Mel Kalfus: Psychobiographer, Institution Builder, and Survivor

Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College and the Psychohistory Forum

Melvin Kalfus was born in New York City in 1931.  He grew up on Long Island and in Miami and Tucson.  After a 30-year career in advertising (1959-1989), rising to senior vice president of a major New York City ad agency, Kalfus received his PhD in history from New York University in 1988.  He served as International Psychohistorical Association (IPA) President from 1982 to 1984 and Treasurer from 1982-1984 and 1984-1995.  After retiring from advertising, he moved to Boca Raton, Florida, and taught history and psychohistory 1990-1997 at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Lynn University, and since 1996 has taught seniors through the Jewish Federation’s Elderhostel program and FAU’s Lifelong Learning program.  He has been active in the leadership of Congregation B’Nai Israel, Boca Raton, since 1991 and served as President 1995-1999, directing the building of a new three-story school and a chapel.

Kalfus’ major publications include his dissertation rewritten as Frederick Law Olmsted: Passion of a Public Artist (1990) and the article, “Richard Wagner as Cult Hero: The Tannhauser Who Would Be Siegfried” in the Journal of Psychohistory (1984), for which he received the IPA’s Glenn Davis Award. Paul Elovitz interviewed our featured psychohistorian in the fall of 1999. 
Paul H. Elovitz (PHE): Please tell us about your family background.

Melvin Kalfus (MK): My family was Jewish.  Both parents were born in New York City.  Mother’s parents were of Hungarian descent.  Father’s parents were from Silesia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, of Polish-Jewish lineage.  My parents were born and grew up in immigrant poverty on the Lower East Side.  Mother married my father when she was 16, in part she later said, to get away from home and to not have to get a job.  My brother, six years older, and I were born when our parents resided in Brooklyn.  Mother was a homemaker until she was 50, when she fulfilled a girlhood ambition of becoming a nurse, a licensed practical nurse.  Father was a very successful plumbing and heating contractor, specializing in restaurant and hotel work in Manhattan.  Father died when I was 43.  (I did not learn of his death until 3 months afterward; we had been estranged since I was 22.)  Mother died when I was 63.

PHE: What has been the effect of all the moving around your family did — Long Island, Miami, Long Island, Tucson, Long Island, Rosedale?

MK: Actually, my wife Alma and I moved even more often in the first dozen years of our marriage than my family did when I was a kid — mostly in response to my rapid career changes, which suggests a reluctance or inability to “put down roots” as a result of childhood instability and insecurity.  But such moving around can also help some individuals to become flexible, adaptable, and able to deal with change, and possibly less insular.

All the moving around as a child was complicated by illness.  I was born with the whooping cough, which turned into bronchiectasis — a chronic lifelong respiratory condition that today requires I use oxygen equipment around the clock.  A terrible and unnecessary operation when I was five just made it worse.  Put them all together and you have the formula for a good deal of inner rage and pain as well as insecurity.  On the flip side, you also have the evolution of a survivor: what Bowlby says about trauma as healed-over scar tissue.  You can function well enough most of the time, but the scars throb on rainy days.

PHE: You’ve said elsewhere that you hated school when young, yet you went on to get a doctorate and become a teacher.  How do you explain that?

MK: In high school and then undergraduate university at Purdue, I did well at the subjects I liked (English, history, and some math), but my mind and imagination went on “walkabouts” everywhere else (the sciences and engineering mechanics).  But I almost never missed a class or a day of work in later years.  When I went back to school the first time, to Boston University, for an MBA program I didn’t complete, it was for a career advantage.  When I went to NYU for the doctorate in history, it was to pursue something I loved.  Focus and self-discipline were things that came late to me: perhaps after I moved to Hartford at age 24 to start work as a reporter for the Courant, maybe not even until I came to the ad agency at age 36.  After holding seven different jobs in the 12 intervening years, I stayed at the agency for 22 years.

One reason I later identified so strongly with Frederick Law Olmsted was coming across this statement of his, early on, that he wrote when he was 68 (my age now!): “I never before had the question so clearly before me, how such a loitering, self-indulgent, dilettante sort of man as I was when you knew me and for ten years afterward could, at middle age, have turned into such a hard worker and doer as I then suddenly became and have been ever since.”  Of course, I know now that it wasn’t so “suddenly” with him, or with me.  I said in my book that Olmsted’s experience perfectly illustrated Erik Erikson’s concept of a “psychosocial moratorium” — “a period, sometimes lasting many years, during which a young person seeks to find ‘a niche in some section of society’” which will allow him to consolidate and to live in harmony with his sense of identity.  Obviously, I believed that also about myself.

