Alfred C. Kinsey
A Public/Private Life
By James H. Jones
Chapter One: "The Lot of the Boy in the City"
In August 1956, Alfred Charles Kinsey, the world's most famous sex researcher, lay dying. Pneumonia had put him in the hospital, but heart disease had been grinding him down for decades. The last few years had been particularly nasty, as he waged his losing battle against chest pains, shortness of breath, and fluid buildup in his lungs, the classic symptoms of congestive heart failure. This is not a gentle death, and Kinsey was suffering greatly.
Yet far greater than his physical pain was the torment that had gripped his soul. Things had not gone well for Kinsey since 1953 when his portrait had appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Sales of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), his Long-awaited sequel to Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), had been disappointing; a congressional committee had investigated his research and all but accused him of being a Communist; the Rockefeller Foundation, his financial patron, had withdrawn its support; and financial problems were threatening to close his beloved Institute for Sex Research.
The prospect of seeing his lifework destroyed was more than Kinsey could bear. For nearly two decades, he had devoted himself to sex research, working at a feverish pace and with a single-mindedness that left everyone who knew him in awe. Together, he and his coworkers had interviewed over 18,000 people, compiling more data on human sexual behavior than any scientists before them. This was the public part of his research, the work known to the world.
Privately, Kinsey had always been more than a fact-finder. He was a social reformer, a man who waged with fanatical consistency his own private war against sexual repression and hypocrisy. Always he had been sustained by the belief that he would win. Once people learned the facts about human sexual behavior, he reasoned, they would jettison guilt and embrace their sexuality with abandonment and joy. By 1956, however, Kinsey was a broken man. He had come to despair of victory, believing he had failed to produce significant changes in the sexual attitudes, mores, and laws of the United States.
Why had Kinsey cared so passionately and worked so hard all those years? The answer lies in his private life, in the fearful things he had kept hidden from the world. Kinsey was a man with secrets, a man whose stupendous guilt had combined with his puritan work ethic to produce his spring-coil vitality. Beginning with childhood, Kinsey had lived with two shameful secrets: he was both a homosexual and a masochist. He had not asked to be either, and he had spent his life deeply conflicted on both accounts. Yet Kinsey understood firsthand how difficult it was to change, and he knew better than to expect sympathy or understanding from society. In order to help himself, he would have to help others. Thus, his messianic crusade to reform the world that oppressed him.
Kinsey's guilt about his sexuality was hardly unique. It mirrored, albeit in exaggerated form, the sexual tensions and anxieties of his generation. Many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Protestants, middle-class, and small-town Americans felt anxious and guilty about sex. They simply could not reconcile their culture's demands for moral rectitude with their own sexual needs and desires. To understand how Kinsey's complex character was formed, our search should begin with his childhood, for it was then that he developed his love for science and first took up the heavy burden of self-criticism.
* * *
Flowers. As objects of beauty, they are supposed to make people happy, but they made Alfred Charles Kinsey sad. Not all flowers, to be sure. Only those that had grown in his family's tiny yard in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he spent the first ten years of his life. "He disliked Hoboken and everything connected with it," Clara Kinsey, his wife, later told an interviewer, "even the flowers that grew in the garden they had in their small backyard." As an adult, Kinsey became an ardent gardener, but he would not permit marigolds, zinnias, or wisteria in his yard--the flowers his parents had grown in Hoboken. While his reaction was truly visceral, it was not the flowers he loathed but the childhood memories they triggered. Not that he dwelled on these years, for Kinsey believed that bad memories should be suppressed. As an adult, he advised young people "to learn the art of weighing down unprofitable things in our thoughts." Referring specifically to unwanted memories, Kinsey added, "We may not be responsible for the birds (memories) that fly over our heads but we can keep them from roosting in our hair."
After he gained world fame as a sex researcher, Kinsey received numerous inquiries about his past. People wanted to know his birthday, where he had been born, the names of his ancestors, whether he was married and had children, and even intimate details about his sex history. For a man who had become a celebrity by invading other people's privacy, he guarded his own with cool determination.
Many of the inquiries came from people who wondered if they might be related. In response, Kinsey revealed only the barest details about his family. Mostly, he talked about genealogy, telling one would-be relative that Kinsey was the English version of the Scottish name MacKinsey and that his forebears had crossed the ocean with the Quaker William Penn, who founded Philadelphia. Indeed, he maintained that all present-day Kinseys living in the United States could trace their ancestry back to the three brothers who accompanied Penn. Nor was Kinsey above claiming distinguished personages for his family tree. He boasted that one of the original three brothers became a famous jurist in New Jersey, while other Kinseys rose to the office of state treasurer in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania during colonial times.
Here he must have been repeating family lore, for he offered no genealogical evidence to prove his ancestry. According to Kinsey, descendants of the three brothers who helped found Pennsylvania eventually moved out of Philadelphia into other parts of the country. One group moved to New Jersey and New York, another to Indiana and Ohio, and still a third to San Francisco.
Both truth and error attended Kinsey's version of history. Men who bore his family name had indeed been important leaders in colonial days. John Kinsey (1693-1750), a brilliant Quaker lawyer, politician, and jurist, was elected the speaker of the New Jersey assembly before moving to Philadelphia, where he enjoyed even greater success, serving at different times as speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly, attorney general of the province, and chief justice of the supreme court of Pennsylvania. His son, James Kinsey (1731-1803), also compiled a distinguished record of public service, following his father into the law, winning election to the Continental Congress, and serving as chief justice of New Jersey's supreme court.
By the end of the American Revolution, scores of Kinseys lived in what became the northeastern United States, but Alfred Charles Kinsey's belief that all modern-day Kinseys derived from three Pennsylvania brothers was mistaken. Numerous Kinseys immigrated from the British Isles directly to the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and many more followed in the nineteenth. Nevertheless, two (not three) Kinsey brothers did accompany William Penn on his journey to Pennsylvania in 1682, and it is possible (although by no means certain) that Alfred Charles Kinsey descended from one of them.
