Garrett O'Connor discusses "Reflections in the rubble."
BROADCAST: Feb. 1, 1970 | DURATION: 00:59:53
Psychiatrist Dr. Garrett O'Connor discusses his article "Reflections in the rubble: some thoughts in the aftermath of civil disorder." Topics of conversation include his experiences working in community clinics with blue collar workers and African Americans; the ways that poverty, racism, and classism are maintained by the American economy; the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination/Holy Week riots in Baltimore, Maryland; and race relations and prejudice. Includes an excerpt of an Irish woman named Bernadette Devlin who discusses her interaction with a woman who expressed hatred for Devlin and Irish Catholics while also showing her great hospitality.
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Studs Terkel I'm visiting with Dr. Garrett O'Connor who is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and who applies psychiatry to our daily lives and who was very definitely involved, too, in the life of Baltimore during a certain traumatic moment, the moment's still with us, following the assassination of Dr. King. Working in a clinic, aid stations in the Black ghetto of Baltimore, which he can talk about at length, and also his encounters with lower white middle-class people. But before we hear Dr. O'Connor's own experiences and his reflections and observations, he's written, by the way, a very remarkable, it's a paper, a brochure, a booklet. How would you describe it? It's a very remarkable one that I think should interest all of us. The title is, what do you call that again? The title is, "Reflections In the Rubble: Some Thoughts on the Aftermath of Civil Disorder". And the "American Journal of Psychiatry" is where it appeared, isn't it, in the May 11th issue, 1969. Before we hear, though, Dr. O'Connor's reflections and thoughts, perhaps both of us and you, the audience listen to Bernadette Devlin. This is during, in an automobile so there's a bumpy sound you'll hear. As you may at this moment hear a very familiar city sound, a siren in the background possibly. We're in the auto, she's describing a certain moment when she, Bernadette Devlin, is visiting a poor Protestant woman in Derry who hated her. Well, perhaps we listen to her now as she tells the story of this woman who hated her, at the same time offered her hospitality.
Studs Terkel When
Bernadette Devlin you say "we," Miss Devlin? Some of the people of, are of the Civil Rights movement. Eamonn McCann, and [Eamon Melaugh?], leader in Derry. Eamonn and myself went into one particular Protestant slum area and, to see the peculiar conflict in the mind of one individual. This Protestant lady brought us in to talk to us. And she hated us. She told us she hated us. But we'd said we really wanted to talk to her, we wanted to explain our position. We wanted to try and tell her what we felt about her plight, and how it was all the same, all the same struggle. So she took us in, and while we were there all the neighbors started coming in. And she gave us tea. We called up at tea time and we hadn't had food. So she gave us tea and biscuits, and generally brought out the best [Delft?] and even a bottle of sherry for after tea. Typical hospitality, it was natural to this woman. But as she poured tea, she kept telling us how she hated us, and how if she had a chance, she would finish us off. And every time she saw my face on television, she wanted to break the screen. Because she hated us. And she kept on saying it. And here was a conflict. So we asked her why, why do you take us in and talk to us? Why do you show us such hospitality while you hate us? And she said, "Oh, you're all right when you're there. You know, we are human beings, all right, you're all right, one or two of you. But it's the whole lot of you and the things you stand for." So we said, "Why do you live in a slum?" She said, "Because there aren't enough houses." We tried to point out logically why are there not enough houses, the government doesn't build enough houses. And her logic broke down there. She said, "The government doesn't build enough houses because it can't build enough houses. If the government aren't building houses, it doesn't mean they're letting their people down. It means that there are too many people to be housed and the government's doing its best. And the answer is to get rid of all those Catholics, because if all those Catholics weren't there, then there would be enough houses for all the good loyal citizens."
