Commentary Magazine

Children of Crisis, by Robert Coles

Psychiatry & Prejudice

Children of Crisis: A Study of Fear.
by Robert Coles.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 401 pp. $8.50.

Some of these “children” are little, the rest look grown-up. The “crisis” in which they are involved is the civil-rights movement. As the success of this movement is steadily put off, the movement itself becomes a state of being, a cruel condition of life which, like other conditions of life, air pollution or soil erosion, can be studied at leisure. Throughout the 60's, Dr. Robert Coles has observed and interviewed people living in the South and obliged by their sheer presence, whatever their point of view, to be a part of the civil-rights movement. His purpose has been a psychiatric survey of their reactions to its “stress.” His subjects have been five Negro and white children who took part in the token desegregation of public schools in the South, two of their teachers, seven young people (Northern and Southern, Negro and white) who have worked on civil-rights projects, and eight Southern adults (one a Negro) who have variously supported, ignored, or opposed the movement.

Since these people speak for themselves in the book, through long tape-recorded conversations with Dr. Coles, they make an immediate and natural impression which is, to some extent, independent of their being quasi-characters in a formal history. And regrettably, with the exception of the Negro children, they prove to be dull people. They lack even the eccentric interest of true psychiatric patients: none of them shows psychopathological symptoms, unless one might think (listening to the passionate segregationists) that life itself is an undiagnosed disorder. But then many of these people, unlike the segregationists, have behaved admirably. I can only conclude, quite conventionally, that there is no reliable correlation between virtue and reading pleasure. Consider the civil-rights workers whom Dr. Coles calls “The Protesters.” Excellent young people who have acted bravely and endured pitiable anxieties. And yet the longer they talk here, the less articulate they seem. They speak of deliberately avoiding “introspection” even as they reveal a consumptive (one would have thought paralytic) subjectivity. At the same time, the contents of their self-scrutiny are utterly familiar. There is perhaps nothing now in the United States that we all know more intimately than the secret thoughts of young, earnest, and troubled autodidacts.

Similarly, the white Southern adults seem to be exactly the people one had vaguely supposed them to be. Again, some are admirable, while others in this group are despicable. But the chief impression made by all eight of them is one of intellectual confinement. Their minds swelter inside a tiny space formed by the angles of the South, the Family, and Color, of which the last is conspicuously obtuse. Every white Southerner, it seems, embraces a mystique of region, everyone remembers, in unleavened detail, just what Daddy was like; everyone has his own lecture prepared on the moral, mental, and psychological character of the “nigra” or the “nigger.” The first of these terms is considered by some Southerners to be too respectful. In the course of these confidences, one comes to loathe them both.

But the young Negroes at least, confined by others, seem less self-confined. They refer from time to time to physical objects (grits, grass, tears) which exist, and are seen, beyond race or role. The small children have the sudden artless perception of all small children. In a puzzling situation, they very sensibly tend to ask questions rather than to answer them. The young men, too, have somehow escaped the impression which their white co-workers give of having been born and bred in a bull session. Perhaps because they have not recently chosen hardship, but have known it all their lives, their speech (even in this “corrected” version) is not oiled or automatic. If a jargon of unrelieved pain has been devised, it has not yet been learned by all Southern Negroes.

Dr. Goles saw these people frequently, and it is clear that he treated them with tact, sympathy, and patience. I especially honor his regularly joining six-year-old Ruby to play with her doll's house and to “drink tea.” Such interest, even in the segregationists, must have given pleasure and comfort. Professional research of this kind is unusual, in that it benefits others long before its results have been published. And these results, in turn, are stated honestly. There is no conscious effort to disguise the complexity of the issue, and no pretense that psychiatric examination is the sufficient or even the most nearly sufficient method of its solution. On the contrary, what emerges from the book is the inadequacy of the psychiatric mode.


It is not merely that most of the subjects could never, by themselves, have found or paid for psychiatric care. They didn't need it. The particular degree of racial injustice upon which the United States has settled evidently does not produce definable neuroses. In fact, the distress which is caused by this degree of injustice constitutes a wry form of “mental health.” In the “crisis” or “extreme situation,” as Bruno Bettelheim calls it, it is the cessation of distress which is the true illness. For persons like these Negroes, then, who are capable of asserting themselves within their trouble, psychiatry is impractical. If a person is depressed by hunger, he needs food. And if he is infuriated by inequality, he needs to be equal. The habitual effort of psychiatric therapy to adjust the first-class citizen to his first-class life, is insulting to the person who prefers rage and violence to any further adjustment to segregation.

Moreover, Dr. Coles suggests that psychiatry is largely irrelevant to the impersonal or ultimate understanding of the civil-rights movement. Extreme alienation from established social patterns is called madness, and psychiatry attempts to restore its victims to what we consider rational degrees of alienation. But since nothing established by even a sane society can be as good as (and much is far worse than) something else which might conceivably be established in the future, there falls between people and psychiatry the inexplicable barrier of idealism. Consequently, Dr. Coles seems forced to a pre-psychiatric conclusion: the comprehension of the civil-rights movement, and of all behavior within it, may finally depend upon ethical study. For a sick mind, the psychiatric hope is that an understanding of past causes will explain present effects. But in the civil-rights movement, Dr. Coles found no such certain interrelationship. Similar upbringings have produced dissimilar points of view, just as many divergent personalities have found mutual purposes. The civil-rights movement appears to have an antique metaphysical obscurity about it: a crisis arises and in response to it, for no clear or predictable reason, some unexceptional people behave well and other unexceptional people behave badly.

One wonders, finally, if psychiatry can furnish even the vocabulary in which to express its own limitations. Dr. Coles prefers to avoid what he calls his “professional dialect,” and when he does resort to it, he resorts to quotation marks as well, to indicate embarrassment or apology. He also avoids what has come to seem the facility of Freudian correspondences. Only once, a fat white mob-woman's eating of chocolate candy is related to her heckling of a “chocolate-skinned” first-grader. And this one lapse is excused by the genuine small discovery that the same Negro child thinks that her skin color, like a crayon, ought to furnish brown for a tree trunk in a picture. She wets her finger and then rubs it on her drawing paper.

Still, in the discussion of such uncharted lives, a professional or clinical terminology might have had the advantage of precision. In its absence here, a certain blandness of diction, an ethical simplism, become apparent. The subtitle of the book, “A Study of Courage and Fear,” is its first indication. These qualities have received so much subtle philosophical reexamination in the 20th century that it seems impossible now to use them easily. But Dr. Coles is particularly dependent upon such paired abstractions: “promise and power,” “risks and burdens,” “fears and tensions,” “guilt and confusion,” “hate and suspicion,” “idealism and fanaticism.” This is not, I think, a taste for vulgar rhetoric. It seems rather the habit of diagnosis, the shorthand of neurotic symptoms rather than the fought-for wording of full experience. As Dr. Coles himself remarks, “The vicissitudes of the strong and willful are not adequately described by a language that hopes to document the pains of the ill.”

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