"For a few seconds, I suppose, my lifetime - and I don't think only mine was recapitulated: its innocence, its indifference, its ignorance, its sheltered quiet, its half-and-half mixture of moral inertia and well-intentioned effort. . . .
"I heard shouts and cries. . . . I pedalled faster; I almost had the scene out of sight; but I can remember today slowing down. . . . I let the bike lie on its side and stood still. Not only was there a fight, but among the people I could see several women. . . . In another flash, however, I realized I could justify my reluctance: it was a racial incident.
"I am not now very proud of those minutes. Yet if I forgot them, I would be even more ashamed."
- Children of Crisis, 1967
A gentle morning rain is falling outside. The leaves have already begun to turn their brilliant autumn hues of red and yellow and ocher, but inside the mood is more like that of the rain: soft, quiet, so that the words spoken by Robert M. Coles dominate.
He is sitting in a New England rocker petting a spaniel named Grady. Buildings are named after people, but there is a dog named after a building, a high school in Atlanta where Coles did some of his early work.Coles recalls the above fight over beach right he came upon while bicycling in Mississippi along the Gulf of Mexico one Sunday in 1959.
"It made me begin to wonder what was happening around me," he says. The wondering has since led him from the life of an Air Force psychiatrist stationed in Biloxi to become perhaps the most influential psychiatrist in America today and certainly one of the nation's foremost social observers.
The fight is cited in the first chapter of his first book, "Children of Crisis," published in 1967. Since that book, in less than a decade, Coles has published almost 400 articles and 25 books. Two books jointly received the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Two more will be published next year as volumes 4 and 5 of his highly acclaimed Children of Crisis series, about which Saturday Review wrote: "May well be one of the dominant psychological works of this century."
Originally a study of poor and under-privileged groups under social stress, the series will expand in volume 5 to a new minority class of migrants: the wealthy executive. Rich and Poor
Over the years Coles interviewed and followed the families of plantation owners, corporate executives and other elitese who economically control or supervise many of the poor described in his earlier works. He seeks not to condemn, but to understand, and in doing so discovers that the rich are no more one-dimensional than the poor, and that both migratory rich and migratory poor share many of the same problems of adjustment. Some families grow stronger; others disintegrate into rootlessness, moral numbness and the bottle or drugs.
"Many of the rich, particularly the youth, face a unique ethical problem, however, in that they don't know how to socially justify having all that money but they naturally don't want to give it up," Coles says. He says the youths' environment of parents, schools, ministers and psychiatrists often deadens their social concern. But the book, as he describes it, is vintage Coles: for every socially hardened or drug-wealthy youths and families who exhibit a strong sense of good works.
Taken together, the series is nothing less than a massive study of Americans. And behind it is a man who describes himself with a twinkle as "an idiosyncratic oddball: a doctor, a writer, a wanderer, and one who is morally obsessed." This is just a beginning.
He is 46, taut, of medium height and wiry build, with uncommonly short brown hair. He speaks from under intense, hooded eyes with a totally unassuming earnestness and sensitivity that belie his many achievements.
This Saturday morning, he is unshaven and wearing blue jeans, a blue work shirt and a white undershirt frayed around the neck. He is anything but stylish, and complains he is not photogenic: his stopped shoulders, he says. He has refused to be photographed for the past year, and adamantly tells my camera-toting companion that he is refusing her. Some four hours later, after exhausting, often intense conversations, Coles is asked again and relents easily.
Robert Coles is above all a humanist, an unscientific social scientist who celebrates the complexity of people - all people. Armed with his medical knowledge, a pad and pencil, and sometimes a tape recorder, he had trudged throughout this still young country to talk with people: in the mountaineers' hollows of Kentucky, the Indian reservations of New Mexico and the ghettos of Cleveland.
He has traveled with rural West Virginia families moving to Chicago, ridden the bus with black Boston school children going across town and wandered with Chitano migrant laborers going just about anywhere. After 25 years and endless hours of interviewing, observing and probing, his conclusion is a simple one: "Complicated human emotions defy, statistical statements."
He has been criticized by some of his colleagues for failing to come up with a concrete thesis, a broad social finding, something that pulls his subjects together and says what they are. . .and we can go, Ahh, yes, I understand." But Coles refuses.