Garrett O'Connor Yes. This, to me, was extremely moving. I had several reactions to it. I was overwhelmed, almost, by the wisdom of somebody who is only 22 being able to put together all of these kinds of thoughts and insights into the relationship of an individual to the society, particularly what she said about, or what the lady said, rather, about "I hate you for what you represent. But when you are in my parlor, here you are and I can give you a welcome." That seems to me to be the explanation and, in a sense, the quintessence of what our trouble here is in America. Somehow in recent years, as I've become more involved for a variety of reasons, my heritage and history and my upbringing, in the struggle of people in this country to be free, to the country of my adoption, the country that has provided me with so much, the phrase, the old phrase which you know, Studs, and all of us know, you know, "some of my best friends are Jews." I often think of writing something about saying, "Some of my best friends are Jews, Catholics, Arabs, Muslims, Blacks, or other, you know, like multiple choice computer questions somehow. Because when we're in groups and when we represent something, when we represent the stability of our group identifications, for example, let me say that, you know, obviously I know many Black people intimately, many militants, many people who represent something quite antithetical to what I represent in many ways, but, yet, we deal with each other, talk, rap, drink, do all of the things that people do together in unison and in harmony, argue our various positions. But I have often said to them, and they have said to me, "You know, we're friends. We go to each other's houses. We speak to each other's women." All of that kind of thing. But if they and me are in the streets together, and there was a barricade separating us, and I as white and they're Black, and I had a gun and they had a gun, I would shoot them down and they would shoot me down because of what I represent. So that individuality becomes submerged in the group identification and it is that, the group identification it seems to me, that governs our lives and influences our lives, and that is the genesis of the stereotypes on which we base our ideas and which so influence the way we live and the way we think, the way we behave, and so influences the way we generate our emotions, our anger, and our ideas, and become constricted by them. It's a sort of internal [manacle?] in a way. If we can be individuals and relate to each other as individuals, then it seems that things go well. Blacks, whites in this country, Indians, Chinese, Chicanos, work side by side provided they have a common task. But when the task is different, when the task varies, when the task is that of survival of the group or of the race, or of the people to whom you belong, then every advantage that is provided by common work and common interest and common enterprise is submerged into the new nationalism, and that of the ethnic or racial or group identity, and the stereotypes are up.
Studs Terkel So the stereotype, the myth, comes into play in the case of Bernadette Devlin and, in a moment, perhaps, I hope you'll tell us about your own experience in Baltimore, an event that happened. This woman didn't know Bernadette Devlin as a person until that very moment she saw her in her apartment and gave her, the poor woman, the poor Protestant, who hated Catholics, you know, as a group who she didn't know, and gave her her best sherry, you see, as a person, than as a group. And, so, we come to the question of knowing, the cost of someone alien and different, and not knowing a myth is established or a stereotype is built.
Garrett O'Connor But you see, I think that despite what Bernadette Devlin said, that lady admitted having thrown rocks at her in a march, hating her, wanting to see her injured, perhaps even dead, silent, as you have said. What Bernadette Devlin didn't say is that there are circumstances that could arise in this kind of conflict, I mean civil rights conflict in the streets, where she would also have killed that lady. She is subject to the same stereotypes, the same kind of prejudices, the same kind of fantastic influences, which can turn a group of people, for example, well-motivated, well-meaning, in virtually a short period of time into a mob which will kill somebody. This is the dynamics, the phenomena, of the lynchings. This is the dynamics, and the phenomena on a fantastically larger scale of Nazi Germany. This is, in a sense, what is going on in the Middle East at the moment between Egypt and the Arab countries and Israel. This is what is going on here in America between the ethnic groups, that when the chips are down, when the groups are confronting each other and all individuality, all morality goes to hell, and slaughter and savagery and barbarism and primitive impulses arise.
Studs Terkel And don't we have something else here, though, Dr. O'Connor, again, as the fact that when one's own life, one feels powerless. Let's take a lower white middle-class guy, seemingly well-off. You know, he's better off than he was, his father was in the '30s during the Depression in America, the same time he feels powerless and threatened by it because of the bleakness of his own life or, perhaps even more dramatically, the poor white in the South, who says he has to have, somebody has to be less than he for him to survive. As the poor white would say, "If I ain't"--to use the phrase--"I ain't better than a nigger, who am I better than?" Indeed, the blue-collar guy up North is saying the same thing, isn't he?
