A Biographer and His Subject: Ralph Colp and Charles Darwin

Paul H. Elovitz, The Psychohistory Forum and Ramapo College

Ralph Colp, Jr., was born October 12, 1924, in New York City.  He received his MD from Columbia in 1948 and was an active surgeon for five years before becoming a Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (Psychiatry) in 1965. As Attending Psychiatrist at Columbia University Health Services from 1960-1993, Dr. Colp performed diagnostic evaluation and psychotherapy with graduate students as well as workshops on identity formation.  He also supervised the psychotherapy of junior clinicians, continuing this after his formal retirement from Columbia. He continues in the private practice of psychiatry in Manhattan, with many of his patients coming for sex therapy — in the 1970s, he became a senior associate, Program of Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy at the New York University Medical Center.  Having made his scholarly reputation as an expert on Darwin’s health and psychology, the interviewee is best known for To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (1977), which is being revised substantially and expanded to include Darwin’s “Diary of Health.”  Dr. Colp serves on the Editorial Board of Clio’s Psyche and has written over 100 articles and book reviews on Darwin, William Halsted, medical history, Russian revolutionaries, and many other subjects, including the “History of Psychiatry” section for Sadock and Sadock, Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, since 1986. He became an early member of the Psychohistory Forum and has been a devoted member of the Forum’s Communism: The God That Failed Research Group and its successor group on psychobiography. The inter-view was conducted in Dr. Colp’s Manhattan office on East 79th Street on September 13, 2001.  (A chapter closely related to this interview is “Living With Charles Darwin,” Paul H. Elovitz, ed., Historical and Psychological Inquiry, 1990, pp. 219-235.)
Paul H. Elovitz (PHE): Please tell us about your family background and childhood.

Ralph Colp (RC): My parents were middle-class, of which my mother often spoke with pride. She, Miriam Mirsky, was a homemaker with a strong intellectual interest in biology. As a graduate student at Columbia she taught microscopic anatomy to medical students for one year and then stopped professional work altogether.  Though she never attained her PhD, my mother maintained an intense intellectual life.  She enjoyed conversing about biology and the history of science with scientists, academics, and physicians, who visited our home.  In talks with her friends, my mother demonstrated the pleasures of the life of the mind, which has made a lasting impression on me.  In fact, when I speak of the type of intellectual life she created in our home, several colleagues refer to it as a “salon.”  I think they are right.  Through her I acquired an intellectual treasure early in my life.

There was a splendor about my father in his achieving prominence in surgery and setting an example of excellence.  Growing up, after my parents divorced when I was four years old, I had a difficult time with my father whose house I would go to once a week.  I did enjoy the marvelous dinners, although not the conversation there which paled in comparison to that my mother created in the milieu of our home.  I was in awe of my father and afraid to be alone with him. I repeatedly turned down opportunities to travel alone with him in Europe, which I now regret, though I did go for a week’s walking tour with him when I was 18 years old.  Although I was separated and estranged from him, after his death I felt I had incorporated some of his better attributes.

The first loss I suffered in life followed from my parents’ divorcing.  This domestic struggle influenced my early interest in civil war, introducing the American (1861-1865) and Spanish (1936-1939) conflicts. The deaths of my parents were important to me. My mother died in 1967 when I was 43.  I had a feeling of loss after her death as well as a loss of stimulus in work.  Then I introjected her values and felt as if she was always an audience for me: as I wrote, I thought of how she would respond to my ideas.  After my father’s death when I was 50, I felt liberated from some of his criticisms of me and freer to identify with some of his best values.  I felt freer to work on Darwin and added a great deal to what I wrote about Darwin based on my father’s outlook.  I do feel the loss of my parents freed me to work more and from being preoccupied with their lives and caring for them.

I was an only child, although when my mother remarried when I was five, I then had a three-year-older stepsister whose own mother had died in childbirth.  We did not share activities and she did not exert an influence on me.  Later, I became an early critic of her pro-Communist position and tried without success to get her to read Trotsky’s critique of Stalin.  In retrospect, my mother strongly favored me, and my stepfather Mitchell (Itelson) favored his daughter, which was part of the reason for the mild estrangement between my stepsister and me. My mother’s second husband was in commercial real estate and lacked the social prestige and money of my father, as well as my mother’s cultural interests.  All of our many social friends were acquired and cultivated by my mother.  Mitchell was kind and sweet but detached from me, my friends, and my interests.  He and I never did any activities together and he was not an influence in my life.  He outlived my mother by seven years.

PHE: How did you feel about being a Jew?

