of inefficiency. No one lived totally at either extreme. Everyone—Alfred included himself—functioned somewhere in the middle. He had already spent a lifetime getting the feel of mathematical method. Now, he thought, he should know something more about ‘insanity’.

Since reading psychiatrist Frankwood Williams’ Mental Hygiene review of Manhood in 1922, Korzybski had read a lot in the psychiatric literature. He had now reached a stage in his work where he felt he needed some outside direction for his studies. Perhaps more importantly, he now knew enough from his reading to realize he could no longer get what he needed to know from just reading. He did not yet have a good enough ‘feel’ for serious ‘mental’ illness though he had spent a lifetime observing people and had seen a great deal of both bizarre behavior and human unhappiness. He believed the best way to get a feel of insanity was by studying the ‘insane’—observing and interacting with seriously disturbed psychiatric patients.

Alfred had written to William Alanson White, the Superintendent of St. Elizabeths asking him “whether I would be allowed to study” there:
…the answer was yes. Then there was a lot of red tape. To be allowed to study in St. Elizabeths I had to have the permission of the Secretary of the Interior [whose department had jurisdiction over the facility] and … the permission of the ambassador of Poland,…So we went through all of that red tape and finally I got the permission to study. (5) 
Alfred arranged to rent a house just outside the hospital’s huge campus in Anacostia, an area in southeastern Washington, D.C. (He could walk to St. Elizabeths in about 10 minutes.) With Mira still away, Alfred hired a truck in mid-May 1925 and had their stuff hauled to the house. Jesse, who had been back at the farm for several weeks, felt sad to see him go.(6) Alfred felt a tinge of regret as well, not only because he liked Jesse. He had gotten used to the farmhouse and was leaving behind the four kittens he and Mira had adopted. They had slept with him and Mira and had followed them both around the property. Alfred had called the kittens his “categorists” (he had felt sorry they didn’t have “dogmatists” too). But he couldn’t take the “categorists” with him. (7)   

For $35 a month, he had found a one-story house with a storage shed. With a peaceful setting overlooking trees and meadows, it seemed as if they were in the country, not in Washington, D.C. The woman who rented the house before them had had marital and financial problems and could no longer afford to stay there. The Korzybskis (Alfred, basically) agreed to take over the lease and let her stay rent-free in one room in exchange for doing housekeeping. She had a child, whom she said she was going to give over to the care of some relatives. Alfred anticipated they might be there for three or four months and he wanted quiet. At first, he was delighted with the place and the arrangement with the woman. But the sick and noisy child stayed with her. The woman was not doing much in the way of housekeeping either. After about four weeks of bother, the Korzybskis moved again in mid-June to another place in Anacostia, about 10 minutes north of the hospital by car.

The new place, where they remained for the rest of their time in Washington (until early 1927), was the second floor of a large house at the top of a hill with a view over the city. The house, set back from the street, was fronted by a big gated garden.(8) For $30 a month, they got three rooms with a private entrance and a screened back porch.(9) An elderly lady lived on the first floor. The place had a large backyard with stands of trees and lush growths of flowers. They liked to sit there some afternoons and drink tea. The place seemed perfect—above all else it had the quiet Alfred craved when he was working. After they had lived there awhile, Alfred and Mira seriously discussed buying the place in the eventuality that they would stay in the United States.

Probably around this time, Mira returned from New York City with a small kinkajou she bought in a pet store there. Kinkajous, also known as “honey bears”, nocturnal, arboreal animals related to raccoons, have narrow noses, long tongues, and long prehensile tails. They can grow a few feet long. As a roaming portrait painter, Mira—who had had pets as a child—wasn’t able to follow her whims to have them again until after her marriage with Alfred. The kinkajou was the first, but not the last, exotic pet they would have. Alfred, who was probably already having problems with Mira’s impulsive spending decisions, likely wasn’t entirely pleased about their new housemate. But he indulged Mira and the kinkajou for as long as they had the creature. (It is not clear if it died or if they had to give it away before leaving Washington in 1927.) Alfred set up a large tree branch in the screened-in porch where the kinkajou could climb without risk of escaping. Otherwise, “the kink” seemed to have the run of the place. As Mira described some of the kinkajou’s antics with Alfred:
This kink selected the bathroom soiled-clothes basket for sleeping in the daytime. Alfred would be working at his desk when the kink would climb quietly up the back of his chair swinging his long prehensive [prehensile] tail around Alfred’s neck for anchorage, then climbing on the top of his shaven head would get very busy licking it. (10) 
Alfred commuted to St. Elizabeths every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. (This may have changed to a more frequent basis later on.) He had a regular car ride from Philip Graven, an attending psychiatrist at the hospital, who picked up Alfred on his way. Otherwise Alfred worked at his desk at home. When Alfred first saw Dr. White at the hospital, White told him he could do pretty much what he pleased. The two men had met more than a year before and White seemed to have complete confidence in Korzybski’s judgment and to fully support his study plans. He assigned Alfred a room in which to work and arranged for him to have full access to the hospital’s library, pathology laboratory, staff meetings, etc. However, because Korzybski was neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist, White told him, “The hospital is yours. Do what you damn please, but never ask my permission because I will say no.”(11) Despite this, White had smoothed the way for Alfred to work at St. Elizabeths.