PHE: What psychoanalytic/psycho-therapeutic training and experience have you had?

MK: No formal training.  As part of the doctoral program at New York University (NYU), I was permitted to take courses in the Psychology Department in place of a foreign language requirement.  Took three or four.  But, as an autodidact, I heavily read Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Eric Erickson, Donald Winnicott, and Margaret Mahler, plus subscribed to several journals.  I also purchased second-hand at the Strand Bookstore many copies of that wonderful series, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1945).

I went into therapy in the mid-1970s, in large part to deal with the tremendous stress of the advertising business, but I quickly found I was dealing with issues far beyond that immediate problem.  I believe it was essential to being able to be effective as a psychobiographer and a psychohistorian.  You simply have to have dealt with your own issues to diminish the tendency to impose them on your subjects and end up making your work just another link in your defenses.  Plus, there is nothing like the experience of psychotherapy to enable you to truly grasp the theoretical stuff you have been studying.  What did I really know about the powerful defenses of splitting and transference and projection and denial until I had grappled with them and their effects in therapy?

I also believe that the intense psychotherapy I engaged in between 1985 and 1988 made it possible for me to get myself together after chemotherapy and go on to complete my dissertation, get my doctorate, and publish a book.  And probably also being able to resign from the ad agency, move to Florida, and launch a late-life career change to teaching.

PHE: How do you define psychohistory?

MK: I like your early phrase at the head of Clio’s Psyche:: Understanding the “Why” of Culture, Current Events, History, and Society.  That helps to explain what I think is one of the most valuable traits of a good psychohistorian — an insatiable curiosity.

PHE: What brought you to psychohistory?

MK: I didn’t start out doing psychohistory or psychobiography at NYU.  I started out thinking of a political/intellectual study of John Adams and Edmund Burke, and did a seminar paper on the subject.  While taking another course, I got involved with Frederick Law Olmsted and, for this course, read Laura Wood Roper’s biography, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (1973).  He fascinated me, clearly because I identified with him in so many ways, not the least of which was his self-proclaimed “dilettantish nature” noted above.  At any rate, the Roper biography just whizzed by so many things in his life that raised so many profound psychological questions that I felt a compelling interest in answering and understood I could only answer psychobiographically.  It was while building the background to do it that I discovered the Journal of Psychohistory (recently renamed from the History of Childhood Quarterly, which is what I was looking up in the NYU library) and, through it, the brand-new IPA, and through them both, an absorbing interest in doing psychohistory.

PHE: What books were important to your development?

MK: I’ll answer for my development as a psychobiographer:

  • Erik Erickson: Childhood and Society and Identity, Youth, and Crisis.
  • Donald Winnicott: The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment.
  • Margaret Mahler (et al): The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant.
  • Alice Miller: Prisoners of Childhood.
  • Melanie Klein: Love, Guilt and Reparation.
  • Anthony Storr: The Dynamics of Creation.
  • Harry Guntrip: Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations and the Self.
  • And that wonderful series: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.

To answer this question in its largest sense, I have to return to my childhood as a “sick kid” who spent an inordinate amount of time bedridden.  Books such as Robin Hood, The Hardy Boys, Baseball Joe, and The Saga of Billy the Kid developed, deepened, and enriched my imagination.  Then, in the high school and university years, I was blown away by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms; Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and The Great Gatsby; Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; Dickens’ David Copperfield; Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence; Bellow’s, The Adventures of Augie March; and Farrell’s A World I Never Made.

What all of this created in me was the consuming passion about mythmaking and storytelling, for the richness and variety of the human experience, that is at the heart of both the historical and the psychohistorical imagination.  I don’t know how widely-read today’s would-be psychohistorians are, but it is useful to remember that our discipline is one — and just one — of the humanities.

PHE: Who was important to your development as a student of psychosocial phenomena?  What impact did Erikson have on you?