RC: I am a non-observant Jew who has never been in a synagogue nor had any training or interest in the Jewish religion.  I attended, as did my children, and my parents as children, Ethical Culture schools. Now I consider them to have been secular Jewish schools since the movement was started by a former rabbi (Felix Adler) and 80-90 percent of my classmates also came from Jewish homes.  I was educated in Ethical Culture schools from elementary school through graduation from Fieldston High in 1942.

I felt ambivalent about my Jewishness. It was a really complex issue.  My ideal was the socialist rejection of nationalism and religion, and belief in meritocracy.  I was aware and afraid of anti-Semitism.  (Indeed, my father always felt that he would have been the top surgeon in the country were it not for his Jewish origins and he was probably right.)  Identification as a Jew felt constricting, so I did not acknowledge it.  When almost all of the other Ethical Culture students were absent on Jewish holidays, I would be in school.  We always had a Christmas tree and neither of my parents liked being a Jew, though most of their friends and associates were Jewish. The anti-Semitism in medical school was considerable.  Because of the prominence of my father I was identified as being a Jew by my fellow medical students, about one-third of whom were Jewish themselves.  Unlike most other colleges at the time, Columbia did not have a formal enrollment restriction on Jews.  Of course, I was always fervently anti-Nazi and in favor of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.  In 1955, after I finished my military service in Europe and without acknowledging my Jewishness, I traveled around Arab countries where I felt the people to be most friendly and hospitable.  Yet, when I walked from Jordan into Israel, I suddenly felt I was at home and I remain profoundly pro-Israel today.  So I had a Jewish identification of which I was not aware.  When my wife Charlotte, who specializes in pulmonary medicine, and I were married, it was by a rabbi, in his office.

PHE: What psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic training did you have?

RC: I had considerable psychoanalytic supervision of psychotherapy cases: As a medical resident, I had two years at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (Boston Psychopathic Hospital) and then one year at St. Luke’s Hospital (Department of Psychiatry) here in New York City, and subsequently four years at Hillside Hospital on Long Island.  Since then I’ve carried out the supervision, from a psychoanalytic perspective, of residents at the Mental Health Division, Columbia University Health Services.

PHE: Aside from personal psychoanalysis, I think supervision is where you learn the most about psychodynamics.  I had close to 10 years of psychoanalytic supervision, though we called it “control analysis.”

RC: Supervised casework is great. It makes you into a psychotherapist.  It takes about five years to learn the craft of psychotherapy and supervision is a vital part of it.

I should include my psychoanalysis with Max Schur, who was Freud’s last physician.  That went on from November 1, 1959, which coincided with the birth of my daughter, until October 12, 1969, just coincidentally my birthday.  That day Schur died rather suddenly after 10 years of my psychoanalysis, which was never less than four times a week.  The analysis went deeply into all areas of my life.  There were many important areas that I really had been unaware of, including the real nature of both of my parents.

PHE: You have had some wonderful training for the brilliant work you have done on Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  Your ability to see him from your perspective as a medical doctor, psychoanalytic psychiatrist, and psychohistorian allows for a depth of insight that those non-psychoanalytically trained just don’t have available to them.

RC: Before I went into psychiatry, under the influence of my father I performed surgery for three years at Mt. Sinai Hospital and then for two years in the Air Force.  I think that gave me a feeling for physically suffering people — many of them had abdominal pains and complaints, which Darwin had, and so I had that perspective on him.  As a psychotherapist, one thing I have learned is that the symptoms a patient suffers from, especially with severe depression and anxiety, are determined by several factors that overwhelm the ego for a time. That is what happened to Darwin but only for a time because he recovered from his illness and continued to go on with his work.  With Darwin, I have been able to identify the psychological factors that caused his major illness (with Chagas’ disease of the stomach making him more sensitive).  At times the great naturalist feared he would die early.  In 1848-1849 he thought he was dying.  Five people he felt close to died of stomach problems so he was especially concerned about this.  I wonder what Darwin was clinically like but no doctor who saw him has left a medical report.

PHE: So you had a full realization of just how much people could suffer, whether from the mind or the body, or both.  You got to see both sources of pain, as opposed to those who want to put the etiology of suffering all in the body or all in the mind.  I was a pre-medical student until I rebelled against my father’s career plan for me, fearing I might inadvertently hurt or even kill patients.  I’m curious as to what surgery didn’t provide for you or if you had fears regarding it, such as the ones that influenced my decision.

