Robert Martin Coles

Robert Martin Coles (born 1929) was a social psychiatrist, social critic, and humanist whose work was centered on the daily lives of those Americans—the poor, minorities, the elderly, and especially children—who confront an often oppressive society with dignity and resilience.

Robert Martin Coles was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 12, 1929. His parents, especially his father, an engineer, impressed upon him the importance of keen observation and commitment to a better social world, whatever one's professional career. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard and his medical degree at Columbia University in 1954, with a specialization in child psychiatry. But as a young doctor he was not happy with conventional medical practice in Boston; it did not satisfy his deep interest in the humanities, in literature, in the intersection of the human spirit and the social order. Nor could it resolve his restless conflict: the desire to achieve and succeed and, at the same time, make a real contribution to the understanding of the human condition.


The Opportunity to Integrate Social Idealism

Drafted into the Air Force and sent to Mississippi to a psychiatric hospital, he began to see in the racially segregated society just beyond the military base the opportunity for integrating his social idealism, his psychiatric training, and his literary sensibility (with its debt owed to such writers as James Agree and George Orwell). This included his desire to be an active part of the African American struggle to overcome racial discrimination. With his wife and lifelong collaborator, Jane Halowell Coles, he worked out a method for listening to, and drawing out, those young African American children who were courageously running the gauntlet of jeering mobs in order to take their rightful place in school. This field work, and in particular the story of Ruby Bridges, who integrated the first grade of a school in New Orleans in 1960, laid the foundation for his life's work: the need to understand the most challenging and complex social and economic problems as refracted through the daily lives of ordinary people. (In the process we come to see that we must bring insight and compassion to the analysis of bigoted whites as well as courageous African American children, to the affluent as well as to the poor, to the successful as well as to the failed. It is this quality which David Riesman stressed in his evaluation of Coles: "There is one important theme he has contributed: antistereotype. Policemen are not pigs, white Southerners are not rednecks, and African Americans are not all suffering in exotic misery. What he is saying is 'People are more complicated, more varied, more interesting, have more resiliency and more survivability than you might think!")

Coles' first book, Children of Crisis, which resulted from his work with African American children, lent its title to a series of volumes. In the decade 1967-1977 he settled in Concord, Massachusetts, earning his living as a writer, staff psychiatrist, and lecturer at Harvard. (Students described his course, Social Science 33, with affection as "Guilt 33.") He went on to study in the other four volumes of the series migrant and sharecropper families; Southern, poor families moving north; Indian, Chicano, and Eskimo children; "the privileged ones," rich children; and the spiritual and moral lives of children. Despite the material deprivation, he writes, of children who are poor, they are no more unhappy than rich kids. "The pathology of childhood depression—and indeed other pathologies we physicians try to treat—are by no means epidemic among the poor, and may be just as common and conspicuous among the well-to-do who have so much and who want so much." With Jane Coles he also wrote Women of Crises, two volumes (1978 and 1980) about women across the class-race spectrum: "What it is that certain American women have to struggle for or against as a consequence of their 'back-ground,' and what it is they share (in the way of concrete realities, or hopes and fears)."


A Proflific Writer

Coles was an enormously prolific writer; by the early 1980s there were more than thirty books and more than five hundred articles. By early 1997, that number climbed to over 53 books. Many of them carried on the same conception and approach. They are about miners in Appalachia, children in strife-torn Belfast and apartheid-ridden South Africa, middle Americans, the elderly Spanish-speaking of the Southwest, troubled adolescents. Throughout there is a steady vision of what is wanted, a "method," as Coles was careful to say in quotes. "Eventually we pull together the words of others and our own observations into what (we can only pray) is a reasonably coherent and suggestive series of portraits, comments, reflections." The technique is by no means new. The books of the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, in the same vein, predated Coles's work by a decade. But Coles's psychiatric background deepened the portraits. And the connection of personal lives to oppressive social conditions was made more explicit. We must not only record how the miners talk about the terrible devastation of "black lung"; we must get rid of black lung.