"Sure, I could write the black family has been destroyed and get headlines. Herbert Guttman and Dan Moynihan are both right about the hurt and pain and social strength of the black family. But once you begin to take account of strengths and weaknesses, you move away from fast and easy generalizations." Children's Crayon's
His method is to work in the community, often as a docotr, and to concentrate his research on a few families, returning again and again to slowly gain their inner confidences. Sometimes he brings crayons for the children to draw portraits of themselves, and telling self-portraits by poor children who draw themselves without an eye or fingers or toes, unlike the pictures they draw of more privileged children. But Coles then goes on to record that co-existing with poverty's wretched cycle of defeat are individual strengths such as resourcefulness, wiliness, humor and love.
So, as I listened over a long day and several others to the yeoman talking, I wondered: What drives him on, this expansion man, who has so much to be sad about, but insists, protests, protests too much, his pleasure in taking on - all of nature, it would seem?
- Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers, 1972
Though a liberal social activist who has worked as a doctor for SNCC, the Catholic Workers Movement, Cesar Chavez and the like, Coles is equally sympathetic in his description of the fears and courage of white racists, plantation owners and others. Social scientist David Riesman has said that one of Coles' most important contributions has been to destroy the stereo-type: "Policemen are not pigs, white Southerners are not rednecks, and blacks are not all suffering in exotic misery."
Coles traces his methods back to 19th-century English novelists and their search for what Charles Dickens called "social knowledge."
That he mentioned Dickens is no accident. Coles was raised outside Boston by an Iowa farm girl and a Yorkshire engineer who for entertainment would read to his two sons books by such authors as Dickens and George Eliot. Indeed, Coles' older brother now teaches 19th-century English literature at the University of Michigan.
Coles majored in English at Harvard. In writing his senior thesis on William Carlos Williams, he was so inspired by the doctor/poet that he enrolled in medical school at Columbia University. Early on, however, it was apparent that his sensitivity included a squeamishness in the operating room. Coles went into psychiatry, and later, after meeting Anna Freud, child psychiatry. Then came the Air Force. Then the epiphany on a Mississippi beach. Writer Heroes
Our conversation in his book-filled study has gone on for several hours now and Coles, flushed with warmth, rises to show us his heroes. They are hanging on the wall, photos of philosophers Simone Well, Catholic social worker Dorothy Day, psychologists Anna Freud and Erik Erikson and many novelists: James Agee, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy.
The large number of novelists reflects Coles' image of himself as a writer and, as he says, a "social observer with psychiatric skills." Moreover, many of his heroes are not just writers, but Southern writers, and Coles, living here in this archetypal New England village, also considers himself in many ways a displaced Southerner.
His eyes are glazing now and a childish grin is spreading across his face as he speaks longingly of his many years working and living below the Mason Dixon Line.
He tells of the time during his early days traipsing around the South, for instance, when he boldly wrote and then went to visit Flannery O'Connor to profess his admiration. She received him, then told the young doctor that "as long as he was going to be bothering old ladies" he ought to talk with Lillian Smith, too.
So off he went into north Georgia and met the author of "Strange Fruit," which had been banned in Boston when he was a child (though his mother had spirited her own personal copy of this inter-racial love story). "A real Georgia lady," Coles says of Smith.
"Agee and Orwell have been my models as social observers. They're literate and humane and truthful. That's an important point: truthful. They didn't feel they had to come up with 'theories' and 'findings' that strip life of its complexities and ambiguities.
"But the humanist writers have been ignored. If more people read Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison, for instance, they would learn more about the feelings of rural whites and blacks than from some social scientists going around asking people whether they are hurt, not so hurt, fairly hurt, not hurt at all."
In his earlier works, Coles even emulated the writing style of Agee. His writing has since matured, though retaining a lyrical quality, but his esteem for Agee has been institutionalized. Coles gave his second son the middle name of "Agee." A book of the Southerner's poems and his "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" sits upright on Coles' large desk among stacks of papers, childhood mementos and a Bible.
A Bible. At a time when social scientists have become the secular priests of intellectuals, Coles is a church-going Episcopalian who belives in original sin and takes his religion seriously. He disdains the current myriad of religious and quasi-religious movements.
"I go to church to pray to God, not to have a group thrapy," he says.