RC: I could do the operations but I had too much psychic conflict about not being as good as my father — I didn’t have his innate talent and flare.  Besides, I wasn’t really that interested in operating — I was interested in talking to the patients and finding out their life stories.  My mother believed in the life of the mind but my father put it down.   He said, “Look, if you can’t answer why Hamlet delayed, so what!  But if you can’t answer what is wrong with a patient, it can be his life.”  He felt that surgery was superior to intellectual studies.  [long pause]

PHE: He felt that surgery was a matter of life or death, and that intellectual activities were just talk.

RC: Yes!

PHE: Both your father and Darwin’s father were prominent doctors who overpowered sons whose interests were less immediately practical than their own.

RC: There was always a tension between Darwin and his father, as there was between me and mine.  Darwin managed his father much more successfully than I did my own.  While the tension persisted, he got income from his father, which I never received from my father, and he got his father to take care of him when he was sick, which was very important.  I could not adapt my father to my purposes until after his death.

PHE: Could that have been an issue of the fathers far more than of the sons?  Darwin’s father was psychologically aware and empathetic with people, and yours was not.  Dr. Robert Darwin practiced a type of psychological medicine partly because he hated the sight of blood, as did his son.  Thus, he could help his patients with their symptoms at a time when bloodletting was the prime form of treatment — and if you operated, the patient was inclined to die of either shock or infection.  It was very good to have a father-doctor who was psychologically attuned to others, including his own son Charles and his needs. So even though the son was in awe of the father, the father helped the son to find his own way.  Your surgeon father, by comparison, saw the issues in physical, medical, surgical terms.  To him, things were much more a matter of right or wrong and black or white. Because of the residue of your parents’ divorce, he was also a more distant force in your life than was Dr. Robert Darwin in the life of Charles, whose mother died when he was eight years old.

RC: Yes, that is true.

PHE: Thus, Dr. Robert Darwin could be more empathetic than was your father.  What was his name?  Oh!  Of course. Ralph Colp, Senior!  My embarrassing momentary denial of reality — I know your name so well — is based upon my never seeing you as “Junior.”  Yet you have always seen yourself as a junior.  You always insisted on that for so many years in our conversations.  Yet I always see you as a senior: you are such an accomplished intellectual, psychiatrist, psychohistorian, and psychotherapist.

RC: Yes, that’s valid.

PHE: Your strength as a Darwin scholar is rooted in your incredible empathy for him.  When did your lifelong interest in Darwin take on the form of scholarship?

RC: It really began in 1959 with the sense of my beginning to become my own person — leaving surgery, marrying, beginning and finishing my psychiatric residency, and having my first child.  Also, November 1959 was also the centenary of The Origin of Species and Darwin was much talked about.  It was in that year also that I read Erikson’s Young Man Luther, which I think has influenced me perhaps more than any other book in psychohistory, despite my having serious reservations about it as a contribution to Luther studies.
Young Man Luther was invaluable to me as a way of doing psychobiography and of understanding the concept and imagery of identity and identity crisis. It was in the course of working with psychiatric patients that I first began, in the words of Erikson, to “detect some meaningful resemblance between what” I had come to see in myself and what I judged my patients, colleagues, and supervisors expected me to be. (Young Man Luther, p. 14)  I was developing a sense of listening to patients, and by listening, making a difference to them, and learning the difference between being an investigator and being a therapist.  In subsequently reading Erikson’s biography (Lawrence J. Friedman, Identity’s Architect, 1999), I came to realize how he formed his own identity out of his past and dreams. As fellow psychohistorian Dan Dervin has commented, it was Erikson’s genius to push aside many aspects of his real life to invent his own identity.  His psychotherapist daughter’s article on him in the Atlantic Monthly points out how lacking he was in a sense of reality. [Sue Erikson Bloland, “Fame: The Power and Cast of a Fantasy,” November 1999]

PHE: The spelling out of the method of inquiry, rather than the conclusion, is often what’s really important.  While I’ve disagreed with some conclusions of my fellow psychohistorians, I’ve been extremely impressed by the method they had been using.  I remember reading Young Man Luther and being thrilled and inspired by it but unconvinced it was correct.  Many of the right questions were being asked.  However, I prefer Norman O. Brown’s interpretation in Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (1959).

RC: The excremental vision.

PHE: Yes.  Brown’s scatological interpretation dealt more with the real situation.  But it is so often the case that we find something enlightening even when we disagree.  Returning to our interview questions, how do you define psychohistory?

RC: For me it is psychobiography.  It involves a detection and delineation of emotions that individuals tend to deny or minimize.  I have written on: Vanzetti’s depression following the death of his mother and his life as a hobo in America; Halsted’s intimate friendship with and perhaps love for William Welch, and how it influenced his surgical career; Trotsky’s failure to become Lenin’s successor, explained by his fear of surpassing his father; and Stalin’s sadism — we need more explanation of his envy.