MK: Of the writers mentioned previously, Winnicott and Erickson had the most influence.  Winnicott’s True Self/False Self, in dynamic interrelationship with “the environment,” has been at the center of a lot of my work.  And I should add the work of Robert Stoller, related to gender development and identity, which I have found so useful to the study of creative people and which has significant psychosocial implications.

Erickson’s influence has been profound in leading me (as he had led so many others) to doing psychobiography and psychohistory.  I doubt that I would have turned to psychobiography to answer the questions I had about Olmsted (after reading Laura Wood Roper’s biography) if I had not first read Erickson.  That, by the way, happened only because my mentor in history, Carl Prince of NYU, assigned Erickson as a part of a class on historiography in 1974.  And reading Erickson first also made me a lot more open to Lloyd deMause’s Foundations of Psychohistory (1982) than I would have been.

PHE: Did you have any mentors in psychohistory?  What special training was most helpful in your doing psychohistorical work?

MK: I had none of a formal nature.  What I had were role models, and through them, places to turn to acquire ad hoc training.  When I began to be interested in psychohistory, David Beisel was both president of the IPA and editor-in-chief of the Journal.  I learned more about doing psychohistory from David than from any other single individual.  He was my editor on two articles important to me [on Olmsted and Wagner], and my encourager in so many ways large and small.  Through my growing friendships with David, you, Henry Lawton, Bernard Flicker, Mel Goldstein, and Lloyd deMause, I became very active in the IPA, the Institute for Psychohistory, and the Psychohistory Forum.

The “special training” I most benefited from was the Saturday morning sessions of the Institute for Psychohistory and the Psychohistory Forum.  In each case, someone would present an excerpt from a work-in-progress.  The work would be critiqued and a gazillion suggestions made by those attending.  These were superb vehicles for learning psychohistory through other people’s projects — but especially for learning by doing (by presenting one’s own projects).  These workshops successfully did what universities try to do with mixed success in their seminars.

PHE: Of which psychohistorical work are you the most proud?

MK: My book on Frederick Law Olmsted.  It has something new and important to say about Olmsted, the sources of his creativity, and the role of his gentry class in 19th century America.  It reflects more than a decade of very careful, very thorough research and writing, and it carefully sets forth solid and ample evidence upon which my findings were based.  Since I was working at the ad agency full-time, I purchased a second-hand microfilm reader on which to go through the 60 reels of Olmsted papers purchased from the Library of Congress, usually from 8 p.m. to 1 or 2 in the morning.

Let me give one small example of how this research paid off.  The previously printed version of a letter Olmsted wrote late in his life has him saying that he felt “giddy” when he thought of the many honors that had been heaped upon him.  When I read the same letter in microfilm, I found that he had written in “giddy” after striking out the word he originally wrote.  He had first written that when contemplating these honors, he felt “guilty.”  Not only is this a very different response, but it is one of the keys to understanding the reparative nature of his work.  And there were many other instances such as this.  Primary research should be as primary as you can make it.

PHE: Your Olmsted book and article on Wagner really impressed me and I think others would like to know more about them.

MK: My work on Olmsted was first published in an article for the Journal of Psychohistory in 1978 and, after my doctoral dissertation was concluded in 1988, as a book from New York University Press in 1990.  The Wagner article appeared in the Journal in 1984.

Both of them proceed from the same point of inquiry: the inner sources that a creative person draws upon in his work.  For Olmsted, the work was, primarily, his role in creating the great urban parks — Central Park in New York, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Franklin Park in Boston.  For Wagner, the work was, clearly, his operas, with special emphasis upon Tannhäuser and the Der Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung).

I was also interested in the process of identity formation — its sources and vicissitudes.  Interestingly, both of these men suffered devastating parental losses and also had been sent away from home during their formative years.  Olmsted, a first-born child, lost his mother when he was not quite four, ten months after the birth of his brother.  From ages 7 to 17, he was sent away from home to rural boarding schools, often under repressive clergymen.  Wagner lost his supposed father during infancy, but gained a wonderful, caring, creative step-father within a year — the man that he and everyone else believed to be his real father (through his mother’s adultery) and which he and many current scholars believed to have been a Jew.  Until age 14, Wagner was known as Richard Geyer.

I suggested that Olmsted’s life was dominated by a need to make reparation to his lost mother — recast as nature — and a need to assimilate the feminine and masculine identities that he had taken into himself and which were apparent in his self-representations.  Wagner’s life, I argued, was dominated by splitting and by a much stronger pull toward feminine identification.  Wagner’s splitting, ominously, was often focused upon the conflict between his German self (Richard Wagner) and his Jewish self (Richard Geyer).