Because he seldom spoke of his childhood, Kinsey's silence allowed others to speculate about his background. Before he became world famous, many of his graduate students at Indiana University had the distinct impression that Kinsey came from a well-to-do family. Perhaps it was his eastern accent, his educational pedigree (Bowdoin College undergraduate, Harvard University graduate school), and his intimidating knowledge of classical music, or maybe it was the stiff, formal bearing he often displayed. Whatever the explanation, many people found Kinsey cool and aloof, every inch a portrait of old money, with more than a sliver of ice in his heart. One of his former graduate students complained of Kinsey's "upper-class arrogance."
The truth of the matter was that Kinsey's immediate ancestors, who hailed from the New Jersey branch, were plain folks whose lives paralleled those of millions of working-class families. Theirs was a tale of ordinary people in search of work, migrating from villages to towns, towns to cities, and, finally, into the orbit of the great metropolis. Kinsey's paternal great-grandfather was Charles M. Kinsey. He was listed in the 1850 census as a carpet weaver in Bergen County, New Jersey. Charles, forty-five, was married to "Margaret C.," two years his junior. Their household consisted of six children, including their youngest, Benjamin, age two. The family apparently managed to get by on Charles's wages as a craftsman, for in an era in which child labor was not uncommon, none of the older children was put to work full-time. According to census records, all of the Kinsey children over the age of three (including the girls) had attended school within the year preceding the census.
Two decades later found Charles living in the same small town and still working as a carpet weaver, the trade he plied well into his seventies. In 1870, his real estate was valued at $1,700 and his personal effects at $300. In sum, Alfred Charles Kinsey's paternal great-grandfather was an ordinary fellow who held to his trade, who owned little beyond the means of survival, and who saw to the schooling of his children but could pass little on to them in the way of advanced education, land, a monetary inheritance, or a family business.
The same could be said about Alfred Charles Kinsey's paternal grandfather, Benjamin Kinsey. Throughout his long life, Benjamin's economic footing remained precarious, and he never managed to rise above his meager legacy. Duplicating the experience of so many other working-class youths in the nineteenth century, he married at an early age and abandoned the small farming community of his childhood to seek employment in the city. At some point in the early 1870s, Benjamin left Mendham and lived briefly in Ralston, before moving to Hoboken, across the river from New York City, where he spent the rest of his life in the shadow of America's greatest metropolis. In 1870, the census listed his occupation as "wheelwright"--certainly not a job with great prospects in an age of increasing industrialization. In subsequent years, he worked as a carpenter, chair maker, "huckster," and cabinetmaker. Not until 1888 did he obtain employment as a foreman, the job he maintained until old age forced him to retire.
In the late 1860s, Benjamin Kinsey married Margaret Seguine, the daughter of Alfred and Renzila Seguine, a working-class couple whose residences had fluctuated between New York and New Jersey. As often happened among members of the working class, the marriage between Benjamin and Margaret led to an economic alliance between their families. By 1873, Alfred and Benjamin had opened their own business in Hoboken, "Seguine & Kinsey, Wheelwrights," on the corner of Ferry and Garden Streets. Two years later, the business dissolved, and Alfred found work as a laborer, while Benjamin returned to carpentry. Despite the failed business, Benjamin and Margaret Kinsey remained in Hoboken, where their growing family must have pinched their meager resources. Their first child, Alfred Seguine Kinsey, named in honor of Margaret's father, arrived on February 18, 1871, shortly before the family moved from Mendham to Hoboken. A second son followed two years later, joined within a span of eight years by two daughters and a third son. Of all the children, Alfred, the firstborn, became the most successful.
A self-made man and proud of it, Alfred Seguine Kinsey started at the bottom and worked his way up. His father, Benjamin Kinsey, like his father before him, could do no more than earn a living for his large family. His six children all attended primary school, but their prospects for additional education were bleak. Thus, when a job for a shop boy opened at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, Benjamin jumped at the opportunity to place his fifteen-year-old son, Alfred, in this position. Alfred Seguine Kinsey would spend the next fifty-five years at the Stevens Institute.
In gaining his son an apprenticeship at the Stevens Institute, Benjamin Kinsey had the boy's best interest at heart. Manufacturing and industry had come of age in America. The new aristocrats among skilled workers were the machinists and the tool-and-die men who made and repaired the machines that kept the wheels of industry turning. As a shop boy, Alfred would have to pay his dues. At first he would sweep floors, clean machinery, and perform other menial tasks, but gradually he would also be taught to operate and repair the machines. Over time, he could reasonably hope to become a senior mechanic, a trade that would guarantee lifelong employment in a society that depended upon technology.
The machine shop was housed in the main building on campus, a three-story structure erected in 1881. The first floor contained various laboratories, the second floor the woodshop and the newly formed Department of Applied Electricity, and the third-floor classrooms and offices for the professors. As the son of a wheelwright turned carpenter, Alfred was well prepared for the woodshop. It was equipped with the usual assortment of small tools--wood lathes, wood-planing machines, band and circular saws, mortising machines, and the like. Here he remained for four years.
From his first day on the job, April 12, 1886, Alfred Seguine Kinsey set his sights high. In Hoboken's city directory for 1886-87, he listed his occupation as "machinist," a considerable inflation of his job as a shop boy. In the years to come, he repeated this practice again and again. At every stage of his climb to the middle class, he exaggerated his actual vocation to a higher status.
Endowed with a fierce desire to make something of himself, Alfred Seguine Kinsey wanted to escape the blue-collar world of his father by becoming a mechanical engineer. To achieve upward mobility, he confronted daunting challenges. He would have to earn the respect of his supervisors through hard work and diligent service, learn everything he could on the job, and somehow manage to advance his meager education. He moved forward on all fronts simultaneously. Blessed with great mechanical aptitude, he quickly learned all there was to know about the machines in the woodshop, and he impressed his supervisors as bright and hardworking. And most important for his future, from 1886 to 1890 he commuted across the Hudson to night classes at the Cooper Institute (later renamed Cooper Union), located on New York's Lower East Side.