His voice is rising now. "What we need is more study of what kind of life leads one to take up the banalities of esalen, ESP and Reverend Moon - and while we're at it, of those who go into my profession of psychology. Too many psychologists have a capacity for endless dwelling on people's problems. That's valuable to a point, but what is important is the action needed to solve problems. Dreams and Greed
"We use terms like 'mental health' and 'mental hygiene.' What do they mean? Are people healthy because they understand a dream or two? We have to look at the way people live and what they do for other people. There has to be an ethical dimension to psychology. People have a lager responsibilty to the community and to their family than to their dream life."
The Utopians and psychoanalysts who think humanity can achieve perfection will destroy humanity in trying, he says. "There have always been greedy people. They helped build the country to what it is today, I suppose." He then laughs at his unexpected insight.
Coles faced his own moral dilemma six years ago. The Rev. Daniel Berrigan was in hiding from the FBI and wanted to talk with Coles.
"I worry at what is happening in Washington and shake my head over what has happened in Vietnam. . . . But beyond that do nothing. Oh, I try to capture sights and sounds. . . . Still, I don't march, don't take to the streets in indignation and horror at what my country does or doesn't do. If anything, more than fall in line."
- The Geography of Faith, 1971
Coles, feeling Berrigan was being unjustly persecuted, talked with many of his working-class subjects in Boston to ask whether they would consider him to be compromised. They didn't. And Coles, despite his family living and paranoia, stood to be counted: He took the Catholic priest into his home for a week. Their conversations on religion, politics and society were structured, taped and, after Berrigan had been arrested elsewhere and jailed, published.
If Coles endeared himself to many radicals then, he angered them and much of the Cambridge academic community this past June with a complimentary article about Jimmy Carter in the New Republic. But Coles chooses to remain outside that community anyway.
He has a convenient position as staff psychologist at Havard for funneling grants and is teaching a freshman seminar on ethics and the social sciences. But he eschews the attendant social life thought to be necessary for academic advancement. He hardly ever goes to cocktail or dinner parties. Victorian Friendship
Harvard professor Riesman is his only genuine local friend and theirs is a Victorian relationship: despite their proximity, they write long letters sharing experiences and thoughts and only meet about once every two years for lunch.
Social life for Coles is primarily relaxation with his wife and three sons, ages 6 10 and 12. They go for long walks, play tennis, see a film. Otherwise, Coles writes away at his books and articles religiously between 9 and 12 o'clock every weekday morning and researches in the afternoon.
The family is a migratory one itself, moving with Coles as he pursues his research across the country. He credits his wife Joan with keeping his work on track. She is of strong New England stock, from an old abolitionist family that includes a great-grandfather who commanded a black regiment during the Civil War.
"When I was doing work in the South," he says, "it was important to get along with both black and white women, because the men were at work during the day. It was tough for me. I was confused; I just knew I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but I was doing years of research without writing a word. I guess I had my own intellectual arrogance. She told me to relax, stop asking questions and start talking with them, become friends. Then she made me keep it up. Her common sense has continually taken over for my overeducated mind."
He often refers to his books as "our" books because of her research role. Now they are planning a real joint book, this one on women they have known.
In the meantime his two oldest sons increasingly have been accompanying him on interviews. They help break the ice, and have valuable childhood insights of their own.
"Here," he says, proudly holding up a picture, "here is Bobby (the eldest) and me in Alaska with an Eskimo grandfather and his grandchild Daniel (the second eldest) has been going with me out to Montana to talk with activists and ranchers fighting strip mining."
Five of Coles' books are children's books. His interest in children translates to everyday loyalty, for he receives stacks of mail from the many children who have read his books or whom he has interviewed. He answers each letter.
The six-inch high manuscripts of his upcoming two volumes in the Children of Crisis series sit on a shelf. Volume Four will be titled "Chicanos, Eskimos, Indians" and is based on his living in New Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley and Alaska mainly between 1972 and 1974.
Coles says he will continue doing the same type of work, citing a current magazine series he is writing on the underrated idealism of American youth. Despite his wide domestic traveling, a trip to South Africa two years ago was his first ever outside the country. He was invited by social-minded white students, and out of that trip he has developed a long term project to study how children respond to political authority.
He has been talking far longer than a busy man should and is tired now. The rain outside has stopped. It's time to go. He slumps down in his rocker: "I hope at the end of my work to do the philosophical side of all this, to take up Agee and O'Connor and the novelists and put their observations and mine into some sort of perspective."
Then his eyes light up again and the impish grin spreads: "But before that I still have some more wandering to do."