PHE: What are you researching now?

MK: I had been working in three fields: the Civil War; the modern Presidency, especially as related to Jewish issues (mostly FDR but also JFK, Nixon, and Clinton); and Hollywood and the Jews.  But I do hope to continue to publish articles on FDR and on Hollywood (such as “How Hollywood Hid the Holocaust” that I wrote for the December, 1999, issue of Clio’s Psyche).

One of the courses I teach, “The Truth about FDR,” deals with FDR, the Holocaust, Palestine, and the Jews.  The Jewish community at one time worshipped FDR, and now a great many condemn him mightily for American inaction either on Jewish refugees or in reaction to the Holocaust itself: “He knew and he did nothing!!!!”  I think this offers a most important example of the psychohistorical role of the leader.  My interest is in seeing the leader whole, and in the context of his times — un-split, neither idealized nor demonized.  And in seeing the leader as a delegate: shaped by, and shaping, the dominant group fantasies of his time.
PHE: What is it like being a scholar at a distance from the main centers of learning?

MK: It was very tough, even at a time when I could, and did, travel back to New York very frequently.  Being quite limited in my travel now, it is extremely hard.  But this mostly relates to being able to be among my friends and fellow psychohistorians such as Ralph Colp, Dan Dervin, and Howard Stein on a regular basis.  It is so very easy to feel isolated and out of touch down here in Florida.  But there’s the Internet — a life preserver for disabled scholars, and those who live far from the center of the action.  Norman Simms, in your September Cyberspace issue, whetted my appetite for doing far more by way of research and historical/psychohistorical communication via the Net.

PHE: What is the importance of childhood to psychohistory?

MK: It’s fundamental.  How can you do psychohistory without reference to childhood, individually and societally?  Whenever I lecture, I use Alice Miller’s phrase in discussing psychohistorical causality, noting that all of us, including our leaders, are “prisoners of childhood.”  And I give everyday examples of splitting, denial, projection, return of the repressed, etc.  How we learn to operate in the world and deal with people is built upon the matrix constructed in childhood, out of the family circle and all those attached to it, or impacting upon it, for good or ill.  We are burdened with all the unfinished business of childhood, roiling in the unconscious awaiting release through re-enactment, when crisis or emotion pushes us to the wall.

When lecturing on leadership, one of the models I have adopted is that of charismatic leadership, paranoid or reparative.  In this model, a fundamental issue is the Eriksonian psychosocial focus upon the development of basic trust vs. mistrust.  The former makes possible reparative leadership; the latter is the fundamental basis of paranoid leadership.  It is a paradigm that has to be applied to the whole society, not just the leaders themselves.  You can see that this provides a useful way of comparing the leaderships of FDR and Hitler, both of whom came to power in 1933.  This series of lectures, “The Democrat and the Dictator,” begins with their childhoods and with the kinds of childhood that dominated the societies for which they became leader/delegate.  None of this is a novelty to psychohistorians, most of whom are well aware of the pattern of paternal authoritarianism and abuse that pervaded German society.

PHE: How do you view parental influence, identification, separation, and loss?

MK: My work has included both political leadership and creativity, sometimes both in the same individual.  Olmsted, Wagner, Theodor Herzl, FDR, Hitler, Nixon, Clinton, William Tecumseh Sherman, Herbert Graf (“Little Hans”), and Hemingway.  In every case, there are issues with both parents.  But overwhelmingly, separation from the mother is a major issue, and an inner feminine identification is an issue — it must be true of every male who received a smothering love from his mother, or at least an extreme closeness.  In every case I’ve studied, the father was either remote or frequently absent.  What occurred among most, if not all, of these men was an over-valuation, idealization, of masculinity, with a fear that one is not masculine enough combined with a need to suppress one’s inner feminine identifications.  If the individual finds a way to integrate these paternal/maternal, masculine/feminine identifications, the result can be quite positive.  This is where reparative political leadership and reparative creativity comes from as with Olmsted, Herzl, and FDR.
Olmsted always thought of nurturing as feminine, doing as masculine.  His great work (with Calvert Vaux) of Central Park was feminine — pastoral parks are nurturing — but his role was masculine, doing, making it happen as Superintendent and Architect-in-Chief.  When he directed the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, the work of the Commission was nurturing; his role was doing, making it happen.  One could say the same thing about Herzl, a would-be author and playwright, and Zionist.  “The Jewish State” was his greatest play, and he spent his life trying to make it happen.  His banker father was remote; his mother (to whom Judaism was important) was very close and both emotionally domineering of and worshipful of her only son (and only child, after a sister died young).  FDR’s inspiration for his socialistic, welfare-state, “New Deal”-response to the Depression was also feminine.  His austere and remote father died when he was young; his domineering, smothering mother controlled his finances until she died in 1941.