That he was able to live at home with his parents helped financially, but it could not have been easy to work all day, commute to Manhattan, and attend evening classes. Still, he persevered, for he needed all the education he could get. By the late nineteenth century, the professional standards of colleges and universities across the United States were rising rapidly. People without college degrees held few positions on college faculties, and the days when a bright B.A. could hope to teach at the college level had all but passed. In fact, the better schools refused to consider anyone who did not have graduate training. Owing to the rapid growth in college enrollments and the relative shortage of college teachers, many schools had to settle for candidates with master's degrees, but the strongest institutions recruited faculty who had earned their doctorates. The Stevens Institute was no exception.
Alfred Seguine Kinsey was not without advantages. Added to his ambition and fierce work ethic, his four years of study at the Cooper Institute had given him a leg up on other workmen. Furthermore, he was lucky. His career at the Stevens Institute got a boost at several key junctures from fortuitous developments that would enable a former shop boy to join the ranks of the faculty.
From its founding, the Stevens Institute, in the words of one of its graduates, "emphasized a hands-on approach to the practical world of machines." During their freshman year, students had to learn how to make wood patterns in the woodshop, ram greens and molds into which molten iron was poured in the foundry, and cut castings to practical dimensions and specifications in the machine shop--jobs that fell within the domain of the Department of Shop Practice. In 1890, Alfred Seguine Kinsey was named an assistant instructor of shop work, a promotion that probably came as a reward for completing his studies at the Cooper Institute. True, his position occupied the gray area between manual arts and professional training, but no other department at the Stevens Institute offered a man of his background any chance of advancement. Since "shop" was required of all freshmen, his promotion to an assistant instructorship gave him a toehold in college teaching, and this set him apart from his fellow shop boys.
Having crossed the line from blue-collar shop boy to white-collar college teacher, Alfred Seguine Kinsey was determined to continue to improve his status. To compensate for his lack of academic credentials, he needed to acquire practical experience that would enhance his value to the Stevens Institute. His big break came in 1891, the year he transferred to the Department of Tests. There he was selected by Professor James Edgar Denton to serve as his assistant, beginning an apprenticeship that would last more than a decade. As luck would have it, "Jimmie D.," as he was known affectionately to his colleagues and students, was the ideal mentor. Not only did Denton hold a chair in mechanical engineering, but he himself had been upwardly mobile, which predisposed him to look with favor on ambitious, working-class youths.
From 1891 to 1902, Alfred Seguine Kinsey worked side by side with Jimmy D., learning mechanical engineering firsthand through on-the-job experience. Because his expertise was remarkably diverse, Denton's services were in great demand, assuring his assistants broad training in commercial engineering. Most of their assignments involved testing machinery for private industries, and over the years they performed tests "on boilers, pumping stations, electric plants, private yachts, ferryboats, ocean liners, locomotives, gas plants, artificial refrigeration, lubrication of machinery, metal cutting coolants, early Curtis turbines and the first Diesel motors." Of necessity, the work involved constant travel, because it was "not only done at Stevens, but all over the United States and in Europe."
Thanks to his position with Jimmy D., Alfred Seguine Kinsey gained enough financial security to wed. On February 19, 1892, one day after his twenty-first birthday and a year and a half after becoming Denton's assistant, he married Sarah Ann Charles, a quiet, soft-spoken woman, two years his senior. The Reverend Charles R. Barnes performed the ceremony in the parsonage of the First Methodist Church in Hoboken, the church that would serve as the focal point of the Kinseys' spiritual lives for the next thirteen years.
Sarah Charles's background is obscure. Her father was Robert Charles, a Welshman born in 1840, who immigrated to the United States as a boy. In 1860, he married a Welsh immigrant named Elizabeth, also twenty. They resided in Maryland until 1863 and then headed west, finding little success but pausing long enough to have children at regular intervals along the way. Their fourth child and third daughter, Sarah Ann Charles, Alfred Charles Kinsey's mother, was born in 1869 in Colorado.
The Charles family's trek to the Great American West earned an honored place in family folklore. In his high school biology textbook, An Introduction to Biology (1926), Alfred Charles Kinsey included a story about his grandmother's life as a pioneer. "Nine long months it took to cross the prairies and plains, and the deserts and the mountains, moving in ox-drawn prairie schooners," he wrote. "Then in time they toiled over the rugged Wasatch and down through the canyons and out into a veritable 'Land of Promise,' the valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah. Here they planted their crops."
Although the Charles family did settle in Salt Lake City, there is no evidence, other than Kinsey's story, that Robert Charles worked the land. According to another family legend, he became a printer after he reached Salt Lake City, where he was later killed by an Indian. Still another version has him working as a carpenter on the Mormon temple. In the 1880 census, Charles listed his occupation as "smelter," but also stated he had been unemployed for the past year. In all likelihood, he went west to work in the mining communities, where smelters would be needed, then adopted a variety of trades out of sheer necessity, including, perhaps, those of carpenter and printer. The Kinseys' Salt Lake City neighborhood, North Temple, contained many families of similar background--English, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants who listed their occupations as plasterer, painter, ice peddler, or blacksmith.
Whatever his vocation, Robert Charles needed work to feed his large family. By 1880, he had two sons and four daughters. The family must have been struggling financially, for the census that year reveals that none of the Charles children had attended school the preceding year. At some point during the 1880s, the Charles family moved back East. Again, family folklore assigns Indians a role in the story. Joan Reid, Alfred Charles Kinsey's second daughter and youngest child, remembered Grandmother Kinsey saying that her family had to be escorted by soldiers part of the way because of the threat of hostile Indians.