As the years went by, Coles came to emphasize more and more his role as a writer, a creative writer, with a particular interest in the life of the spirit as well as the mind. His was a broadly religious outlook, a sense of the Judaic-Christian ethic at work rather than a formal elaboration of a given theology. His many biographies—of the psychiatrist Erik Erikson (1970), of the poet William Carlos Williams (1975), of the writers Flannery O'Connor (1980), James Agee (1985), and Walker Percy (1978)—engaged Coles in this contest, as did the collections of essays, whose titles provide a clue to Coles's central concern: Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and Secular (1988); A Spectacle unto the World: the Catholic Worker Movement (1973); The Moral Life of Children (1986); The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (1989), and so on.

The Moral Intelligence of Children hopes to further the idea that moral development is every bit as important as intellectual and emotional growth. "It's interesting how we make these generalizations about ghetto children and forget the parallels among the privileged. In some privileged precincts of America, you have well-educated parents with plenty of money who give their children toys and travel and credit cards. What they don't offer them is moral attention, a sense of connection to the community. The result can be staggering morally. And teachers are left to pick up the pieces."

In what Coles said was his last book about children he produced The Spiritual Life of Children (1990). From interviews of hundreds of children, ages 8 to 13—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hopi, secular—he reported what they had to say about how God speaks to them and how they listen and react.


The Core of Social Psychiatry

The core of Coles's social psychiatry is that it shows not only the mental stresses and strains in individual lives but the way in which powerful social and economic forces impinge on those lives and how those persons respond: well and poorly, emotionally and stoically, in resistance and defeat. Since the portraits, the heart of Coles's matter, do not end in solutions or policies, a number of critics of his work argue that we are left only with the sum of these voices; it is all too diffuse, the analysis and the compassion not focused on what is to be done and how. But that was not Coles's task, as he saw it. Rather, he wanted readers to understand, through the depth and complexity of these profiles, how, in the words of C. Wright Mills, personal problems and public issues connect. From that connection we can move on to social change.

1995, The Mind's Fate: A Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession—Thirty Years of Writings is a 1995 collection of his popular articles—book review, memoirs, essays and musings from publications like the New Yorker, the New England Journal of Medicine, the New Republic, Common-weal and the New York Review of Books, among others. What we have here is a collection of snapshots of Coles's thinking on this and that, which is valuable to have as Coles has a lot to say.

Coles had little use for many of his colleagues, whom he saw as narrow-minded and condescending, too quick to apply textbook labels and psuedo-diagnoses. In one book review, he extols R.D. Laing, the contrarian and controversial British psychiatrist who is something of a pariah for challenging the distinction between sanity and madness: "Freud called himself a conquistador, and if the bookkeepers and bureaucrats have now descended upon the psychoanalytic movement' in droves to claim his mantle, all the more reason for a man like Laing to stand fast as the psychoanalyst he is," Coles writes. "I am overpowered by the challenges he issues to what has become a rather conventional profession, very much the property of (and source of solace to) the upper-middle-class American, this century's civis Romanus. To Laing, we psychiatrists are something else, too: willing custodians, who for good pay agree to do the bidding of society by keeping tabs on various deviants,' and in the clutch taking care' of them—the double meaning of the verb being exactly the point."

Indeed, with the death of Christopher Lasch, Coles stands out as one of a diminishing group of scholars who refute the destructive and anti-democratic specialization that has nearly eliminated the general intellectual—once found in the hard sciences as well as in the history and English departments of the great universities—from public and political life.


Further Reading on Robert Martin Coles

In Robert Coles's prodigious output the most accessible work is The Children of Crisis Series, 5 volumes, (1967-1977). Among the biographies the studies of the writers Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy are especially to be recommended: Flannery O'Connor's South (1980) and Walker Percy; An American Search (1978), and among the essays The Call of Stories (1988) and The Mind's Fate: Ways of Seeing Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1975). A brief but insightful profile of Coles and his work is Paul Wilkes, "Doctor of Crisis," in New York Times Magazine (March 26, 1978).