PHE: What brought you to psychohistory?

RC: I had three paths: my childhood historical interests, development of greater psychological insight into my biographical interests, and work with the Psychohistory Forum.  First, when I was growing up, I had a passionate interest in a number of topics and the lives of individuals, including biographies of scientists and doctors.  Two important early intellectual influences were my maternal uncle Alfred Mirsky, an eminent research scientist at the Rockefeller Institute, who talked with me about Darwin’s life and work, and my maternal aunt Jeannette Mirsky, author of books on exploration and a biography of Eli Whitney, who talked to me about her research in writing biographies.

I had a tremendous interest in revolutions, specifically the French and the Russian Revolutions, as well as in ancient history, particularly that of Greece and Rome, including the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  My curiosity was whetted by the times in which I grew up, the 1930s and 1940s: the histories of Europe, the United States, and the Second World War.  Some books that particularly influenced me include Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.  Among the influential scientists and physicians were Pasteur, Darwin, Harvey, Osler, and Halsted, and among the military and political leaders were T.E. Lawrence, Lincoln, and Lenin.  I had an unquenchable curiosity to know more about them and their times.

My second path to psychohistory began when I was in psychiatric training in 1956.  I had a desire to further develop and elaborate on these biographical interests by adding psychological insights to them.  (My desire to further understand was and still is very strong.)  This led to my writing articles on English physiologist Ernest Starling, 1951; Vanzetti, 1959; and Halsted, 1959 and 1984 (which I dedicated to my father). “Trotsky’s Dream of Lenin” (Clio’s Psyche, September 1998, pp. 50-54) touches on why Trotsky didn’t succeed Lenin.  My views on Stalin’s sadism are treated in “Why Stalin Couldn’t Stop Laughing” (Clio’s Psyche, September 1996, pp. 37-39) and on his envy as one of his strong motivating forces, in book reviews of new biographies of Stalin in The Psychohistory Review (Winter 1990 and Winter 1993) and in “Stalin’s Victims and Their Predator” (Clio’s Psyche, December 1998, pp. 111-112).

The third path has been my work in the Psychohistory Forum, which is quite important to me.  I have attended most of the Forum meetings, listened to the work presented, and formed intellectual friendships with the colleagues I have met.  In becoming a scholar I was self-taught, without any psychohistorical mentors, but in a sense, the Psychohistory Forum has helped mentor me.  At the Forum’s Communism: The Dream that Failed Research Group meetings, this work on ideas of mutual interest continues even as the group has switched its focus to biography.  Included in the intellectual friendships are those with Mary Lambert, Jay Gonen, and Mary Coleman.  Mary Coleman really took an interest in my recent illness but, aside from that, she has a range of interest in ancient history.  There are the friendships with David Felix, Connie and Lee Shneidman, Ben Brody, and you, though we really haven’t had as much of a one-to-one relationship as I would like.

PHE: If you came out to New Jersey we could have that.

RC: [laughter]  Sure! Sure!  You notice I haven’t really been that motivated to attend the yearly International Psychohistorical Association (IPA) meetings.  I keep up with my membership but I prefer the Forum.

PHE: There’s something about the smaller group format that I think fits nicely with being able to work in depth and to form the closer connections that I think work especially well for your personality.

RC: Yes, and I enjoy the lunches we have afterwards with the continued conversation there.

PHE: I certainly enjoy those as well. What training was most helpful in your doing psychohistorical work?

RC: A good beginning was Henry Lawton’s The Psychohistorian’s Handbook (1988), which conveys the range of psychohistory and gives the sense of its being an intellectual adventure (which Henry strongly feels and conveys in conversation).  Reading reviews of psychohistorical and related books in the Journal of Psychohistory andClio’s Psyche was a good way of getting into the literature.  Lee Shneidman’s are unfailingly good.

PHE: What other books were important to your development?

RC: There are so many.  If I focus on psychological books I would have to include: Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society; Levinson, The Seasons of a Man’s Life; Peter Loewenberg, Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach (1983);Allen Wheelis, The Quest for Identity (1966); and Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (1981).

PHE: What is the influence of your psychoanalytic experience on you as a psychohistorian?

RC: I am still in psychotherapy practice, and I frequently apply what I know about patients to my work as a biographer.  It has involved separating psychological insights I have formed on current political leaders from their political ideas and their impact on politics.

PHE: Please list the five people who you think have made the greatest contribution to psychohistory in order of their contribution.