Where the individual is moved to repress all signs of femininity in himself and around himself, including the repression (or abuse) of the women he knows and identifies with, then the outcome can be an obsession with masculinity or stereotypical masculine endeavors and attitudes: aggressive, dominating, even ruthless.  The impact on himself, or his work, or the society around him can be devastating: Hitler, Nixon, and Hemingway offer very different examples of this.  Sometimes there is some integration, but still a lot of problems as with Clinton.

Most of these men were also hit hard by parental loss, some quite early.  There is always an impact, but the nature of the impact varies greatly — idealization of the lost parent with need to make reparation; feelings of abandonment and rage; or a perpetuation of mourning with depressive feelings.  Olmsted, for example, lost his mother when he was almost four, and re-created her in the idealized form of Nature.  When he was eight, Wagner lost the person he believed was his father (and who probably was), a very kind and nurturing man, whom many still believe was Jewish.  Wagner re-created him in a split image: the idealized German father (Wotan in the Ring) and the feared and despised Jewish father (Alberich in the Ring).

PHE: Are high achievers more identified with their fathers?

MK: In my own work and experience, I haven’t seen a pattern that suggests that.  It may simply be a case of either parent, or both, thinking the child is something special, has a great destiny.  I would think that this is more often the mother, but, as in Wagner’s case, it can be the father.  I think the high achiever, especially the creative achiever, identifies with both parents.  But, it’s always the father who offers the target to be surpassed.

In my own case, I was a child with a severe, chronic illness.  As such, I was quite dependent upon my mother.  She probably had a vested interest in having a sick child (it got her away from my father twice).  She was very encouraging and believed in me and made me believe in myself, always preaching that I could do anything I wanted to strongly enough, and that everything was open to me.  And she was adventurous and independent, and very, very smart.

My father was an interesting man.  In his lectures to us — and he always lectured, never spanked or hit — he always sold the macho male line.  He had it in his mind that his role should be authoritarian, a disciplinarian.  He urged us to be tough, and he hated it when I cried (and I cried often and easily — “Oh God, here come the tear ducts again,” he’d say).  But, in fact, my father was kind, generous, gentle, and comradely.  I never saw him acting belligerent or coming anywhere close to a physical confrontation.

When I was in my early teens and my parents were headed for a break-up and then finally separated for good, I was the intermediary, carrying the messages (usually about money) back and forth, or trying, when they were together, to prevent the explosions that were going to come anyway.  Those three or four years, 13-17, certainly stood in the way of idealizing either one of them, and helped me to see them as all too human.  (And, it was pretty good training for dealing with clients in my ad agency days — it undoubtedly played a role in my tendency to take the mediator’s role, to be a consensus-builder.)

Of course, my parents were both, in their own ways, enormous influences on me.  The funny thing is that I still take delight in all the ways, large and small, that I “take after” my father.  He used to take great pleasure in his large success in the small community of New York City construction trades.  And he urged that on me as an example of what I should aim for in life: “It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, than a little fish in a big pond.”  After I was elected president of Congregation B’Nai Israel, standing alone in the sanctuary in front of his yahrzeit [memorial] plaque, I said: “Look at me, Dad — just like you said, a big fish in a very small pond.”
PHE: As someone who has attended every International Psychohistorical Association meeting  and served in almost every office, I know as an insider that you did a first rate job as its president, vice president, and treasurer.  Please comment on your contributions to IPA organization-building, especially the issue of fiscal soundness.

MK: We certainly pursued a rather single-minded policy of achieving fiscal soundness as well as organizational stability and continuity during my years as president from 1980-1982 and the decade or more afterwards that I was treasurer.  But I was following and elaborating upon a direction first set by Bernard Flicker, the third IPA president (1978-1980); the Executive Board; and myself as treasurer.