Apart from these bare details, virtually nothing is known about Sarah Charles before she married Alfred Seguine Kinsey. The sketchy portrait that emerges reveals a young woman from a working-class family, poorly educated, with no known skills or other means of support. Although her modest fourth-grade education seldom revealed itself in her speech in later life, it was evident from her many spelling and grammatical errors in her letters. Given his strong ambition and yearning for upward mobility, it is surprising that Alfred Seguine Kinsey would marry someone of this background. Over time, he would come to regret it.
The young couple wasted little time in starting a family. Their firstborn arrived two years after their marriage. Named in honor of both his father and his mother, Alfred Charles Kinsey was born on June 23, 1894. A daughter, Mildred Elizabeth, arrived two years later, followed in 1907 by their last child, Robert Benjamin Kinsey, named after his maternal and paternal grandfathers, respectively.
For thirteen years following their marriage, the Kinseys lived in Hoboken. Their son Alfred Charles spent the first decade of his life there. When he looked back on these years as an adult, he mentioned only public events, the sorts of things that make an impression on a young boy but offer little insight into his life. He recalled the first automobiles, the first paved streets, fireworks on holidays, and the like. Moreover, he claimed not to have any memories of the city after his family left when he was ten.
This was a remarkable contention, as Kinsey had returned to Hoboken countless times after his family moved away. He visited his grandparents and aunts and uncles on numerous occasions and played with cousins on Hoboken's streets. Following high school, he attended college for two years at the Stevens Institute, commuting daily from the suburbs. His insistence that his only memories of Hoboken were those of a small boy suggests his time there was so unpleasant that he did not wish to remember, part of his distaste perhaps triggered by the city's poverty and crowding.
Located on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, Hoboken (from the Indian "Hopoghan Hackingh," revised by the Dutch to Hoebuck, and later by the English to Hoboken) was aptly called the Mile Square City. Wedged between the Hudson River and the rump of the Palisades, Hoboken faced the Hudson River to the east, Jersey City to the south and west, and Union City to the north. In the early nineteenth century, Hoboken had served as a summer resort for New York City's wealthy set. On Sundays, New York's gentry would take the Fourteenth Street or Third Street ferry from Manhattan to Hoboken to enjoy the cool breeze along the River Walk and stroll through the beautiful woods in the garden spot known as the Elysian Fields. The rise of New York City during the nineteenth century, however, had transformed Hoboken into a bustling city and major transportation nexus. By the turn of the century, ten steamship lines and five railroads had converged on Hoboken, swelling its population dramatically. In 1890 Hoboken boasted 43,618 residents; in 1900 the number stood at 59,364; and in 1910 more than 70,000 people were jammed into its one-square-mile area, making Hoboken one of the most densely populated cities in the United States.
The city crowded in on everyone. Except for a few postage-stamp parks and the campus of the Stevens Institute, Hoboken contained no empty spaces. Every square foot was filled with railroad tracks, industrial plants, stores, and housing, most of which consisted of cold-water tenements. At the northern end of the city, where shop fronts and tenements crowded flush with the sidewalks, smoke blackened the sky, billowing forth from factories that produced a variety of metal, chemical, food, leather, and foundry products. Running parallel with the Hudson River was River Street, the artery of the city's bawdy nightlife, described by one writer as an "almost unbroken row of saloons with cheap hotels and flats above." River Street formed the heart of Hoboken. Prostitutes solicited customers along its sidewalks lined with bars, raucous dance halls, and boardinghouses, making the city a favorite port of call for seamen around the globe.
Hoboken was a rough and dirty city, and by the late nineteenth century its name had become synonymous with urban blight. When Oscar Wilde toured the United States in 1882 (his trademark lily in hand, dressed in knee britches, a flowing shirt with a wide Lord Byron collar, and a great fur-collared, green coat that hung almost to the patent leather shoes on his small feet), he was asked at every stop to define aestheticism, the strange new philosophy of beauty he had come to proclaim to Americans. It was no accident one persistent reporter mockingly asked if beauty could be found "in both the lily and Hoboken."
Alfred Seguine and Sarah Kinsey experienced the same crowding as their neighbors. Unable to buy their own home, they rented a series of apartments within walking distance of the Stevens Institute. At no point during these years did they live more than a few blocks from the older Kinseys, and during at least two separate years (and probably more) the two families moved in together. "Doubling up" with relatives, as the practice was called, was by no means uncommon. Working-class families in the nineteenth century often employed this strategy in order to make ends meet. Moreover, even when they did not live together, blue-collar families often "clustered" in the same neighborhood so that they could assist one another. At least two of Alfred Seguine Kinsey's siblings (and their families) lived in Hoboken, providing a network that could offer companionship and assistance in time of need.
While the streets and apartment numbers may have changed each time the Kinseys moved, the homes were much the same--low-rent housing consisting of two-, three-, and four-story cold-water tenements carved into tiny apartments that often served as multifamily dwellings. Units facing the street offered the luxury of windows, which let in sunlight year round and could be opened in warm weather for fresh air. But families who occupied interior apartments dwelled in shadows and darkness, illuminated only by artificial light. Here the air was stale and heavy, fertile breeding ground for tuberculosis and other diseases of urban blight. Hoboken was a dingy, dirty, crowded city, one that Kinsey desperately wished to escape.
For much of his adult life, Kinsey extended his hatred for Hoboken to all cities. He blamed the city for crowding in around him, shrinking his universe, and narrowing his vision. A sharp sense of claustrophobia marked his description of his childhood in Hoboken: "I was born in the heart of what was reputed to be the most densely populated square mile in the country. In lieu of woods and fields, there were the stones of the streets and the buildings, people, cats, dogs, horses, sparrows, the weeds of the vacant lots, and the frustrated plants of the mostly barren back yards. There was the cramped vision that it is the lot of the boy in the city."