RC: I answer this not as a historian or psychohistorian but simply citing four books and an article I have especially enjoyed: Erikson, Young Man Luther; Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984), and Wolfenstein, The Victims of Democracy, are great books and I wrote this in my review of them in “Views of Psychohistory,” (Free Associations, 14, 1989); I would now add George Victor, Hitler: The Pathology of Evil (1998), and Lee Shneidman, “Alienation in Marx” (Clio’s Psyche, June 1994, pp. 4&5), to this list.

PHE: How do you see psychohistory developing in the next decade or two?

RC: Psychohistory will survive because psychoanalysis will survive.  In my “History of Psychiatry” section in the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, I point out that while the influence of psychoanalysis on American psychiatry has declined because it is no longer used in formulating diagnoses and while there is intense controversy about its value and validity, Freud’s place as one of the supreme makers of the 20th century alongside Darwin, Marx, and Einstein remains secure.  Because of this continuing status, psychoanalysis will remain a source and inspiration for psychohistory.

PHE: What do we as psychohistorians need to do to strengthen our work and have more influence?

RC: Many things.  One is to write books that are both scholarly and talked about, and that become popular — such as Erikson’s Childhood and Society.  In the reviews and letters to the editor in the Times Literary Supplement and the Sunday edition of The New York Times, there is a striking absence of references to psychohistory books.  Despite being published by a well-known press — New York University — Mel Kalfus’ biography, Frederick Law Olmsted: The Passion of a Public Artist (1991), was not reviewed in the Times, as were earlier Olmsted lives. To the best of my knowledge, Jay Gonen’s brilliant book on Nazi psychology, Roots of Nazi Psychology (2000), has received little discussion outside of Clio’s Psyche.  But how many psychohistorians have achieved the fame of Erikson?  Conversely, their work may be strengthened by accepting that they are fated to write for only a small audience.  The limited readership for two superb books, Gonen’s and Victor’s Hitler, are examples.

Perhaps most important is the encouragement of small groups — such as the Psychohistory Forum and its research groups — where work is discussed and individual intellectual friendships are formed and continued outside of the group.

PHE: What is your primary affiliation?

RC: I have two identities: one as a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist and another as a Darwin scholar. This shows in my office where every day I see patients and do work on Darwin.  On one side of this room there are books on Darwin and Victorian times and on the other side there are books on Freud and psychiatry.

PHE: Of which of your works are you most proud?

RC: To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin and “Charles Darwin’s ‘Insufferable Grief’” (Free Associations, 9, 1987, pp. 7-44).  Both delineated important but neglected areas in Darwin’s biography. “Darwin’s ‘Insuf-ferable Grief’” recounted Darwin’s grief over the death of his daughter Annie — the most emotional event in his life.  It was a pioneering work and has led to the recent, much more extended study of Darwin and his daughter, Annie’s Box (Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution is the title of the American edition) by Randal Keynes.

There are two other articles I’d like to mention. “‘Confessing a Murder’: Darwin’s First Revelations about Transmutation” (Isis, 77, 1986, pp. 9-32) is about Darwin’s guilt over his having unpopular ideas.  It showed how he persevered and began to form an identity of the “Devil’s Chaplain.”  I am reminded of his 1856 remark in a letter, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low & horribly cruel works of nature.”  Darwin’s clerical training at Cambridge had a profound impact on him, and he rightfully feared the clergy’s reaction to his theories. Then there’s the history of the contacts between Darwin and Marx. This is interesting for demonstrating what the actual contacts were, how letters can be misleading, and what really took place in the discovery of the real nature of the contacts because one participant had written an account of the history, which omitted several of the participants for several reasons. (“The Myth of the Darwin-Marx Letter,” History of Political Economy, 14:4, 1982, pp. 461-482)

PHE: For those of our readers who are not familiar with To Be an Invalid, what are its main points?

RC: When I first began to think about writing on Darwin in 1959, I noticed that the many biographies of him had little to say about the causes and nature of the illness that dominated his life.  There was, for instance, no delineation of what his clinical symptoms were.  After I decided to write on his illness, I spent many years researching unpublished Darwin documents.  (It took me several years to learn to decipher his handwriting.)  In To Be an Invalid I published the first comprehensive account of his illness.  I showed that as a youth he suffered brief psychosomatic symptoms from transient mental stresses, and as an adult he suffered protracted psychosomatic illness mainly from working on his controversial theory of evolution.  When his theory was accepted and he stopped working on it, his illness became better.  While his physical symptoms were mainly flatulence, vomiting, and eczema, he also had a variety of other psychiatric symptoms — obsessions, anxieties, and depressions — and psychosomatic symptoms — headaches, cardiac palpitations, trembling, and altered sensations.  I also stressed that with the absence of current methods of diagnosis, much about the nature of his illness remains uncertain. My book filled a gap, and was very well received by other Darwin scholars.