When I became president, we established short- and long-range goals for the organization itself.  We concluded that we had two fundamental activities to finance in the pursuit of maintaining a community of psychohistorians.  The first of these was the annual three-day convention — the only opportunity then in existence for large numbers of psychohistorians to come together, to present their work, to critique and encourage the work of others, and to bond with one another.  The second crucial activity was to provide a first-rate newsletter, published at least twice a year, which would allow all those members who could not make it to the convention to keep up with what was happening in the organization.  We also wanted to create programs that would encourage people, especially students and women, to do psychohistory.

To make all this possible, we needed to build a solid and enduring financial base.  And this meant, above all, following Bernard’s basic strategy of strengthening the annual convention as our principal source of income.  We increased the membership and convention fees modestly to be more nearly in line with the fees of other organizations and we staged our conventions in academic settings to hold costs to a minimum.  These strategies proved to be quite successful over time.  Later on, we were able to invest our reserve funds and generate some additional income.  To further advance the goal of achieving financing stability, I spent a great deal of time getting the IRS to grant us tax-free status.

I certainly believe that my own approach to “managing” various IPA activities was heavily influenced by my prior business experience.

PHE: Your background in business interests me because you are one of a number of talented psychohistorians — Lloyd deMause, Sid Halpern, and Eli Sagan, for example — who came from business rather than academia or the consultation room.  How did the business background effect your acceptance in the field, your thinking, and your work?

MK: I suspect it had positive effect insofar as being so quickly accepted into the leadership of the IPA, certainly insofar as what others felt I had to offer organizationally.  Both my engineering education as an undergraduate and my business experience were of some value in developing an approach to problem-solving.  The nature of my business experience — both marketing-oriented and client-oriented — also sharpened my attention to human behaviors and attitudes.  The pragmatic approach to decision-making fostered by business needs is also probably a useful form of reality-testing that has to benefit any psychohistorian.  Some blue-sky is great for creativity; too much blue-sky can lead to disaster.  Also, if you have had a business career, you are less likely to either demonize or idealize the businessman, especially the successful businessman (a particular hazard for this academic psychohistorian whose own father was a successful businessman).

PHE: Tell us about your career as teacher.

MK: Taken as a whole, it has been great.  I taught undergraduates for a few semesters at Florida Atlantic University and for more than six years at Lynn University, both in Boca Raton.  My last year, I taught on a very reduced schedule before retiring in 1997.  The head of the department did ask if I would be interested in joining the faculty full time in 1994 or 1995, but I had to decline because it was becoming clear that my physical problems were increasing.

Even though the income situation was exploitative, I enjoyed teaching at Lynn as long as they gave me the chance to teach advanced courses — seminar courses.  These were usually history students that I’d had already in two or three classes, and they were usually my best students.  These were the students I introduced psychohistory to in seminars such as “Totalitarianism and the Holocaust” and “Comparative Political Systems.”  These were the motivated, highly responsive kids and it was a joy to teach them.
In 1996, a friend of mine asked me to do a couple of Elderhostel sessions, and I loved it.  A highly motivated, highly involved group of 50-60 seniors, very responsive.  They actually wanted to be there.  And no tests or term papers!  And I got to teach only subjects that interested me!  And, cumulatively, the pay was actually a little better!  Heaven!  The next year I also taught in FAU’s Lifelong Learning Program.

Seniors in both Elderhostel and LLP have been very open to psychohistorical ideas and concepts.  In fact, most are anxious to be exposed to new ideas, new ways of looking at things, especially familiar things.  And they love to study the events and leaders and culture of their own lifetimes.  There are, of course, a few seniors who are quarrelsome or negative, or who make speeches instead of asking questions — but I have found them to be very few and easy to deal with.  The courses have to be lively and entertaining, as well as informative — we laugh a lot in my classes.  I will miss Elderhostel very much when I have to give it up entirely as my physical limitations increase.  But maybe I’ll then begin doing more writing!

PHE: Your reference to your physical limitations reminds me that at the wonderful party in 1988 where you celebrated earning your doctoral degree, I had the pleasure of sitting at a table with members of your cancer support group who were a terrific bunch of people.  This had special meaning to me since I had greatly admired your courage in facing this disease and in accomplishing so much since first having to confront it.  Would you be willing to talk about your health and what you learned psychohistorically in the course of your struggles to restore or maintain it?

