Up the gravel drive and under the trees, Robert Coles' big yellow house sits on a hill, half an hour from Cambridge. Beyond a stone fence and a barn are woods. Coles' BMW sedan and Wagoneer are parked near the door, which he answers while restraining a dog. "Aaron, that is absolutely rude behavior!"
Coles, the child psychiatrist and Harvard professor, celebrated documentarian of the disadvantaged, prolific author whose books include the prize-winning "Children of Crisis" series, a self-described Christian "searcher" who has been called "the greatest social conscience of his generation," is not unaware of the irony presented by the BMW.
Nor are his Harvard students, who go by the hundreds to hear Coles' preachy, passionate, often mesmerizing lectures on "The Literature of Social Reflection." That he should come from comfortable Concord in a BMW to wring his hands about the wretched of the earth has helped earn the course its nickname, "Guilt 105."
And, as may befit an author of 36 books and 850 articles, he is sometimes referred to on campus as Robert "Never an Unpublished Thought" Coles.
"If you've read all those by now," he says in a phone conversation, his voice developing its characteristic high nasal whine, "you must have been to see an ophthal-mahhl-ogist."
His work, he says, is "compulsive . . . One reason I do this is I can't stand a lot of crap." Sitting alone writing, "I avoid a lot of people and situations."
Among those avoided are "intellectuals."
"I hate the word!" he groans. "I hate the people! I hate myself!"
Coles' recent books, "The Political Life of Children" and "The Moral Life of Children," contain interviews with kids from around the world. They received mostly favorable reviews, although Time, which had pictured Coles on its cover in 1972 as "the most influential living psychiatrist in the U.S.," now says his penchant for telling stories about children's lives without academic analysis shows that his "distaste for ideas and intellectual analysis is profound."
Coles admits to being "an oddball and a loner" -- though he is hardly uninterested in ideas. As he moves into the later stages of his career, he says, he may be adjusting his gaze. At 56, the man who has spent a quarter-century probing the lives of children and families caught in social crisis now spends much of his time writing and lecturing on religious themes.
"It's quite clear," he says, "that I'm a religious freak . . . What else do you do when you get old and stop and think about what this life is all about?"
Next winter, Addison-Wesley Press will bring out Coles' "Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage" on the life of the 20th-century religious philosopher; and "Dorothy Day: Live Like Her?" on the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement in whose "hospitality houses" for the destitute Coles worked while attending medical school.
Coles ushers Aaron, and the visitor, inside. He is a wiry man, low-key, even shy. He has great personal warmth and puts you quickly at ease, suggesting how he has been able to charm intimate information out of Americans of many races, classes and ages.
With his unruly black hair, bushy eyebrows and ratty green sweater ("I'm such a slob"), he resembles photos of his hero, James Agee, whose 1941 documentary book on southern poverty, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," with photographs by Walker Evans, is a classic of literary sociology.
Entering his bright, book-lined study, Coles seems sad.
"I think I'm depressed because I'm thinking about my parents," he says, sinking into a chair. He holds out a handwritten letter from his friend Walker Percy, the novelist. "My parents just died, so he's telling me he's sorry."
A long sigh:
"They lived into their eighties and they had a good life. Still, it's hard. They were good people, and I must say, like someone out of another century, they lived together for 60 years, they were happy, and my brother and I dearly loved them. And all this crap about what's happened to the American family . . . children who don't have the kind of solid home life that I think they need. Their mothers and fathers are off in a million worlds. It's not right.
"You know, people think of me as a liberal, but on some of these issues of family, I've always felt myself to be quite conservative: character and moral life, not only moral thinking, but moral living . . . You wonder: So many people now, they bring up their children to learn to get ahead, they want them to learn to read before they even go to kindergarten, to get 800s on all the SATs and get into all these fancy colleges. But what is their moral life, what do they believe in?"
The BMW, the nice house, the upscale life style he enjoys -- these are the kinds of facts Coles brings up in his classes, turning on himself. In a recent lecture he told how he toiled with migrant farm workers but "I couldn't stand it so I checked into a Holiday Inn." The workers wanted to go too, but Coles refused them.
"I'd be embarrassed, I'd be confused . . . They might even stop picking the crops after a while if they get used to this Holiday Inn life. And who's gonna pay the bill? The Ford Foundation will pay the bill! But pretty soon there won't be any of their grant money left."
The story gets a laugh, but Coles is serious in urging students to examine their privileged lives and somehow put them to good use in helping less fortunate people.