Now I am working on a second edition of the book.  It is really a new book that incorporates the great amount of new primary source information on Darwin — published and unpublished — that has become available since 1977.  In it I will delineate more fully the clinical nature of Darwin’s symptoms and their causation.  I will also raise the possibility of arrested Chagas’ disease of the stomach, which can lead to all sorts of stomach disorders, making Darwin more sensitive to psychological stress.  The result will be a more precise picture of Darwin’s illness and a more intimate portrait of Darwin the man.

As an appendix to it, I am including Darwin’s “Diary of Health” which was a unique daily diary that he kept from 1849-1855, in which he put down his symptoms, and for several years his main treatment of hydropathy (treating illness by external douching with cold water) and how it affected him.  The “Diary of Health” is a unique medical and psychological document that has never been transcribed. [A photocopy of the original manuscript is shown.]

Together with the Darwin biographer Jim Moore, I hope to someday do an annotated edition of Darwin’s autobiography.  It would be along the lines of the annotated autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Now that I am in my 70s, I am interested in what it was like for Darwin in his latter years.  I might want to publish something on them, based upon the approach of Daniel Levinson’s Seasons of a Man’s Life (1978).  Levinson stopped at age 65 and his approach needs to be taken to the latter years.
I sense now that Darwin studies are burgeoning more than ever.  His complete correspondence is being published and the second part of a two-volume biography is coming out soon.  An important biography of Darwin the botanist is in the making — it includes insight into some of the areas of his greatest creativity.  When I correspond with other Darwin scholars and they ask me something, I really extend myself and do work for them (which is one reason why I have not written more for Clio).  Of course, the idea of mutual work allows me to ask the same from them.

PHE: How do people in Darwin studies respond to psychohistory?

RC: Scholars in the “Darwin industry” I have known or corresponded with, fall into three groups regarding the use of psychological insights.  Four scholars have used psychological insights in their work, endorse the concept of psychohistory, and have strongly supported my work.  (I never had any contact with John Bowlby whose psychobiography of Darwin I have some disagreements with.)  Two scholars were very interested in discussing Darwin’s illness with me — both obtained copies of my book on the illness but were not interested in psychobiography.  Several scholars are adverse to any psychological explanation and want to remember Darwin for his ideas, not personality.  All of these scholars have greatly aided me in different ways.
All this work makes me more aware of Darwin as a personality in this room [motioning to his Darwin books].  I like to know his manner, his attentiveness in talking to another person, the niceness and sweetness of his disposition, and the animated way he could sometimes talk about topics when his whole face would light up.  In various ways I have found that my own behaviors carry some touches of Darwin.  You tell me how my face often lights up in individual conversation.  I write on the backs of old manuscripts the way he did and I annotate books in his manner, listing the annotations on the book’s front page. 

PHE: [returning the photocopy of the “Diary”]  That “Diary of Health” manuscript is something!  There are all these abbreviations, so you really have to be a Darwin scholar to know this.

RC: The main thing is the “FLT.”  It stands for flatulence, that’s his main symptom.

PHE: How did he feel about flatulence?  Did it trouble him greatly?

RC: Enormously.  It bothered him in a number of ways.  Sometimes the pain was so severe that it interrupted his work.  He said that when he was writing The Origin of Species, because of the pressures of writing, he was never free from flatulence; he had it all the time.  It was embarrassing because it would frequently lead to eructations, or belching, and that would be embarrassing if he was with somebody.  It was very exhausting and he had this symptom for all of his life.

With the special training in surgery and psychiatry that I had, in understanding Darwin’s symptoms I always have to bring myself back to Victorian times and understand that they were really so ignorant of disease.  They didn’t know about bacteria; it was just during Darwin’s lifetime that chloroform anesthesia was invented; and the medical exam was next to nothing.  A doctor listened to the patient, took a history, checked his pulse, maybe listened to his lungs — and that was it.  One major factor in Victorian times that we don’t have now was the depressive weight of religion.  That caused Darwin to suffer feelings of guilt and he adapted to it in many ways.  This point is not original with me — the Darwin scholar Jim Moore has shown it.  In his life at Down, in many ways he took on the identity of a “squarson” — a squire and a country parson.  He took on the duties of a clergyman because he understood them well, having trained to be a clergyman.

PHE: Can you give some examples of what duties he would exercise at Down?  How many years was he there?