MK: My bronchial illness had proved to be only a minor handicap during my working career, up to 1984 (when I was 53).  I had great energy and was able to work the long hours that advertising agency work demanded, as well as pursue other interests.  But clearly I was greatly overdoing it.  My immune system likely suffered from stress and from fatigue and I developed cancer (lymphoma), detected reasonably early.  The oncologist said that the next year would be the worst of my life, and he was right.  I have always viewed myself as a survivor (bronchiectasis and my dysfunctional family), and I was fortunate enough to survive this bout with cancer.  But there was a price.  The very aggressive chemotherapy we pursued severely worsened my respiratory problems.

The greatest impact of this experience upon my life has been a progressively greater inner pressure to use my remaining years, and my talents, in ways that truly mattered to me.  My Judaism was one of the driving forces in reassessing where I wanted to go with my life.  But — and this was important to my doing of psychohistory — I also drew great inspiration from Donald Winnicott’s writings on the True Self and False Self and the danger of allowing the demands of the False Self to take over one’s life.  “Only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real,” Winnicott wrote.  And, after cancer (and renewed psychotherapy), I put a “full-court press” on completing my doctorate and bringing my ad agency career to an end.  If I’m a survivor, I want to be a survivor with a worthwhile purpose in life, pursuing goals that I truly value.
Confronting the reality of one’s mortality certainly throws into clear focus all that one regrets in one’s life, the misuse of time, the hurts and bruises inflicted, etc.  And that, for me, underlined the sense of making reparation.  In Reform Judaism, great emphasis is placed upon the concept of tikkun olam, of being G_d’s surrogate’s in “repairing the world.”  I would like to believe that my psychohistorical work after surviving cancer was deeper, richer, and more focused than it was, or could have been, beforehand, and that this was true of all the other aspects of my life.

PHE: Has psychohistory helped in understanding your strong Jewish identity?

MK: Therapy, perhaps; psychohistory, not much that wasn’t there to begin with.  My Jewish identity was always strong.  How could it not be?  The two years in Tucson, followed by eight in Rosedale, were immersions in very palpable anti-Semitism.  And I was always a G_d-centered kid.  I had somehow learned the Shema very young, the only “prayer” I knew — but somehow it was sufficient (dayenu!).  I began to become a serious Jew at 24, after reading Ludwig Lewisohn’s wonderful books, The Island Within (1928) and The American Jew (1950).  I followed his road map in the latter: learning Hebrew; giving up the tref [unclean] foods — pork and shellfish; affiliating with a synagogue; and reading books.  My name is on the charter for the first Jewish congregation to be formed in the more than 300 years of history of Sudbury, Massachusetts.
If anything, I think my understanding of Judaism helps me to be a better psychohistorian.  The sages taught that every human being possesses a yetzer ha-tov and a yetzer ha-rah, an impulse to do good and an impulse to do evil — and that we spend our lives in choosing between the two, actively and passively.  Further, Judaism understands doing good to be life-affirming and doing evil to be life-destroying (“See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil….  Therefore, choose life”).  I think this is a pretty good context for doing psychohistory.

PHE: What are your thoughts on fundamentalism, terrorism, and violence?

MK: There probably isn’t a psychohistorian who doesn’t believe that you cannot eliminate violence and terrorism until you eliminate poverty and massive abuse of children by parents and society.  If you raise children who are loaded with rage, have nothing to lose, and can easily acquire devastating destructive technology, what else can you expect?  How much of the world today, of our own American society today, is locked into the paranoid-schizoid position, feeding on hatred of the other — that split-off part of the self that needs to be annihilated?  Are these youngsters not candidates ripe for recruiting to gangs, militia groups, and terrorist organizations?

I set great store by the Kleinian/Win-nicottian concepts of the development of the child (and, for me, society) through the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position (achieved slowly and painfully).  In the depressive position, the child (and society) has achieved a better grip on object relations, splitting is greatly reduced (but certainly not eliminated), and cooperation, consensus, and reparation become possible.  This is akin to Erikson’s concept of maturing enough to form “basic trust.”  It is my belief that democracy, compromise, tolerance, and peace-making only become possible in a society dominated by individuals who have matured at least to the depressive position.