"What's wrong with feeling guilty?" he asks the students. " . . . Let's say that Jesus had a guilt trip. What was his problem? 'Hey buddy, take it easy! Don't worry about those people that need some bread! . . . What are you visiting the prisons for? Do you have a hangup? There must be some shrink over in Galilee you can talk to.' "
This is strong stuff at Harvard, where, says sociologist David Riesman, in a cosmopolitan, somewhat "corrosive" atmosphere, "Robert Coles is a point of reference for the noncosmopolitan, for the devout, for the student who isn't exactly with it in the going pieties and fashions of the moment."
Coles teaches another big lecture course on "The Literature of Christian Reflection," and seminars on "Dickens and the Law" at the law school, "Doctors in Novels" at the medical school, and "Moral and Social Inquiry Through Fiction" at the business school.
"In many ways, Bob is sort of like a pastor," says Phillip Pulaski, 32, Coles' assistant. "He probably is the most influential teacher at Harvard in terms of the impact on people's lives."
In his study, Coles has photos on the wall of his sons -- Bob, Dan and Mike -- and his wife Jane Hallowell. The two older boys are in Harvard and the younger one goes to high school and lives at home. The family has traveled and worked together over the years, and Jane coauthored two "Women of Crisis" books. Coles mentions her devotedly in his work as his guardian against academic abstraction.
It was Jane, he writes, who helped him see that 6-year-old Ruby Bridges -- a recurring figure in Coles' books -- was more than an object for psychological analysis as she smiled and prayed for hate-slinging whites who harassed her as she integrated a school.
At his wife's prompting, Coles saw Ruby Bridges as "moral protagonist . . . Was she not, utterly, and daily . . . the essence of what a human being can manage to be?"
"My life would be entirely different if it weren't for my wife," says Coles. "I would be in a psychiatric practice, probably in Boston . . . She's the one who wasn't interested in settling in a suburban home."
In 1958, after Harvard (class of '50) and medical school at Columbia, Coles found himself in the Air Force directing a psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Miss. He saw blacks beaten for trying to swim at a beach, then mobs protesting school integration in nearby New Orleans. The South was exploding and Coles, with Jane's "idealistic and adventuresome spirit" as a prod, and her family money to live on at first, began studying children caught in the drama.
They were married in 1960 and began work on the first "Crisis" book, "A Study of Courage and Fear," which studied children caught in the southern desegregation battle. It was published in 1967; subsequent volumes studied migrant farmers, sharecroppers, mountain people, southerners who moved to the northern slums, Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians and even the well-off and rich. "The Middle Americans: Proud and Uncertain," not formally part of the series, deals sympathetically with the white working class.
Coles' method of "direct observation," learned from psychoanalysts Anna Freud and Erik Erikson, involved getting to know a few children and their families over months, even years. According to Jane, children and parents would "just begin to talk because of the way he is, and it was such a pleasure. Sometimes you'd have the feeling that a couple needed reassuring, instead of just a young psychiatrist from Boston, you know what I mean. It might have scared them. So, often I'd get into a gab with the mother."
When Coles would propound some psychiatric theory, his wife, trained as a high school English teacher, would say she had already read it in more subtle form in "Middlemarch." Now Coles uses George Eliot's novel to show students subtleties of psychological observation that he says today's social scientists often miss.
Twelve years ago, when the family was living in Albuquerque and Coles was working on "The Old Ones of New Mexico," a documentary book with photographs by Alex Harris, Jane fell ill. The treatments have damaged her hearing. "I can't teach because of this," she says. Her husband declines to discuss the matter, saying only that the family returned East at that "melancholy" time, and Coles got his steady job at Harvard.
Standing in her bright country kitchen now, Jane talks nostalgically about their work over the years, then leans forward and confides in a protective whisper, "He's the true heart of this work , and you know that."
Coles' parents, an engineer from Yorkshire and an Iowa farm girl, instilled in their sons the notion that life is in the end a "mystery" best comprehended by holy men and Victorian novelists. They read aloud from George Eliot, Dickens and Hardy (none went to college, Coles likes to tell students), and his mother introduced Coles to Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, whose books he now teaches.
His father, a Taft Republican with a liberal streak, introduced Coles to George Orwell's "Down and Out in London and Paris" while Coles was in high school. And once, when Coles came home beaming with "self-pleasure" at a good report card, he received a sharp lecture from his mother on "the sin of pride."
These early lessons deeply influenced Coles, and as he grows older he seems to be contemplating them with increasing intensity. Yet back in Biloxi, before marrying and getting down to his life's work, he went through a period when he was depressed and under psychoanalysis. He would speed over to New Orleans in his sports car for the fine food, jazz and girls. He also spent a lot of time watching movies.
Then came one of those unexpected, life-changing surprises. Walker Percy's novel, "The Moviegoer," set in New Orleans and peopled by characters in various stages of existential despair, came out in 1961. Coles was gripped by it and immediately recognized in Percy his "spiritual kinsman."