RC: He was at Down for his last 40 years, 1842-1882, most of his adult life.  (He died at the age of 72.)  He became friends with one of the clergymen there, who would ask his advice on various problems in the village.  He contributed to the Down school, served as a magistrate viewing legal cases, and formed various clubs, such as the Down Friendly Club in which he advised people on how to look for medical treatment and how to save their money to assure themselves a decent burial.  He contributed to any local charity.  As he made more money from his books and his investments, he became a philanthropist like his father.
There were many philanthropies that Darwin supported.  They are very interesting in what they show about Darwin the de facto clergyman.  He gave to Christian missionary societies in Africa and Tierra del Fuego steadily, throughout his life.  Darwin was a great believer in the civilizing effects of Christianity and the work of Christian missionaries.  Also, he would always give sums of money to people he knew who were in financial difficulties when they wrote to them.  He gave particularly to needy scientists.  When a German scientist in Brazil suffered losses from a flood, Darwin gave him a large sum of money.

PHE: What is the importance of childhood to psychohistory?

RC: It is important but it is not always easy to locate the child in the adult.  Darwin is an example.  John Bowlby argued that Darwin’s failure to mourn the death of his mother when he was eight influenced his later illness.  I think this is questionable.  After eight, Darwin was cared for by his loving sisters who were mother surrogates.  I think a more evident impact on the adult is his early defiance.  He wrote that before he entered a room with his sister Caroline, he said to himself, “‘What will she blame me for now?’ and I made myself dogged so as not to care what she might say.” (Autobiography, p. 22)  I think this early example of his being “dogged” and opposing a person’s command to him is important.

PHE: I think you are right to emphasis this point.  I think it was crucial to his being able to stay with his mission.  Dogged, to me, implies not an open defiance but crouching down like a dog, a passive-aggressive type of defiance which seems to fit his character because he so wanted to please.

RC: His early disobedience partly accounts for his adult trait of defiance in support of unpopular ideas.

PHE: In teaching Darwin, I have always told my students that one of the keys to his drive to success, as well as to his conflict over success as a naturalist, was Charles’ disproving his father’s statement and prophecy: “’You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.’” (Autobiography, p. 28)

RC: I think that is very important.  That was a momentary outburst of his father but the general attitude that the father and sisters had toward him was that he was “a very ordinary boy.”  One of Darwin’s strongest characteristics was his perseverance. Behind that perseverance must have been a mixture of anger and defiance: the feeling that “I am not an ordinary boy.” But behind that defiance was the feeling that deep down he was ordinary, that he was ugly, that he had bunions, and that he was looked on as stupid. “I will show them!”  And he did in his own quiet way.

PHE: In listening to your descriptions of Darwin in relationship to his father, I keep coming back to the many similarities you have with him.  For example, you also deviated from the career plans of your father, as Darwin did when he failed to be either a doctor or clergyman, when you left surgery for psychiatry and scholarship.  Like Darwin you are a non-believer who is quite tolerant of the belief or non-belief of others.  Like him, you prefer one to one conversations and relationships to group relations and discussions.

RC: Yes, you are right on all three counts.  You know quite a bit about me through our friendship and the Psychohistory Forum sessions on the motivations and fathers of psychohistorians at which we both presented in the 1980s and 1990s.

PHE: Some Forum researchers have been struggling with the issue of identification with a particular parent and achievement. RC: I got different things from each parent.  While identifying with my mother’s intellectualism, in deciding to rewrite To Be an Invalid I was influenced by my father’s interest in physical symptoms and the very tough standards he set for his operations, which I believe I carry over to my standards in scholarly writing.  For a man, the father is the main source of manly achievement.

PHE: In your experience, are high achievers more identified with their fathers?

RC: The dozen or so graduate students I have known who have achieved excellence in their careers all had high-achieving fathers.  Many students with high-achieving fathers were inhibited by the scale of their father’s success or, more frequently, had too many conflicts about their success.  Students from economically poor and disadvantaged homes suffered from absence of fathers or from fathers who lacked achievements.  Fathers who were unsuccessful but had fantasies of success were sometimes inspirations to their sons to succeed, especially in cases of a loving father.

PHE: What are some trends in graduate students’ psychodynamics you have observed over the four decades of your career working with them?