PHE: What training should a person entering psychohistory today pursue?

MK: Training in the historical method should come first.  Then, if affordable, psychoanalytic education/training later has got to be extraordinarily helpful.  It is imperative that psychohistorians have experienced psychotherapy themselves.  They should read the psychohistory publications, back issues, too, and stop trying to reinvent the wheel.  It always drove me nuts at IPA conventions to have papers read on a particular subject that never cited any of the work already done on that subject by our leading IPA scholars.

PHE: What do we as psychohistorians need to do to strengthen our work?

MK: Be rigorous in our standards of what is and is not psychohistory, and in the quality of psychohistorical work, the integrity of psychohistorical argument.  It is hard to build a profession upon work that is based upon wild speculation and unsupported “findings.”  It is also hard to respect work that seems to be in the service of a political agenda.  Good psychohistory, as with any other discipline, is hard work and we have every right to expect that the hard work be done.

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

MK: The answer has got to be the Internet, which alone can make our work truly international.  We need all the Web pages and online publications we can get, of course.  But even more, we have to be online ourselves, posting our message to mailing lists and newsgroups, with invitations to visit our Web sites.  What a great way to bring new people into the orbit of psychohistory, especially considering how much into the Web college students are.

PHE: What are your recommendations concerning the problem of new leadership for the IPA and psychohistory in general?

MK: I remember it was a problem that confronted us when I was IPA president, and that was more than 15 years ago — we always seemed to be drawing upon the same small group of people and failed to persuade some other very talented people to become more actively involved.  I’d like to see a sort of mentoring system.  I remember David Beisel, Jerry Atlas, and you as being very good at this, back when I was heavily involved in the IPA.  Each one of the existing leaders could identify and nurture potential leadership recruits.  We could also hold “leadership training” seminars and meetings, which people are nominated to attend.
The Internet offers a great opportunity to the IPA and the Forum for recruitment and for involvement.  Members and officers can now easily be from anywhere in the U.S., or the world!  Why can’t Board meetings take place online?  Why can’t there be discussions and referenda on issues that concern all members online?  Convention and work-in-progress papers should be available online.  I just can’t imagine a more exciting way to recruit members and develop leaders than to permit interested people to dialogue with leading psychohistorians from all over the world.  If Erik Erikson were alive today, he’d be online.

PHE: How can we psychohistorians have more impact in academia and on society in general?

MK: What is there to do but keep on writing, preaching to the converted, and jumping at every opportunity for a wider audience, even if it’s only a letter to the editor?  As psychohistorians, do we not believe that we will not influence people until they are ready to be influenced?  But when they are ready, we still have to be there: writing, teaching, lecturing, debating, or whatever.

PHE: What has been the influence of psychotherapy, psychohistory, and psychobiography on you as a man and on your world-view?

MK: I am not sure that my world-view has changed at all since my 20s.  I am now, as I always have been, an unreconstructed New Deal/Fair Deal Democrat and serious about Judaism.  But maybe my commitment to these concepts has also been deepened along the way.

Therapy helped me to confront the power of the repressed, the irrational in my own life — and the destructive and self-defeating behaviors stemming from it — and, empathetically, in others, in society.  To understand the sources of your own creativity, ambition, needs for love and affection and acceptance, enables you to understand them, empathetically, in the lives of others.

I think that I am far more tolerant and accepting now than I was before therapy began all those years ago (in 1976), more willing to let rage and resentment pass quickly and harmlessly, and move on.  I have burnt many bridges in my time, and helped to build many walls.  In recent years I have tried to rebuild some bridges and tear down some walls.  I lay much of that to therapy, as well as to aging, to surviving — it all goes together.  I think I am a much better husband, father, and friend now than before — though there is still much room for improvement.

The demons still stalk the corridors of the unconscious, but they have names now and they can even be taken out into the sunlight every now and then for an airing.  When I do act on my anger, I hope that it is because more often than not the anger is directed at the right things — at meanness and indecency and hatefulness and exploitation.  My wife says I’m a lot more patient — even when driving — but, again, there’s room for improvement — especially when driving!

I must say that doing psychohistory and psychobiography — especially in my later years, after all I’ve experienced and survived — has deepened my respect for those who have struggled for decency and kindness and cooperation and compromise in life, and has deepened also my own wish to be remembered as one of them.

Go Back to Interview Index