Bob Rosenthal on Stevan M Weine’s Best Minds

We announced yesterday our excitement about the forthcoming volume (from Fordham University Press), Stevan M Weine’s Best Minds –  How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness

Bob Rosenthal writes:

In 1986, a young medical student visited The Allen Ginsberg office in the East Village. Allen became very interested in Stevan Weine and within a few hours Allen decides to grant Stevan full access to his medical papers at New York State Psychiatric Institute. Ten years earlier, Allen had done the same thing for me. He gave me full access to his archive at Columbia University’s Butler Library. He had only hired me a few months previously and I was concerned that he delegated authority too quickly. It turned out that I did not abuse my privileges and neither did Stevan, Allen had a sharp eye when it came to judging one’s character. I can visualize Allen rubbing his hands together after he scribed a permission note to Stevan. “Step into my karma”, says the spider to the fly.

For the next few years, Stevan met up with Allen and interviews him on his aural hallucinations . Allen also granted Stevan access to Naomi‘, his mother’s, psychiatric records.

In eleven years, Allen died from liver cancer. I lost contact with Stevan while Peter Hale and I were sorting out Allen’s after-life.  Stevan meanwhile had become a medical doctor in psychiatry. He was finally studying and treating people suffering from mental illness. By the time Stevan comes back into the world of Allen Ginsberg, he was teaching at the University of Illinois, Chicago and carrying a private practice. He now had the time to go back to his work on the poetry borne out of madness.

My father was a psychoanalyst in Chicago. I ended up going into psychoanalytic therapy to stay out of the draft. I was fortunate that my shrink was well-read and was as interested in literature as I was. I appreciated how exceptional Stevan was in that he read and understood poetry with an in-born sensibility. Allen had turned Stevan into “his kind of psychiatrist”. I had read the three full biographies on Allen and I had written my own memoir about the years I worked for Allen.  so I thought I knew almost everything, But I was utterly shocked when I read the first draft of Stevan’s book.

Stevan was completely sympathetic to Allen and his neurosis. He in no way judged Allen poorly,  in fact, he was convinced that Allen was a genius writer.  Here is what amazes me most in Stevens’ research – 1) Allen underwent therapy with three different therapists at the Psychiatric Institute, which is detailed fully in his records.  2) Allen’s written consent to authorize Naomi’s lobotomy in 1947 comes a half-dozen years earlier than it did in Allen’s memory. 3) Allen’s account of hearing the voice of William Blake sing “Ah Sunflower!” in 1948 is fabricated by Allen to describe his real indescribable visions. 4) Louis Ginsberg, Allen’s father, interfered with Allen’s therapy at the Psychiatric Institute.

Steven was surprised at the wealth of information found in the Psychiatric Institute’s records.  Whereas multiple therapists were most often condensed into one section, Allen’s records carefully detail all the therapists and their therapeutic conclusions. Stevan was able to enlarge each section of the therapy by applying his own psychiatric point-of-view to both the patient and the therapists. Both “Howl” and “Kaddish deal with madness as a point of societal clarity or a point of societal repression. It amazed me that this utterly crucial period of confinement in a mental hospital was lost in a scholarly miasma just five years before Allen was liberated enough to write “Howl”. His own account of his internment however glossed over his therapy and focused on his new friendship with Carl Solomon. He realized that he would not be released from the hospital until he provided a game plan to become heterosexual.

But Allen was staggering around in a mental landscape that included transformative visions. Stevan made it abundantly clear that Allen is able to bring clarity, firstly to the visions and then to his poetry itself, through the psychotherapeutic sessions. Stevan’s griping narration of Allen’s psychotherapy is cinematic in its depth and sharpness. I was unable to put the book down as I read the details of Allen’s therapy.

It was therapist number two, (notably a female therapist) who cracked open the roadblock to Allen’s positive mental health. She advised Louis to accept his son’s inherent homosexuality. Louis was shocked and livid and got this psychiatrist removed from Allen’s treatment, However, she did succeed in breaking open the roadblock and although Louis acceptance was not immediate, it did come, eventually, within a few years. Allen was also defining madness for himself in these sessions. This therapy in large part was what allowed Allen to ultimately give himself permission to write some of the best-known poetry of the twentieth-century.

In Stevans’ telling of the Naomi story, one is suddenly aware that readers of Beat Literature  never had a clear or comprehensible picture of Naomi’s hospitalization records and treatments. Allen was only twenty-one-years-old when he signed the paperwork for Naomi’s lobotomy. Naomi and Louis were divorced and Eugene, Allen’s older brother, was not consulted.  Allen’s sense of guilt over authorizing the procedure was glaring revealed by the total absence of an explicit mention of her lobotomy in “Kaddish”. Allen’s own memory places the procedure after his own hospitalization, but actually the lobotomy preceded it.   Naomi started to demand that “wires in her head” be removed immediately after the lobotomy. Allen’s sense of guilt was obscured by his own mental breakdown. By placing the lobotomy after it in his memory, he is inverting cause and effect. He lessened his sense of pain and responsibility.

This new factual landscape in Best Minds  provides more clarity as to how Allen came to create his poetry. Stevan shows that the original series of mystical feelings in 1948 don’t crystallize into a clear vision until ten years later. Allen doesn’t write about hearing a voice recite Blake until the late 1950’s. Allen later clarified his story by adding that the voice of Blake was really his own, now mature, poetic voice. The hallucination grew up alongside of Allen. Allen wrote and spoke of this event so much that it becomes an absolute fact in his biographies  (I too was shaking my head, “No, I don’t believe it”, as I read about the evolution of these visions).

I always felt close to Louis Ginsberg even though I never met him. In fact, he had just died, just before I started working for Allen. After Louis died, Allen started to wear a coat and tie almost all the time. Allen told me that he thought he got his homosexuality through his father. I related to Louis because I too was a father. I always thought of him as a sweet man, who accepted his sons with all their foibles. When Louis is hospitalized, Louis takes on a great importance. He controlled who Allen’s therapist was. It was Louis’ acceptance of Allen into the “normality” of  his new home with his new wife, Edith, that allowed Allen to be released. Allen did gain his father’s acceptance, even if it was not stated at first. Allen eventually traveled to California where he found his life-partner, Peter Orlovsky and found a shrink that gives him the permission he needs got are both gay and a poet.

Stevan very effectively discusses Allen’s visionary imagery and how it is transformed into great poetry. He also discusses Allen’s biography and how it influenced many of the decisions later in his life.  It seems clear to me that the true value of the book will be felt in future scholarly writing on both Ginsberg and literary madness. The richness of this story does not alter the eventual poetic output of Allen but it makes Ginsberg’s accomplishments  more singular and more human. Stevan Weine’s Best Minds gives us plenty of reasons to expect a new biopic that will explore Allen’s visionary depth, the early days of Allen’s homosexual acceptance, the evolution of psychiatry from the dark ages of cruel treatments, and the accomplishment of Allen’s oracular voice.

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