In addition to feeling physically cramped in Hoboken, he felt emotionally crimped there--and for good reasons. One source of pressure was religion. The man whom Billy Graham would one day accuse of doing more to undermine morality than any other American grew up in a family that was deeply religious. The Kinseys belonged to the Methodist Church, and as evangelical Protestants, they practiced a brand of Methodism that was heartfelt and fiery. Their God was no benign patriarch; neither was He a disinterested deity who had created a world that operated according to natural laws and could be left to its own devices. In spirit, if not in name, He was the God of the Old Testament--a jealous and vengeful God, a God who knew a person's every thought and deed and punished those who broke His commandments.
While Sarah had strong religious beliefs of her own, Kinsey's father dominated the spiritual life of his household. Every week, without fail, the family attended Sunday school, Sunday morning services, and Sunday evening prayer meeting. Alfred Seguine Kinsey would not allow family members to ride to church; they had to walk. Nor would he let the milkman make Sunday deliveries. One observer, who had been their neighbor as a boy, insisted that the father would not permit his family to do anything on Sunday except "go to church and eat." The same rules applied to visiting relatives. As an adult, Alfred Charles Kinsey recalled his father ordering his aunt to leave the house for playing the piano one Sunday afternoon.
Religion had a profound influence on Kinsey. One could say he was reared in the "nurture and admonition of the Lord," save for one fact--his pious father admonished far better than he nurtured. Alfred Seguine Kinsey commanded dual authority: he acted as the head of the house and as God's spokesman to his family.
For his oldest child, then, there was no escaping religion. Week after week, month after month, and year after year, Kinsey sat with his family listening to sermons designed to shape his moral view of life as an unending struggle between Good and Evil. Much of what he heard was mean-spirited, hate-filled, and fearful, calculated to produce feelings of dependence and submission rather than love and trust. This was especially true of the sermons that were designed to frighten people into confessing their sins and joining the church.
Kinsey heard many stories that chronicled God's wrath, but for its sheer power to terrorize young minds, none could match that staple of fundamentalist theology--the Judgment Day, the moment of reckoning when every man, woman, and child, living or dead, had to stand before the throne of God and hear His verdict. On that most terrifying of days, the Book of Life would be opened and mankind would be divided into saints and sinners. Verily, this would be the day of truth, a time of fear and trepidation. When it was over, the righteous would be raised to heaven, the wicked banished to hell. As they ruminated over mankind's fate, however, ministers did not tarry over the blissful paradise awaiting the righteous; they described with flinty severity the horrors in store for those wretched souls who had been weighed and found wanting.
Like all children who belong to deeply religious families, Kinsey had to ponder his religious instruction in order to arrive at his own understanding of spiritual matters. His God may have taken any shape or form. Perhaps he saw God as a benevolent figure, an omnipotent ally who would take his side, an omniscient friend who could be summoned in time of need. But more than likely his view of God was less benign. The sermons he heard dwelled more on God's wrath than on his love. Moreover, Kinsey's family's peculiar dynamics and distinct personalities must have worked their way into his image of God, shading his understanding of what God demanded and what would happen if he strayed from the straight and narrow path. In particular, his father, the man who loomed large in his son's imagination, offered a heralding image of patriarchal authority, the sort that could easily influence how a boy viewed God. Given his harsh religion and overbearing father, young Kinsey must have suffered in full measure the pain and agony to which seriously religious children can fall victim.
He had more time than most children to contemplate an afterworld. As a child, Kinsey suffered a series of illnesses, some life-threatening, that put him to bed for extended periods. First, he developed a severe case of rickets, producing a kyphoscoliosis, or double curvature of the spine, which twisted his posture into a permanent slouch, leaving him hump-shouldered for life. Rickets also accounted for his swaybacked appearance, making him appear slightly potbellied, even when he was slender and the rest of his body looked fit.
His second major childhood illness was rheumatic fever, which doctors feared damaged his heart. Long months of bed rest were required to survive this wasting disease, as the fever kept recurring. Nor was Kinsey allowed to resume normal activities after the disease passed. Convinced he had a serious heart condition, his parents treated him like an invalid and would not permit him to run and play like other children.
Kinsey's final and most life-threatening childhood disease was a severe case of typhoid fever. According to his wife, he "was in a coma and ill for weeks and weeks. They really despaired for his life." Though the disease nearly killed him, Clara Kinsey credited typhoid fever with curing his recurring bouts of rheumatic fever: "I have always felt that all this high fever probably killed off these germs." As an adult, Kinsey rarely spoke of his childhood illnesses, but he did slip a reference to his struggle with typhoid fever into his high school biology textbook. "Years ago, as a small child," wrote Kinsey, "I spent nine long weeks in bed with that affliction. I have known something of the delirium, the long fight with failing strength, the full years that were required for the recovery."
Moral reflection must have formed an integral part of Kinsey's struggle for survival. Like most children who suffer serious illnesses, Kinsey no doubt asked himself, "Why me?" Prolonged periods of bed rest gave him many hours to review his short life with utmost intensity He had so much time to ask questions, so much time to think, and so much time to remember and to scrutinize his transgressions. Perhaps he sought reassurance by reminding himself that no one is perfect, but as likely as not, young Alfred found little comfort in such rationalizations.
Still, even if Kinsey's childhood illnesses did not precipitate spiritual ruminations, they marked his life. Not only did he have to endure the pain and the discomforts of the sicknesses themselves, but he had to cope with the restrictions his parents placed on his behavior. Of the two, the latter left a far deeper imprint on his personality. For in addition to changing how he was treated by others, his many sicknesses altered his view of himself. Along with the city's physical density and his family smothering religiosity, childhood illnesses exacerbated Kinsey's feeling of being crowded.