Garrett O'Connor But of course, I think that's, you know, absolutely crucially important. Because many of the not only poor whites, and disadvantaged whites, I mean, but, perhaps, even more the lower-middle-class whites who are tradesmen, factory workers, assembly line workers, people with programmed lives before them, they know exactly now what they will be doing when they're 55 years of age. They know where they will be, what house they will be living in. There is no surprise, no adventure in their lives, they lead bleak, programmed, formulated existences. They are the people, indeed, I think, that perhaps have the resentment, because they don't, any more than the Blacks or the disadvantaged whites, have any more chance for adventure or for whatever one might say. Upward mobility is the old cliché, than anybody else, and so they are the ones, it seems to me, who holding onto what they have, breed and hold on to the stereotypes which are available to them, and they're afraid, they're terrified.
Studs Terkel I think, you know, to me, in reading your paper, "Reflections on the Rubble: Some Thoughts in the Aftermath of Civil Disorder", Garrett O'Connor, my guest, rather I'm visiting him at the moment, it appeared in the "American Journal of Psychiatry", May 11th, 1969. You describe--and, perhaps, I think you should talk about this. You were in Baltimore. You're a psychiatrist attached to John Hopkins University, on the faculty, and Martin Luther King was assassinated. Suppose you tell the story, because it's quite overwhelming to me.
Garrett O'Connor Well, actually, and this doesn't appear in the paper, the beginning of the story and I think it's important to say it, I was in Washington that night, in Washington, D.C., and I was attending a meeting, an inaugural meeting of a particular organization of group process people. You know, the country is being overwhelmed by small groups, and the idea is that if everybody even in a small group the world would be a better place. I think it's important to say that if people really realize the nature of groups and whatever, that if everywhere everybody were involved in a small group, the world would be a much worse place. But in any event, I was attending one of those meetings with a friend and colleague of mine, and here we were listening to people, in fact there was a man from Chicago from one of the group organizations here, I can't remember the name of it, who was talking about the advantages of his sort of group approach. And we were there for 20 minutes and he was going on and talking about it, when suddenly, and we were in somebody's house and there were, oh, 50 people there I suppose, sitting in the living room. Suddenly like in from a blizzard came a lady, about 10 to 8:00 at night, and she was staggering in, with her hands up in front of her face, and staggering and almost fell on the floor and she cried out, "Oh" she said, "Dr. King has been shot!" And fell on the floor and had to be revived by several people. There were great ululations and cries from the group as people cast their heads down between their knees and beat their temples. About 20 minutes later, or perhaps not that now, but ten minutes later, a man came in from the night outside in exactly the same thing, as if it had been rehearsed, with his hands in front of his face beating his temples and clutching his hair, saying "Dr. King is dead." And great cries arose from the group. The minister from Chicago, indeed, who was conducting the meeting, an expression of some sort of triumph crossed his face. His eyes lit up, and he said to the group nothing about Dr. King, but he said, "Let us use this opportunity to investigate our own mourning. Would people of the group," he said, "Please think about somebody in their past lives who had died and react to it and tell the group, and then we can all experience what the whole business of mourning is." There was no mention of Dr. King, no mention of the implications. At this point, when he said that, myself and my friend got up and left, of course, there was no alternative, it seemed to me, than to cancel the meeting and ask people to go home and do their own morning. To use it as a sort of group dynamics gimmick seemed to me to be the most awful thing that I had experienced for a long time. In any event, I drove home and, of course, we talked on the way home, and before I went back to my house I went into a neighborhood tavern in which I'm well known. It's a little--
Garrett O'Connor Very well known. I use to go there almost every evening for a beer, and there were about 20 people in there. All white people, it's a white neighborhood. It's in their little lane way. It's a one-room tavern, spit and snot on the floor.