Today Coles says Percy's influence has been beyond calculation. Percy, a medical doctor and Catholic convert, writes novels that critique contemporary life and carry an often disguised message of Christian hope. In 1978 Coles profiled him for The New Yorker in a series that later became a book, "Walker Percy: An American Search."
During a telephone conversation, Coles showed how subtle and pervasive the Percy influence has been. He offered to meet a visiting reporter at the airport, saying he wanted to get out of the house, drive around Boston, talk in bars and sit next to ordinary people.
Then, chortling at the prospect, he exclaimed: "We'll have a 'rotation!' "
The term, which Percy distilled from the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, pops up in "The Moviegoer" as a trick used by people who are in despair. Percy's character Binx Bolling defines a rotation as "the experiencing of the new beyond the expectation of the experiencing of the new."
A newspaper interview is not a new experience for Coles. However, as it turned out, the existential pub-crawl that he looked forward to with such relish in this case had to be called off because of a last-minute speaking engagement.
In Coles' study, photos of Percy and of other Coles models, friends and mentors peer down from the wall -- Agee, William Carlos Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Erikson, Anna Freud, Day, Weil, Bernanos. Beside the brooding intellectual faces are photos of sharecroppers, Eskimos and others Coles came to know as he studied them.
Williams was an especially strong influence, and Coles wrote a book on him (" . . . The Knack of Survival in America"). While Coles was a student at Harvard, he sometimes followed the poet and doctor on his medical rounds of working class Paterson, N.J. Williams urged him to shun abstractions and embrace particulars: "Catch an eyeful, catch an earful, and don't drop what you've caught."
In fact, Coles has never been comfortable as a social scientist drawing the kind of general academic conclusions that social scientists draw.
As early as 1961 he wrote in The Atlantic, "When the heart dies, we psychiatrists slip into wordy and doctrinaire caricatures of life. Our journals, our habits of talk become cluttered with jargon . . . We embrace icy reasoning."
In "The Moral Life of Children," he takes a swipe at Harvard Prof. Lawrence Kohlberg, who is widely known for his theories on moral development in children.
Writes Coles: "For Kohlberg, Ruby was a 'preconventional' or 'premoral' lass. Her prayers, her smiles, were, I suppose, mere gestures, not the careful responses of a truly reflective person -- a Cambridge theorist, for example."
Says Kohlberg: "I think he's a fine guy and a sensitive guy who isn't very theoretically sophisticated . . . The fact that young children often perform heroic acts is in no contradiction with my theory."
In this February's Boston Review, William Damon criticizes Coles' "dabbling in psychological theory and gratuitous railings at social science." He says Coles occupies the "somewhat lonely territory between social science and journalism."
"I know some doctors who look down their noses at him, but I look down my nose at them," says Peter Davison, who edited the "Crisis" series and many other Coles books. ". . . Dostoevski would say he's a 'great soul.' "
As Coles' spiritual concerns intensify, they seem increasingly to point up what has become his radical critique not only of the social sciences but modern thought and culture in general.
"The social sciences," he says, "have had much too easy a time of it with the gullible American public." Then this:
"Flannery O'Connor said that the task of the novelist is to deepen mystery, and mystery, she said, is a great embarrassment to the modern mind, and I think that is a wonderful statement, and I think it's a statement that it behooves all of us to live with and be grateful for, and, you know, having said that, I've said 'Goodbye!' to American secular social science, and a lot of other things in the American secular world, which is hungry for certitudes, and formulations, and stages and phases, and wants everything categorized and put into labels and compartments, and wants an explanation and a recommendation for when you take your next breath, wants to be told at what day and what month and what year a child should learn how to read, and how to have sex in 150 new ways, and lose weight, and keep your cholesterol at a certain level, and you can't even die without these people telling you the stages you're supposed to go through!"
He catches his breath.
Then, more quietly: "People are lost, and don't know it, and are wandering in the wilderness."
The Illiberal Liberal
"I never went South to be involved in the civil rights movement," says Coles. "I was already there and I came from a conservative background. I was in SNCC the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Summer Project, but I found some of the stridency and the ideological positions being taken . . . something I couldn't tolerate."
There were other things he couldn't tolerate as the years went by.
Riesman says that after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Coles publicly denounced the "inane revolutionary yearnings of . . . affluent radical whites . . . He said what the black family in Roxbury a section of Boston wants is a tough Irish policeman with a gun . . . to shoot these black thugs or whites who cheer them on."
More recently, Coles caused a stir by reporting that only children of affluent, liberal parents appear to worry about nuclear war; working class children worry about money and other problems.