The first tangible consequence of his poor health involved school. "As he described it," recalled Clara Kinsey, "he missed school as often as he attended." Part of the difficulty may have involved the physical layout of the school. From kindergarten through third grade, Kinsey attended Grade School no. 2, a three-story brick building constructed in 1862 on land donated to the city by Edwin A. Stevens, the Stevens Institute's benefactor. According to the terms of Stevens's bequest, the school was intended to offer primary education to working-class children. The fact that the building had three stories probably explains Kinsey's poor attendance, because his doctors almost certainly would have advised him not to climb stairs.
Since his illnesses kept him at home for extended periods, Kinsey had little opportunity to escape parental surveillance and authority. Assuming they followed standard medical advice of the day, Kinsey's parents made him stay indoors, take frequent rests, and keep calm and quiet. In addition, they must have placed strenuous games and roughhousing off limits. These restrictions cannot have been easy for Kinsey. Maintaining a positive self-image under these conditions would have been difficult for a child of either sex, but it was doubly hard for a male, as cultural norms could accommodate a sickly girl more easily than a sickly boy. Many turn-of-the-century parents believed that young girls had to be treated with kid gloves--reared, as it were, in hothouse environments, since they were thought to be by nature frail and illness prone. Boys, by contrast, were expected to be hale and hearty, blessed with strong constitutions. As a sickly child, Kinsey could not fit the picture of robust health his culture prescribed for young males. After he reached middle age, he told a friend that he had felt inferior to other boys during his childhood.
As a result of his poor health, Kinsey had to rely on his wits. He often spoke of an episode from his youth when he had barely escaped a thrashing by neighborhood toughs. Walking down the street one day, still weak from rickets, he was suddenly surrounded by a group of bullies. As the menacing gang approached, Kinsey threw a handful of pennies into the air and escaped while the boys scrambled after the money.
To compensate for his poor health, Kinsey badly needed something in his life at which he could excel--something he could use to build confidence. Social and academic success at school might have boosted his morale, but his frequent absences and restricted activities precluded such victories. As a result, there was little he could do to feel good about himself.
As an adult, Kinsey invented a fictional boy named Johnny Jones to illustrate various points in the textbook he wrote for high school students, and the same character appeared in the manual he wrote for teachers. In Kinsey's words, this imaginary student served as "the model of proper behavior." As the ideal boy, Johnny Jones had many sterling qualities. He was an excellent student; he listened to classical music (and abhorred jazz); and he found joy in life's simple pleasures, such as sitting in the sunshine or catching a ball. What Kinsey admired most about Johnny Jones, however, was his eagerness to explore the world around him firsthand and his fierce sense of independence, as marked by his iron-willed determination to rely on his own judgment--one shaped not by whimsy but by systematic reasoning. As Kinsey described this amazing lad, Johnny Jones "was born with a considerable disposition to use the scientific method. He first learned about things by grasping them, by tasting them, by looking at them. He first learned the properties of matter by bumping into it. His early respect for energy was learned by direct contacts with it. His first generalizations were based on his own and not on anyone else's experience."
But little Johnny's independence of thought had not come easily. Although Johnny was blessed with innate curiosity and the courage to explore, his childhood had been one continuous struggle against powerful adults who tried to limit his freedom by making him accept their authority and adopt their views. "Johnny Jones would have learned more, in the scientific manner, if his mother had not taught him that there are substitutes for observable data," explained Kinsey. "When he fell down stairs, he was thrashed because he had not taken her word that he would hurt himself." Nor was an overly protective mother the only check on his behavior. "He was introduced at an early age to 'they' and 'it' as sources of authority. 'Respect due his elders' was inextricably associated with an acceptance of their observations, their imaginings, their desires--things that small boys were supposed not to question."
The similarities between Kinsey and Johnny Jones are striking. Little Johnny was an excellent student; after his health improved, Kinsey became a model student. Little Johnny adored classical music; Kinsey developed a lifelong love affair with classical music. Little Johnny hated jazz; so did Kinsey. But their most telling similarity involved their shared sense of childhood as a period of intense struggle for independence. Little Johnny had to battle against a mother and other adults who tried to impose nonscientific ways of thinking; Kinsey grew up in a deeply religious household at a time when science and religion were at war over Darwin's theory of evolution, the problem Kinsey later selected as his lifework. Little Johnny was eager to explore the world around him and tried to learn by tasting and touching, but he was thwarted by an overly protective mother and unspecified, older adults who demanded unquestioning obedience; Kinsey had a mother and grandparents with whom his family frequently "doubled up" who may have filled identical roles.
The story of Johnny Jones's struggles suggests that Kinsey may have resented the control his own mother exercised over him. Certainly, he had cause. However much she had her son's interests at heart, Sarah served as both his caregiver and his jailer. It was her job to enforce the doctor's orders, much as she strove to follow her husband's instructions about managing the home during his many absences. In all probability, Kinsey considered his mother too strict and too protective, a parent who failed to give him the space he needed to develop independence, a parent who made him feel crowded.
Sarah Kinsey was shy and soft-spoken, possessed of a personality at once retiring and diffident. From all reports, she was a loving woman with a sweet disposition, the sort of parent who could be expected to temper discipline with love and punishments with forgiveness. Clara characterized her mother-in-law as "a very easy person to get along with," and once called her "the sweetest person I have ever known."
Sarah's lack of education and passive personality inhibited her relations with people outside her family as well. Apparently, the Kinseys did not have much of a social life with other faculty members at the Stevens Institute, which may have had as much to do with her husband's peculiar status at the college as with her withdrawn personality. Nor is there any record of Sarah's involving herself with Hoboken's women's clubs, the organizations that played such important roles in urban life at the turn of the century. Apart from being white and Protestant, she had little in common with the middle-class, college-educated women who typically joined these organizations. For Sarah, then, the world shrank to her household. Isolated by background and by personality from the concerns that drew other middle-class women into the community, she looked inward to her home and family, finding her identity in the cult of domesticity that sanctioned her roles as wife and mother.