Soon after his arrival in Washington, Alfred had been invited by one of White’s most trusted staff members, Nolan D.C. Lewis, M.D., to give a presentation on June 25 to the Washington Society for Nervous and Mental Diseases. Alfred had just moved to the second place in Anacostia and had no time to write out a paper. He entitled the talk, which he delivered from an outline, “Mathematics and Psychiatry, An Introduction to Humanology”. As evident by its absence from the title, he was abandoning the term “human engineering”.

An organization named “Pathfinders – Scientific Character Builders” had begun using “human engineering” to label their “positive-thinking” style educational programs. As far as Alfred was concerned, the “Pathfinders” programs had little to do with either science or engineering. After getting their materials, he protested to its director who refused to stop using the term. Since Alfred didn’t want what he was doing confused with their work, he began using “humanology”, a synonym for “human engineering” he had used in Manhood, to label his work. He would continue to do so over the next few years.(12) After Korzybski’s presentation, Dr. White addressed the audience—filled with members of St. Elizabeths’ psychiatric staff—for another half hour. White highlighted what he considered some of the important points Alfred had made. Alfred felt happy with his talk and grateful to White for giving him such an introduction. For the most part, he was made to feel at home at St. Elizabeths and, from the start, received a great deal of help there.(13)  

St. Elizabeths, under White’s direction, had a population of around 5000 patients at the time that Korzybski arrived. Before White became the Superintendent in 1903, St. Elizabeths—which served Federal employees, military personnel, and residents of the District of Columbia—had become a dehumanizing warehouse for the insane. Since then, White had done his best to re-humanize the place. Patients no longer slept on straw pallets. He had done away with the use of straightjackets for restraint. He had opened a beauty parlor for the female patients. He had done his best to expand services to his patients and made serious efforts to provide both occupational therapy and psychotherapy. To promote research he had expanded the pathology laboratory where deceased patients and their brains could be autopsied and the possible physiological aspects of their illnesses explored. White had turned St. Elizabeths into the one of the premier psychiatric hospitals in the world.

Still, in 1925 effective treatment for seriously disturbed psychiatric patients seemed, generally speaking, somewhat limited. Sometimes patients got well enough to leave. Whether this happened as the result of any treatment was another question. Many were there for life. At least under White’s regime they were treated humanely. Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming ascendant as a framework for explaining and treating psychiatric problems. Though he had helped to promote psychoanalysis in America, White was no doctrinaire advocate. He had been involved in the mental hygiene movement since its inception and had written extensively about prevention. Could Korzybski offer something useful to his staff and his patients?

As part of his study routine, Alfred would circulate to various units in the hospital where, with doctors’ permission, he would read patients’ charts and then interview them. In the beginning, he had trouble with only one M.D., who insisted Alfred needed to get permission from White before seeing a patient’s records. As predicted, White said “No.” Alfred simply got the records from another physician. Alfred never had any other problems getting records or interviewing patients during his time in the hospital.

Alfred tried to make very clear to all concerned at St. Elizabeths, his primary purpose there was to study the patients, not to work with them. Years later, he would give classes or do individual work with psychiatric patients (not his own) only if they had the permission of their psychiatrists to work with him. Many doctors not only saw no harm in sending patients to his classes, they also felt curious about what Alfred could do—even with seriously disturbed people. Psychiatrists themselves, starting with White and Graven, also studied with him. As his work developed, he realized that for a large number of people, their maladjustments seemed less medical than doctrinal, i.e., resulting from their ‘philosophies’ of life. Alfred definitely wanted to teach psychiatrists how to work with such people using the orientation he was developing. However, from the beginning of his time at St. Elizabeths and as he reiterated throughout the rest of his career, his only claim for his work was educational and preventive. He liked to emphasize that he never claimed to do psychotherapy.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
4. Korzybski 1947, p. 244. 

5. Ibid., p. 235. 

6. J. L. Bennett to AK nd. AKDA 16.504. 

7. AK to E.T. Bell, 11/22/1924. AKDA 15.684; MEK to John Macrae, 1/12/1925. AKDA 16.214; AK to C.J. Keyser, 1/16/1925, AKDA 16.216; AK to J. L. Bennett, 5/25/1925. AKDA 16.505. 

 8. AK to Helen Hastings, 11/2/1925. AKDA 15.29. 

9. AK to George Lytton, 6/13/1925. AKDA 16.547. 

10. MEK, Unpublished Memoir, p. 47-48. 

11. Korzybski 1947, p. 236. 

12. J.F. Wright to AK, 8/29/1924. AKDA 15.470; AK to J.F. Wright, 9/29/1924. AKDA 15.471. 

13. AK to David and Marian Fairchild, 7/5/1925. AKDA 16.622. 

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