RC: A watershed in my work with Columbia University graduate students was the student radicalism of the 1960s, which prompted students to lead a more autonomous campus life.  Some students then sought to define themselves better by entering psychotherapy; other students turned away from therapy by entering groups of women, blacks, or gays; and some combined therapy with being in a group.  In this trend of increased freedom, there were many psychological issues and different kinds of psychotherapy, including: l) issues of identity involving problems of intimacy with another person and of career that often led to years of long-term psychotherapy (Erik Erikson was the one psychotherapist who was something of a hero to graduate students); 2) new techniques of short-term psychotherapy for some students; 3) using new anti-psychotic drugs to successfully treat psychotics (some with hallucinations); 4) successfully treating cases of panic-disorder with new Prozac-type medicines; 5) learning to treat borderline patients with different modalities of psychotherapy and medications, and, when necessary, hospitalizing them for brief periods to prevent self-mutilation and suicide; and 6) treating foreign students which involved learning something of their culture.
My work at Columbia with graduate students leads me to want to publish on these marvelous, bright, aspiring, grad students at their stage of life.  The main difficulty in continuing therapy with them is that they are impecunious.

PHE: You are such a reserved, private, scholarly man, who was raised in a generation when sex was not that talked about in “polite” society, that I am somewhat puzzled by your being a sex therapist.

RC: Training in sex therapy and helping others with their sexual issues allowed me to explore an area that I was not that comfortable with in my earlier life, mostly because I did not have a lot of close contact with teenage boys and young men who spoke freely about sexuality. My own analysis had freed me from many preconceptions and inhibitions.

PHE: What are your observations on women’s sexuality issues over three decades?

RC: A convenient starting point for the many dramatic changes that have occurred are the two books of Masters and Johnson — Human Sexual Response (1966) and Human Sexual Dysfunction (1971) — which showed the great orgasmic potential of women (and discredited Freud’s theory of clitoral and vaginal orgasms).  It brought psychology into sexual dysfunctions (Masters and Johnson’s “conjoint therapy” with both a female and a male therapist) showing that orgasmic dysfunctions can be treated.  The advent of the birth control pill and the vibrator encouraged women to enjoy their sexuality.  I was often impressed when women, who had never had an orgasm, had their first orgasm with a vibrator, and how this first orgasm increased in a lasting way their feelings of self-esteem.  Some women, who cannot have orgasms, have still learned to enjoy having sex because of the feelings of intimacy with their partner that it gives them.  Knowledge of sex has led to some women doing graduate work in aspects of sex in history.  With all this advancement in sexual it is still necessary, when doing psychotherapy with women, to search out underlying, sometimes unconscious, reservations about sex, often from parental attitudes or religious precepts.

PHE: How do you explain the growth and psychology of fundamentalism?

RC: Fundamentalism is an attempt to deny anxieties and uncertainties by reaching for religious certainty. I saw several fundamentalists in my work at Columbia. They were suffering from some of the somatic manifestations of depression such as insomnia, anorexia, and constipation, and had difficulty in breathing. They refused any sort of personality examinations and only wanted medication. Most did well on the newer antidepressants.  I also saw some ex-fundamentalists who had lost their faith and suffered from severe anxiety.  They were helped by insight therapy — uncovering childhood parental influences.

PHE: What are your thoughts on the psychology and psychodynamics of violence in our world?

RC: Of the many different areas where violence is present I have been especially interested in the Balkans — the breakup of the former Yugoslavia — and the chronic, endemic nature of the violence. More psychological studies on nationalism are needed.  In Trotsky’s In Defense of Terrorism, he argues that the ruling class does not want to leave so you have to force it to leave.

PHE: As we meet here in New York City two days after the terrible destruction of the World Trade Center, how do you understand the psychology of terrorism in our world?

RC: There are different forms of terrorism.  Marxist ideologies of class war explain the Lenin-Trotsky “Red Terror” of 1918-1921 and the terror of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.  There is the present-day Arab-Israeli terror with its complex causes including the expulsion of Arabs by Israelis and the occupation of their lands.  (There is the tendency for Israel to become apartheid state.)  There is the Muslim ideology of terror, America as the “Great Satan,” which was just manifested in the terror we saw here earlier this week. As we learn about these suicide bombers, I see the suicide as secondary to the belief in the ideology. They are like soldiers who accept death as part of the job.

Behind Arab feelings towards the West and Israel is the deep wound of displacement.  I have had many contacts with Arab graduate students and Western-educated Arabs who feel they have been dislocated by Israel.  Not one of them can accept Israel.  You cannot give them the Western answer: that it is a tragedy like the struggles in Troy between Achilles and Hector.  They will not accept that.  It is a wrong.  To them the creation of Israel is a wrong that they must right.  They cannot accept it.  The absence of Arab leaders willing to attempt compromise is distressing.  It looks like unending war and terror for the near future.

PHE: I want to conclude with the comment that I think your selection of Charles Darwin as the subject for your medical and psychobiographical research was a wonderful choice for both you and for Darwin scholarship.

RC: Here I am in my old age and Darwin keeps me young.

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