As an adult, Kinsey told a story about his mother that appeared to touch a deep nerve. She collected an early version of "green stamps," and even though stores near their home had all the items they needed, she made her son tramp across town to a store that gave trading stamps. Insisting this was characteristic of his mother, Kinsey would become angry every time he told the story. In fact, the episodes angered him so deeply that he would not accept trading stamps as an adult from any store that issued them.
Viewed in isolation, Sarah's request could not have produced such anger, as it was neither harsh nor unreasonable. The strength of Kinsey's resentment and its staying power in his memory suggests that he harbored deeper complaints against his mother. Perhaps he blamed her for his lack of freedom and power, for not only did he have to follow her orders at home, but he had to do exactly what she said when he was allowed to go outside. In other words, Kinsey may have disliked what he regarded as a pattern of control his mother exercised over him during his childhood in Hoboken--and beyond.
Kinsey resented his mother for subjecting him to public humiliation over their family's lack of money. Within the intimate economy of the Victorian family, money (who controlled it and how it was used) often served to underscore patriarchal authority, and this rule held true in the Kinsey household. Aware that money was power, Alfred Seguine Kinsey exercised complete control over the family's finances. He gave Sarah a weekly allowance to finance the household, and on those occasions when it proved inadequate, she did not dare ask for more money. Instead, she sent her oldest child to the store to pay the merchant what she could against their account, requesting an extension for the balance. While merchants were accustomed to working out such arrangements for their customers, Kinsey found these episodes embarrassing and humiliating, as he resented her for making him bear the public onus of his family's strapped finances. As an adult, he refused to incur debts he could not discharge immediately.
More than strains with his mother or his family's austere religion, even more than his enervating childhood illnesses, the principal source of Kinsey's unhappy memories about his childhood was his father. From all reports, Alfred Seguine Kinsey was a hard man who imposed his will on others with ruthless finality, dominating everyone over whom he had authority, both in the workplace and at home.
Alfred Seguine Kinsey's professional advances did not come without steep personal costs. Part of the problem stemmed from his ambiguous status at the Stevens Institute, a situation that could easily produce insecurity in a man. "Shop practice" was not a popular subject at Stevens. As one former student explained, it "was considered to be a minor subject which most of the freshmen had taken in high school." Most students held the Department of Shop in contempt and viewed shop practice as a bad joke, and many of Alfred Seguine Kinsey's former students found it difficult to separate their memories of him from their recollections of the Department of Shop.
"Kinsey was neither popular nor unpopular," one student declared. "He simply was too far away from the difficult courses to evaluate that way. As I recall it, he did not even have a nickname in an era when all professors had nicknames."' Yet, whatever his status on the faculty, former students agree that Alfred Seguine Kinsey was "very well groomed." In fact, one observer tagged him "a very natty dresser. The best of all the instructional staff." While most former students commented on his apparel and left it at that, one particularly perceptive Stevens alumnus thought that Alfred Seguine Kinsey dressed well as a badge of his recent elevation to the middle class. "I remember he was a rather large man, though not very tall and [he] was very proud to have become a department head after years of supervising freshmen in the shops," he recalled.
The head of shop practice "was very proud of his monstrous pocket watch which he carefully laid out on his lectern before his weekly 1 hour lectures." Another student remembered him "constantly flaunting his gold watch and bragging about his new Cadillac, which only geniuses of his caliber could afford." This formidable timepiece ("the famous watch," as it was dubbed by the Stevens Indicator, the alumni association's bulletin) made a lasting impression on two generations of Stevens men. According to The Link (1939), Alfred Seguine Kinsey's favorite teaching chestnut was to use "his watch as an example of a piece of machinery that was kept running in a vertical position for so long that ... it cannot be turned into the horizontal without losing time because the bearings are elliptically worn." But the watch in question, identified by another former student as "a big railroad watch" with "a big chain prominently displayed on his vest," was more than a teaching prop.
After World War I, Alfred Seguine Kinsey had relatively little contact with students, lecturing only one hour each week. Shop instructors supervised students at the machines, offering the kind of instruction he had provided a generation earlier. Still, given the small amount of time they spent in his presence, it is remarkable how much students disliked him. Basically, they were put off by his blatant egotism. "Kinsey was a great 'I' man and after we caught on to that fact, we would make count of the number of times we boys heard 'I' in a one-hour lecture," remarked one former student, who took shop practice in the late 1920s. "I do not recall the number week by week," he added. "Probably it really was not all that large but it was fun to keep count." Another former student agreed that he "used lots of 'I's' and students counted the number of 'I's' he used." This man, however, did recall the hourly count. "I think they got up to 100," he declared.
Many students considered the "great 'I' man" worse than egotistical. One Stevens alumnus called Alfred Seguine Kinsey "a rather pompous individual," while another used even stronger language, insisting that he was "in the eyes of most students of that era, a pompous ass." The latter student was especially distressed by the way Alfred Seguine Kinsey bullied people. "In the shop he was a dictator, who wouldn't get his hands dirty for anyone," the student declared. Apparently, the head of shop practice was civil to students, but his shop instructors felt the force of his domineering personality. As another veteran of the shop practice class recalled, Alfred Seguine Kinsey "was hard on the shop technicians. He insisted they handle shop work according to his instructions. He would at times walk around a shop, observe what and how we were doing the work. If displeased, he would seek out the technician and tell him off."
Alfred Seguine Kinsey ran his home the way he ran his shop, steam-rolling any family member who dared to question his authority. Sarah knew better than to even try. "Kinsey's mother was a browbeaten hausfrau who simply did not play a large role in his life and was under the thumb of his rather tyrannical, puritan father," declared a close friend. As Clara Kinsey remarked, "She couldn't stand up to her husband. She was more interested in peace than trying to assert her rights. If she felt that he was unreasonable, she would just acquiesce [rather] than try to push it."