Yet, says Riesman, "No one could be more concerned with nuclear arsenals." He dubs Coles "the internal conscience of the conscientious."
Coles tells students that criticisms of the left are part of the intellectual tradition he admires. In a recent lecture he discussed Orwell's "devastating assault on the socialist left" in "The Road to Wigan Pier," saying that Orwell, Agee and others "are constantly looking with a skeptical eye at the world they themselves come from."
Coles -- who says he's "independent" politically -- is not, finally, easy to label, perhaps because in his work as a documentarian he empathizes with all sides. In his book on rich children, he showed how early moral stirrings grow cold under the influence of materialistic parents. Yet in Albuquerque, his neighbors were "all conservative Republicans. They were the most wonderful people in the world . . . I found them, in the everyday way, so much nicer and kinder than some of those liberal intellectuals that I knew from the Northeast."
Coles says despite his inclination to "be conservative on many social issues . . . I will never be a conservative politically because Jesus spent his life among the poor, and the Hebrew prophets were preoccupied with the poor, and I think they are the ones we have to attend . . .
"I don't feel myself part of the 'moral majority,' nor . . . part of the whole parading of religion that we see now in America. It's kind of awful the way that's being used now politically, it's kind of disgusting."
Coles told "Contemporary Authors" he is Episcopalian; agrees in an interview to the designation "Christian existentialist"; and adds that when he called himself "agnostic" in a book it was "in the sense that . . . doubt is part of faith." He says that going to church nowadays, where "everyone is embracing one another and saying hello to one another . . . makes me nervous."
In examining and castigating himself before students, Coles says, he seeks to raise issues in a way that "will, I hope, affect their lives . . . In teaching them I'm trying to teach myself. I'm in the same damn boat they're in -- tempted by all the problems of materialism and ambition and greed." In a recent lecture, he introduced Thomas a Kempis, who wrote in the "Imitation of Christ" that, "He who knows himself well is mean in his own eyes . . . Be not, therefore, puffed up with any art or science."
"Here are these writers who've all been struggling with this," says Coles, "and I think we all ought to struggle with it. 'Unreflecting egoism,' George Eliot calls it in 'Middlemarch.' How do you tame that? It's a lifelong challenge."
And a sorrow for Coles, who remains tormented by his struggle to reconcile his own position with the wretchedness he sees in the world.
"And how do you ever get out of that?" he asks, his voice growing low. "I don't know. I try to tithe myself, I try to share money but I'm still living comfortably . . . I used to have these conversations with Dorothy Day and she'd say, 'If you want me to accuse you, you've got the wrong person.' "
Now, in his study, Coles grows almost inaudible, as if writhing in despair: "I can't do anything else. I can't. I couldn't live. I used to wonder if I could live the way she [Day] used to live, in those hospitality houses, and I'd go crazy."
What attracted Coles to the common, uneducated people he chronicled over the decades, he says, was the simple decency and morality he often found. And what was shocking, he tells students, is that he had to lay aside his education and professional training to understand them.
He still struggles for that understanding, looking ironically at himself looking at them: With respect to Ruby Bridges, that pioneer of integration in America, Coles tells students recently, an interesting "longitudinal irony" has developed.
Now in her thirties, Ruby works for a big company and wants, Coles says, to make "money, a lot of money, to help her family." She and her husband "are struggling, as we all struggle, to accumulate some kind of security for themselves."
She also has decided to send her children to private Catholic schools. UPI quoted her as saying, "My son went to the (public) school that I started at and I don't like to down public schools, but he wasn't really learning the way he should have."
Says Coles in his lecture: "I had a long talk with her -- in a bar, where else? Who's right, who's wrong? . . . I've never figured out, at times, how to answer these questions."
Connector of Worlds
Coles is a workaholic.
"We have no social life. I never take vacations. Who cares about Paris or Rome or London?" He takes walks with his wife, and still likes movies, especially with Clint Eastwood. "I can't stand that whole Woody Allen kind of movie."
For the next phase of his career, Coles plans a study of "how children get their religious and spiritual values; without reducing religious experience to a lot of psychological terms, which is the prevailing tendency even among the ministry."
In addition, he and photographer Alex Harris are trying to set up a center for documentary studies at Duke University to train social scientists, photographers and others. Says Coles: "The tradition of going out into the world, whether it be with a camera, with a tape recorder, with a pad and pencil . . . to observe how people are living . . . in a direct kind of contact with them, is terribly important."
Coles has just answered a letter from a 13-year-old. "I answer those letters with such scrupulosity," he says. "I feel it's an absolute obligation to respond . . . It's part of my role as a teacher."
Then: "You know the way Percy puts it: 'We hand one another along.' "