The Road to
And Our Discontents
(Encounter)Ruth Benedict was a closet lesbian. Margaret Mead did sloppy research. Betty Friedan hid her radical past when she published The Feminine Mystique. And Carl Rogers managed to destroy an entire religious community.
Chuck Dederich of Synanon fame was "domineering, a loud talker who brooked no opposition ... was probably not very bright." Fritz Perls was a man with "a big reputation and a bigger ego" who "avidly pursued female guests" at Esalen. Tim Leary was "the consummate con-man, and like all good cons he did not so much tell lies as give people permission to believe in their own fantasies."
R. D. Laing shot Leary up with heroin. Richard Alpert helped to destroy the LSD commune at Millbrook by bringing "rough-trade types" that he met "in his forays into Greenwich Village ... at least one of whom carried a knife." Adelle Davis of health and nutrition fame did acid, as did Cary Grant.
Alfred Kinsey had to be admitted to a hospital after --- gulp --- "he hanged himself by his scrotum from an overhead pipe in his office." Alan Watts "sat around consuming gallons of gin while discoursing on the nature of the Over-Mind." Abe Maslow, who taught us all about "self-actualization" and "peak experiences" was often depressed, and probably had a breakdown in mid-career.
Scarcely any of our gurus of the 50s and 60s escape unscathed from Malpsychia. Even the institutions of the time are excoriated. Forty years after the fact, Harvard University is brought to task for waiting too long to dump Leary and Alpert. Even the CIA gets a good scolding:
For a time the CIA operated a brothel on Telegraph Avenue in San Francisco where unsuspecting johns were given drinks spiked with the hallucinogen, just to see how they would react.
As the author notes, "This was not the agency's finest hour."
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If the truth be told, Ms. Milton doesn't seem to be very fond of any of those things from back then that you and I found so fascinating --- talk and writings and craziness that very well may have changed our lives. Leary and Alpert and Rogers and Kinsey and Margaret Mead and all their ilk not only get chastised, all their worst sins are paraded before the reader. It's the National Enquirer joined with Fox TV doing seek-
and- destroy on humanistic psychology.
Ignore the great speeches that Tim Leary made telling us that if we wanted, for example, to "play the psychology game" --- to get the hell out of college and go to work in a mental institution. Ignore the relief that Kinsey gave to the closeted gays of the 50s when he suggested that ten percent of the population was homosexual. Pay no attention to the fact that Fritz Perls shook up the complacent world of psychology with his ability to directly confront the defenses of clients who came to see him, the very defenses that were producing their agony.
For some reason, next to Leary, the mild and unassuming Carl Rogers comes across as the biggest boogie-man. In Milton's eyes, Rogers single-handedly tore down supportive institutions --- family, church, government --- that made America great. Forget his ground-breaking theories that overturned the behaviorists; forget his powerful ability to listen to those who were in psychic pain; forget the breakthroughs he made in "talk therapy." As they say in 1066 and All That, Rogers was a Bad Thing.
Then there's Aldous Huxley:
His famous essay The Doors of Perception has to have been one of the dullest on record.
He may have been important to us back then, but that is because we were so young and so foolish:
For those of us who read Huxley and discussed the reducing-valve theory over endless cups of bad coffee in college snack bars, the very notion that it might be possible to manipulate our consciousness was novel and exciting to an extent that seems unimaginable today.
Even poor old Ram Dass, now hardly able to speak or move due to a stroke is given no mercy:
Ram Dass's survival makes his public appearances inspirational for many stroke patients, and his advice about aging gracefully is well taken. Still, there is little in his message that one would be surprised to hear from a Unitarian minister or, for that matter, the Harvard psychology professor that Ram Dass used to be.
Even his efforts to mititate the agony of cancer patients is scorned in what to this writer seems to be a particularly hard-hearted evaluation:
It seems that the only cause that really matters to them is medical marijuana --- the right of aging hippies to soothe their aches and pains with their herb of choice.
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Ms. Milton is a competent journalist, and she knows her stuff. Despite her bile, some of her insights into the excesses of these years are wonderfully set. She tells of Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard studying the Vedanta "at the feet of the Swami Prabavananda,"
whose Los Angeles ashram was built in the shape of the Taj Mahal, a building that has as much to do with Hinduism as the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Her description of the hoops we went through to get laid in the 1950s is pure delight:
Playboy carried advice on how to impress women by faking an understanding of existentialism. The ability to drop references to Wittgenstein and Sartre into everyday conversation was that decade's equivalent of sporting six-pack abs.
But as we get deeper into The Road to Malpsychia, it is obvious that Ms. Milton sees no good as having come out of those years. Nothing. Nada. Nil.
I suspect there are two reasons for this sour attitude. The first is that she's apparently not of the generation to whom these masters offered such hope. I don't think she knows how desperate we were to get out of the morass represented by the likes of Eisenhower, Dulles, McCarthy, anti-communism, Johnson, the CIA, The Bomb, and the quagmires of the Far East.
Those of us who lived through the exhilarating years of FDR and World War II were suddenly thrust into a society that had turned hide-bound, repressive, and most terrifying of all, with coöperation of the Russians, looked as if it was going to cook us up into ashes.
It was a ghastly time, options were few and far between, and anything that seemed able to get us out of the morass --- Kinsey, LSD, the Merry Pranksters, Women March for Peace, feminism, radical politics --- was something we participated in gladly, as much in joy as in dread.
The later days of Leary --- especially him on his death-bed --- were a ridiculous circus. The astonishing announcement by Carl Rogers that he did not relish caring for a dying wife was shocking. The pronouncements of some of the feminists were depressing, for it seemed they were hell-bent on destroying what they had previously achieved.
But to label the whole of "humanistic psychology" and all its progeny as the cause of our present agonies seems false, narrow and, ultimately, short-sighted.
On the last page of The Road to Malpsychia, Ms. Milton reveals that her "boyfriend and life partner was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease:"
This private tragedy led me to take a jaundiced view of the constant drumbeat about the importance of self-esteem ... If a man who biked ten miles a day and ran the marathon in three hours could lose control of his mental faculties for no known reason, then there had to be something worth believing in that was larger than the self and its path toward fulfilling our "human potential."
"You must understand why I've written this," she is telling us: "I've suffered greatly. And I've found little or nothing to help me out of this morass. Anything that Leary, Rogers, Maslow, Benedict, Kinsey and their followers came up with over the last half-century is misleading, without virtue, and ultimately self-destructive."
I'm no psychologist, but it seems to me that Ms. Milton has transformed the anger over her terrible loss into cynicism and blame. I can understand. But to strike out at an entire generation of humanists seems too all-encompassing, and almost too easy.
These characters from forty and fifty years ago --- all of them humans, with human failings --- still managed to change the way we looked at education, drugs, government, war, communications, the mind. Silly and childish as they often were, they gave us an optimistic view of how things could be different. In those dark years, we needed that innocent optimism. We needed to believe that we could change, as could the country and the world.
It was idealistic, sometimes foolish: but it was all that we could hope for. For some of us it may have been --- may, indeed, still be --- the best we could come up with to survive in this lifetime, in this world.--- Leslie Seamans