The first decade of young Kinsey's life coincided with the period when his father was struggling to make a place for himself at the Stevens Institute. During these years, Alfred Seguine Kinsey worked incredibly hard to advance his career, yet in many respects this must have been a frustrating period in his life. Although he was making progress toward the middle-class status he coveted so fiercely, his job did not carry much status. He worked as an assistant to an engineer, not as a professional man in his own right. Fourteen years is a long time to stand in the shadow of another man, even someone as supportive and kindly as Jimmy D. Consequently, when Alfred Seguine Kinsey went home at night or returned from his many trips, he may have been seeking to exercise power over his family that he lacked in the workplace. At any rate, whatever the cause, his behavior toward his family was always authoritarian and frequently selfish.
Slow to praise and quick to find fault, Alfred Seguine Kinsey knew how to reproach and how to issue orders, but he did not know how to show affection. Knowing her husband's personality only too well, Sarah tried to enforce his rules during his absences, but she never seemed to satisfy his expectations. As a result, his homecomings from his many trips brought more tension than joy to the household. As one of his daughters-in-law explained things, "Dad [Kinsey] would go off and wasn't home very much, and then when he did come home, things would never please him."
Alfred Charles Kinsey tried to cope by doing his best to meet his father's expectations. Admonished by a severe God and a demanding father, he imposed a strict moral code on himself. Outwardly, he became a model child--the sickly boy who fought gallantly against poor health, the obedient boy who followed his mother's directions, the righteous boy who obeyed God's commandments, and the dutiful son who did his father's bidding. Yet, try as he might, Kinsey fell short of the mark. The only way to please his father was to follow his orders to the letter.
By attempting to live up to his father's demands, Kinsey was following a cultural script. The whole purpose of Victorian child rearing was to place children inside "a prison of expectations." Middle-class parents at the turn of the century believed that children could be taught to control themselves. All they had to do was internalize the values and wishes of their parents. This accomplished, the need for external surveillance would vanish. Children would monitor their own thoughts, deeds, and wishes. And whenever transgressions arose, their tender consciousness would bury them beneath an avalanche of guilt, inflicting mental punishment with a brutality that would make hardened prison wardens blanch.
Kinsey's upwardly mobile family, the family that yearned for middle-class respectability and reached out to embrace Victorian morality, achieved this goal with a vengeance. Early in childhood, Alfred Charles Kinsey shouldered the heavy burden of self-criticism. Throughout his life, he would be haunted by a voice from within, a judge who saw his every move, knew his every thought, evaluated his every effort, and condemned his every failure. From childhood forward, Kinsey's harsh conscience would drive him to be the best at everything he did, would constantly accuse him of not working hard enough, and, above all, would condemn him soundly whenever he failed to move mountains or broke rules.
The area of his life that most revealed his inner turmoil was his sexuality. Hidden from the eyes of the world, Kinsey felt his first sexual stirrings during his family's last few years in Hoboken. Like all children, he was curious about sex and wanted to explore others and himself. "The only homosexual thing that he ever mentioned in this early part [of his life] was in his childhood when there was preadolescent sex play with a neighborhood group," recalled Kinsey's colleague Paul Gebhard. The episode involved the sort of self-exploration and exploration of others (you show me yours; I'll show you mine) common to child development: "There's a somewhat older girl and there was Kinsey," explained Gebhard, "and I got the impression there were about six kids and they would go in the basement and look at one another, poke straws in various apertures, stuff like that, and that made him feel very peculiar and rather guilty."
Gebhard's characterization of the basement incident as "homosexual" strongly suggests that Kinsey used this term to describe the incident to him. Although an older girl participated, her presence apparently did not contribute to the erotic power of the episode in Kinsey's memory. Because of her sex and age, the feelings she elicited in Kinsey may have been closer to guilt than to arousal, as the presence of an older girl may have forced him to recall the Victorian demands for restraint and prohibitions against the debasing of females. At any rate, instead of attempting intercourse, the children apparently engaged in acts of exhibitionism. Their sole attempt at penetration seems to have involved poking straws into "various apertures"--most likely the vagina, rectum, and penis.
After he became a sex researcher, Kinsey reported that adults almost invariably remembered their first sexual encounters as children. In addition, he argued that early experiences often played a pivotal role in shaping lifelong behavioral patterns--not according to some crude form of "imprinting," to be sure, but in a less rigidly behavioral sense. People who found their early experiences pleasurable, explained Kinsey, tended to repeat them. With repetition came reinforcement until a pattern gradually took shape. Kinsey's theories suggest that he traced his own adult sexual interests to this incident in Hoboken.
For most children, exhibitionism and voyeurism are harmless rites of passage, episodes that may cause momentary worries about getting caught and punished but do not grow into the kind of obsession that can produce debilitating guilt feelings. Kinsey was not this fortunate. According to Gebhard, the basement episode left Kinsey feeling "very peculiar and rather guilty" How could Kinsey have felt otherwise? As the last generation of Victorians, many middle-class Americans of his day felt anxious about sex. While Kinsey carried parental demands for moral perfection to extremes, Victorian culture required rigid self-control. Kinsey took these demands seriously and could not satisfy them. For him the legacy of childhood was not psychological wholeness but emotional conflict, turmoil, and pain. In that sense, his childhood was an object lesson in what could happen to an earnest boy who strove for moral perfection.
At the broadest level, however, Kinsey's story underscores the problem that confronted many boys in the United States at the turn of the century: middle-class Americans no longer agreed on what it meant to be male. Indeed, they were locked in debate over the moral standards reformers expected men to meet in the post-Victorian world. As Kinsey moved from boyhood into adolescence, he had to find his own answers to these questions, and the stakes could hardly have been higher. How he proceeded would guide his quest for independence and determine whether he forged his own identity. Fortunately, Kinsey got a change in venue as he was preparing to meet these challenges.
W. W. Norton & Company
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