Karl Menninger is 84. The cofounder of the world's first psychoanalytic hospital has survived brain surgery, a recent stroke, the misfortune of being put out of his own clinic 15 years ago. This week he is in Washington, having come to speak at the National Portrait Gallery two nights ago as part of a "Living Self-Portrait" series, a kind of breathing Mt. Rushmore concept. In between he has taken in "Hamlet," toured the Mexican art exhibit at the Smithsonian, held meetings at HEW and HUD. On Friday he thinks he'll go home to Topeka to rest.
"Here I am an old buzzard nearly 100 years old and people still want to know what I think," he says, not exactly surprised, more delighted.
He says this a couple of hours before his talk. He is in his suite at the Mayflower Hotel. A publicist is there; so is his wife of 37 years. (He had an earlier one and talks openly and kindly of her.) He is trying to knot his tie, not giving a hoot about who has come to interview him.
"Come in, young man," he says. "Sit down. You must be my torturer."
Karl Menninger, even in shaky, hard-of-hearing old age, is still an imposing man. He is easily over 6 feet. His voice has a kind of deep, liquid growl. His hands, big enough to have once swung sledges or lifted heavy objects off docks, seem to prowl about him like hounds. Sometimes he fixes you with a flat stare. Especially when the question doesn't suit. Last year a woman reporter for the Associated Press wrote a piece that had him throwing books across his study and yelling at secretaries.He denies doing this and wonders what could have ailed her. He appears hurt.
Just now the question has pleased. It concerns the chunks of turquoise he's wearing on his middlef inger and around his left wrist. The gaudy southwestern jewelry clashes with his dark vested suit. He explains where he got the turquoise, then says with quick inspiration:
"Will they think I'm a gay if I wear it tonight? I think I may anyway." This gets a small, private heh-heh.
After some chit-chat about crabapples and blooming forsythias (Menninger is a horticulturist of renown), the discussion is of his writings. Karl Menninger has written a string of important books. His "The Human Mind," published in 1930, is still current and has influenced a generation of younger famous psychiatrists, among them Robert Coles. Menninger has revised the books several times. Erik Erikson once sai dof it and his other writings: "Karl Menninger translates Freud into American literature."
"Nowadays when I write I'm aware I won't be able to revise forever," he says. "Because, of course, I'm getting near my jumping-off point." Nontheless he hopes he might have several more books, or at least articles, in him somewhere. He continues to be passionate about prison reform (he was early vociferous) and American Indians (he has attended peyote rites, though never taken part). A recent concern is America's wrongheaded worship of the self. He thinks psychology and psychiatry are mainly to blame.
"You could come in and tell me your troubles for an hour and I could charge you $50 without really caring if you ever got better," he says. "It's a nice way to make some money." There are more charlatans out there than ever before, he thinks; also more skilled men than his profession has ever known. "I don't believe in psychology as religion."
Death fascinates, not repels. "Everybody's afraid of it. I don't want to die. But of course I am going to die. It's not a pleasant thought. But what can you do?" He figures almost everybody has suicidal thoughts at one time or the next. "They think, "All I need is a needle.' But of course a needle is a lousy way to do it."
He is a man of religion, he says. Nearly everybody in his family, including grandsons and nephews, has been a Presbyterian elder. "Somebody made all this," he says waving around him. "I'm one of those who believes you cannot induce facts for everything."
Suddenly he crosses his legs, revealing swollen ankles. His mind has fixed on a theorem. "Now I don't know that there's another floor above me on this hotel. I can believe it on faith, or conjecture it, or prove it."
His wife, a grandmotherly lady sitting across the room, interrupts: "Course, Karl, you'd rather just believe it on faith than have to ride around in an elevator trying to find out."
(That evening, during his talk, he says of Jeanetta Menninger: "We are not really just married - we are fused. We live, act, think, read, and feel about things almost as if we were one person. She is me. She is part of this portrait. I couldn't do it without her.")
The talk drifts to Topeka and the famous clinic he and his father, Charles Menninger, a pioneer Kansas doctor, founded in 1920. (A younger brother, Will Menninger, joined the team shortly after and in 1941 helped found the Menninger Foundation.) Genius has no logic, of course. If it did, the Menningers would have been born in Vienna instead of a Kansas rail town. Dr. Karl says Kansas was always just fine by him. "In college, at the University of Wisconsin, they used to call me 'Mr. Kansas.' I've always been that chauvinistic about it."
The townspeople never really understood, he says. "Not that they paid that much attention. Back then, they didn't care much about doctors, so long as you could lance a boil or heal a head cold. My father used to walk around in this black frock coat. I think everybody thought he was strange. Doctors were like monks. Then about 1915, I think, he went to the Mayo Clinic. He came back inspired. Doctors could work in teams. You could have group practice. That was how the clinic started out."
The first building was an old farmhouse, a frame structure, nondescript. A hot dog stand, a filling station, an Army pre-fab were taken over. Everywhere there were trees, grass, walks. Dr. Karl became chief of staff, his brother head administrator. In time the Menninger Clinic became the most acclaimed mental institution in the world, training an estimated 10 percent of all American psychiatrists.
Fifteen or so years ago, they eased him out, he says. They said he should retire, he said he should deep on. He went to Chicago for a decade, working on a dozen projects (a village concept for delinquent juveniles, among them), collecting degrees (12 honorary doctorates, at last count), writing more books.
In 1976 they discovered a tumor in the back of his head. He underwent successful surgery at Mayor's.Not long ago he and Jeanetta came home to the rolling, wooded lands of his youth. He is still out of power at the institution that bears his name; he understands.
"Oh, they were mostly young, ambitous doctors. They've all left now. It's over."
A thought strikes: "You know, when I was about your age, I worked for The Topeka Daily Capital. I had the police beat, city hall, architecture. The managing editor told me to get out - no money and you work too hard. I said, 'Yeah, but it's fun.' He said, 'I know, that's what keeps these poor ones in it.'"
He comes close, one steady eye taking measure. He has your hand. A cockeyed grin has splintered the ancient, lightly freckled face.
"I'm glad I listened."