Garrett O'Connor Working people. Milk men, truck drivers, gas delivery men, usually all appearing in their working clothes after work. And blue denims with their names, Bill, John, Jerry, always embroidered there. So as you can identify them as persons. And so there they were, and I went in and everyone said hello. And I was terribly depressed and confused and upset and didn't know what to do. I mean, what do you do in such circumstances. What are the implications of such an assassination? What's going to happen? What's going to happen now? And there they were and there was this television program, watching the television which--whose principal purpose, I think, is to distract them from the reality of the poverty of their own existence. To allow them to escape from it as they sit there at the bar unwilling to accept their own situation, their own poverty, their own lack of opportunity. And there was one man there, I was talking to a fella called Bill who's a milkman, actually, he doesn't deliver to me, but about a year before that I had met him first. We talked always about football and often about issues of society and things like this and he used to wear a 45-caliber gun on his belt. He wore it, he had it there, he carried it all, he had a license to do it, and I used to ask him about that, why he wore that and he always said it was for fear, he got attacked in [this ___?] and so I asked him why he wore it in the bar, was he in fear, afraid of getting attacked in the bar. And finally, anyway, after about six months of my constant questioning, he stopped wearing the gun because he was embarrassed for fear he'd meet me. And so, anyway, there we were and I was talking to Bill that night, and Bobby Kennedy came on and he read a poem or quoted a poem, I can't remember who it was, I think it was something by Frost. And it was moving. And suddenly, in the midst of all this, and that I was trying to absorb this and trying to somehow, you know, take care of how I felt there. And suddenly a great cry went up: "Thank God the mother------ is dead!" they said. He was an elderly man in his 60s. They said, "If Hitler could do it to the kikes in Germany, we can do it here!" "Long live King!" they said, "The king is dead." Or rather, the other way 'round. Macabre mockeries of wit and on it went around me. There were cries and they got sort of hysterical, you know. Screaming and roaring. Strange, perverse triumph, no appreciation of what this meant. Somehow they felt released by the death of Martin Luther King. They felt a triumph had taken place. And so there I was, and I went, I lost my cool. I lost my cool. I said, you know, I roared and screamed at them. I said, "You bunch of bastards. So there you were in Omaha Beach with your battle songs and long live the Stars and Stripes, and here is the death of a man who's been acknowledged by the world, you know, as one of the great people, one of the great people of the world, one of the people who has dedicated his life, and here you are screaming in triumph and joy and rejoicing in his death because somehow he affects you and somehow he allows you to escape. Go back into your mold." And I roared and cursed and swore at them, and they rose up from their seats. They got off their seats. We were sitting all at the bar, you know, and there's an area in the back of the bar there which is just empty. A couple of tables there. And I was standing up and the crowd gathered around me. I was backed off into this corner and just, you know, they knew me. Some of them were friends. All of them knew who I was, you know, psychiatrist or professor at the university, knew this. I was backed into this corner and there was a truck driver there whom I didn't know very well. I met him before, but I didn't know him. And he had a bottle of beer in his hand and there were these 20 people, about 20 of them. And I was in the back of this bar. No escape. The exits were blocked. And these 20 fellows around me, very menacing. And this fellow came up and he grabbed me by the shirt, and he put this bottle of beer, it wasn't broken yet, under my throat and there were a lot of people, several people who said, "Fuckin' nigger lover. What do you do with a nigger lover? Let's do with him like they do in the South. String him up!" And I put up my fists, this guy was much bigger than I was. There was nothing I could do. He had big boots on. They all had big boots on, it seemed to me, so I saw them standing around me. I put my fists up and I was going to, you know, go down fighting somehow, and I said to them, you know, there's 20 fellas, you're 20 guys here and I'm one. Doesn't seem to me that this is what, you know, free America means. This is everything, everything opposite of what it really means. And that seemed to somehow strike some chord inside them and then seemed to strike some something of whatever rationality they had left, and as they banded together against me, or not against me personally because I was a friend of many of them, but against what I represented and what I had said to them. And, so, they stopped and he released me, and they went back to their drinks, back to the bar. Well, I was in, I was just like anybody else in that bar, I was having my drink, my drink was still on the counter. So I went back with them and I'm also by profession an interested group worker, and here I had a group. So I followed them back to the bar. And during the next hour or so, it was a bar with a limited license, so it shuts at 1:00. We only had an hour to talk. So I said in my paper I learned some home truths about their situation.
