Kenneth P. Gorelick, Psychiatrist, Advocate of Poetry Therapy, Dies in Md. at 67

Dr. Kenneth Gorelick founded the Bibliotherapy Training Program at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Dr. Kenneth Gorelick founded the Bibliotherapy Training Program at St. Elizabeths Hospital. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

Kenneth P. Gorelick, who died of brain cancer June 8 at his home in Washington, was a psychiatrist, essayist, professor, poet and poetry therapist, to mention just a few of his many interests. An abbreviated version of his curricula vitae ran to 10 pages.

In May, Dr. Gorelick, who was 67, was featured in Washingtonian magazine, talking about his transformation from physician to patient as he battled the malignancy that would take his life. He recounted what the experience taught him that he could pass along to medical students.

"He knew how upsetting this diagnosis was," Dr. Gorelick said of his neurosurgeon, Dr. Henry Brem of Johns Hopkins Medical Center. "He said, 'I'm very sorry.' It is such a simple thing, but oddly enough, very few doctors say that. They express medical knowledge and professional concern. But it's not the same thing. . . .

"As a physician, if you can't offer something curative, you have a feeling of helplessness. That is difficult to handle. Nobody likes to feel helpless. Under those circumstances, doctors want to feel they've offered you all that they can, and then they want to get out," Dr. Gorelick told the Washingtonian.

That insight and others came from more than 37 years of private psychiatric practice, nearly as much time as a clinical supervisor at St. Elizabeths Hospital and years of teaching at George Washington University School of Medicine.

Born in Paterson, N.J., to Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked in the family bakery where he learned a phrase that served him throughout his life: "How may I help you?" He graduated from Rutgers University and after Columbia, Yale and Harvard medical schools all accepted him, he delayed making a choice and accepted a Fulbright fellowship to Bordeaux, France, to study French language and literature.

After he returned to the United States, he received a medical degree from Harvard in 1967. He interned in San Francisco, then returned to Harvard to teach while completing his residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

At St. Elizabeths, he became interested in the use of literature, particularly poetry, as therapy. With Sister Arlene Hynes, he set up the first standardized training curriculum for poetry therapy, founded the Bibliotherapy Training Program at St. Elizabeths and served as its co-director and clinical supervisor. Dr. Gorelick was the director of continuing medical education for the D.C. Commission on Mental Health Services for 20 years, until 1999. He also co-directed the National Association for Poetry Therapy's Wordsworth Center for Poetry Therapy Training from 1994 to 2007

He was fascinated by the history of the nation's first federally funded mental health hospital. He founded its historical museum and often lectured on the topic, telling one workshop in 2005 that "St. Elizabeths was bedeviled by having to do too much for too many with too little."

Diane Allerdyce, president of the poetry therapy association, said in a phone interview that Dr. Gorelick had "a very generous spirit, very affable . . . He was an openhearted person who was unassuming and made people feel completely at home and comfortable. He had an uncanny ability to recognize a person's spirit, their authentic self. He really just met you where you were."

His marriage to Linda Eisenberg ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of seven years, Cheryl Opacinch Gorelick of Washington; and a sister.

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