Studs Terkel What happened, you followed them, let's see now, they were somewhat abashed when you said 20 against one, and since--and, so, you followed them to where they sat and [where their?] drinks.
Garrett O'Connor Well, they looked sheepish, and it seemed that I had somehow interpreted what they were doing by what I said, and they saw the uselessness of it, and you know, their anger just immediately.
Garrett O'Connor And I went straight to the truck driver who had held the bottle up to my throat and I said to him, "You know, here we are, we're all affected by this event. You were obviously affected differently than I am. But you somehow--can't we talk about it a bit?" And they said, "Well, listen, Doc," you know.
Garrett O'Connor "Doc," oh yes, this is what I'm known as there, always "Doc." And in fact I had often talked over in the bar, you know, in the past two years that I'd been going there, many of their family situations and troubles with their adolescent children, and--
Garrett O'Connor Whatever. Well, they were going to. At least maim me, not kill me, but at least hurt me and injure me severely. They were taken over, they were overwhelmed by their own hate and what it represented to them. So there I was, anyway, and we talked about it and they told me a whole lot of things that I had never really, I knew about before but I never really understood, because this truck driver said to me, for example, he said, "You know, I don't, I don't hate those niggers," he said, "But it's my job. I'm a truck driver." And he said that everybody knows, and I never discovered where he got this from, said, "Everybody knows that niggers are better truck drivers than whites." And he said, "If my job wasn't in the public market," and he said, "I've been in it for 23 years, if I was put on the public market there'd be a nigger sitting in my truck seat tomorrow and I'd be out digging ditches. That's nigger work." He said, "Doc, you're a member of the affluent society. We're not. This is our society here, and this is a hole in the wall. I mean, look at us. Twelve o'clock at night, and here we are drinking our beer and our wives and children at home. This is our life. There's nothing more for us. We can go on holidays and vacations and things, but there's nothing more for us. Twenty-three years sitting in a seat of a truck. I don't want no nigger" he said, "Sitting in my seat." And that made me understand very clearly that the basis of their fear, it's not a personal thing. It's basically economic. These people work hard. They work as hard, if not harder, than I do. Regular schedules. Hard work. Low pay and whatever. And they have only so much. They have all the problems that I do and many more. They have to struggle with them and they don't have the advantages or, perhaps, ways of handling the problems that I do because of my position. And whatever.
Studs Terkel So it was this fear then, and, of course, this marvelous myth again, isn't it? They, they have rhythm, and but they're also better truck drivers than he. So it's also a sense of demeaning himself, too, and not enough sense of personal worth himself, too, that's part of it too, isn't it?
Garrett O'Connor Yes, I think there's a--well, of course there's an insecurity in being in that position, because if you know it can happen to the Blacks, the oppression and the next thing, as you said before in some other interview, it can happen to you. Your story, for example, as you said about the, you know, the man who--well, you know that story and there's no point in going into it. But you know, when is it going to be me? When is the hatchet going to fall on me? And there is this subtle and covert realization of this in society. But now it's the Blacks! Next time it might be me, let's keep it with the Blacks.
Garrett O'Connor There was a fantastic group response. You know, almost every one of the 20 had something to say, and they all agreed and I agreed and we had this amazing transaction. You know, that all of the haze and all the stereotype was gone. I was not a subject or whatever or a representation or a symbol of anything they hated. We were having a conversation, and we bought each other drinks, they bought me drinks, and I bought them drinks, you know, and I've gone back to that bar many times and I'm still very welcome. And I've told them, I showed them my paper that I wrote about them.
Garrett O'Connor Oh, they told me I was full it, but nevertheless they read it, and we sat reading it together and we got into more conversations. And still the man, the milkman with the gun still doesn't wear his gun because he's embarrassed to meet me.
Studs Terkel Has there been, this is very difficult to answer, since that event. You think there's been a change, a noticeable change anyway, or an imperceptible change in their thoughts about it, or is there still?
Garrett O'Connor Oh, yes, there's been quite a perceptible change there, in that they seem to be able to discuss issues, at least, if not react to them or behave as if they understand them, but at least they can have an hour or two hours of discussion that is not, you know, pervaded by hate and influence and of stereotypes in which they live. And I'm convinced and absolutely feel great sympathy for these men. They do work hard. They're full of an integrity of a particular kind that I think is born from the beginnings of this country. It's the fierce passion of the pioneers brought back East into the blue-collar worker class. And there they are. They own homes, they have families, and they have to hold on pretty hard to what they believe in and what they have, because if they don't have that, they have nothing. They're like everybody else.
Garrett O'Connor Because if he doesn't have anything in this materialistic society, he is nothing, and it's only the artist or the person who has managed to understand the basis and the underpinnings of the society who can tolerate having nothing, except our minds and what emanates from their own minds. But these, this group of people, you see, by virtue of their jobs are not allowed to use their minds, or their minds never have an opportunity to develop. They have high school, which, of course, is a travesty of education, in most cases. In many cases they haven't even completed that.
Studs Terkel So brought up as they are particularly now with the television commercial, much like the Strasburg goose, stuff shoved into them, you know, buying, buying, and even seemingly affluent, yet we know there are debts. We know the house isn't quite--you know, it's keeping up, keeping up with the Joneses, as a result of which there's still got to be someone less than them to make their lives worthwhile.
Garrett O'Connor No, I don't think they need to have somebody less than them. They need to have somebody who doesn't threaten them, who's going to take their position and take their jobs and take their livelihood and take their opportunities. They don't have any opportunities beyond a certain limitation themselves. As I say, their future is in general bleak. But if they could feel that, you see--they told me, and this is not just that night but many nights afterwards, that they resent extremely they're working hard. And every time they read in the newspapers that a new program of help has gone into the ghetto to provide the disadvantaged people with what they need, free money, free housing, free jobs and everything else, they feel a fury within themselves because they have to work to get that kind of thing, and they get nothing. And my feeling is, and what arose from this encounter, really, and many other encounters subsequent to this, which were, in a sense, came out arising out of this one, was that if one puts money into the ghetto or advantages in some way economically or otherwise the disadvantaged people, that one should also provide bounties and monies for those who feel disadvantaged but in fact by the economic levels of the country are not.
Studs Terkel We'll come back, of course, to the government itself and priorities and of course the military and Vietnam and all these matters that these guys don't consider, more or less take for granted.
Garrett O'Connor But you see, I would want to go further than that. I would want it to go further and this is a recent sort of conclusion that I've drawn from now many years of work in this area, and this is a socio-psychological conclusion in that the ghettos--for example, if a great sort of continental trap door were to open tomorrow and all the ghettos were to vanish into it, this country would fall apart because of the economic value of maintaining ghettos. Similarly, if Vietnam were to stop tomorrow, abruptly, just halt. Where would we be? What would we do? How would we spend the money? So I have to say that Vietnam, the racial situation, the class situation, the poverty, and whatever, is not only unavoidable but is sustained and maintained and is in fact desirable. I would have to say that, it is desirable--
Garrett O'Connor Yes.
Garrett O'Connor Yes, and conditions. And I think it is based in the economy and based in the economic need. And this to me, you see, is one of the most pessimistic realizations that I've ever come upon. In that there is very little likelihood that things will change, because if you look into the situation and into the system, these things, by virtue of the fact we've done nothing about them, must in fact be desirable. They must serve a function, they must serve a purpose, just as the lack of rehabilitation of prisoners and prisons, you know, of the criminals and whatever, we need them. We need them to be in there, otherwise we rehabilitate them.
Studs Terkel Of course this comes to--Dr. O'Connor, you see, you're speaking of course, you're speaking very pessimistically of what things as they are at this moment. But I also assume that you are implying there can be an alternative.
Garrett O'Connor There could be, but when I think about history I doubt it, because it seems to me that this has taken place throughout history, and we are the present that we live in is, of course, part of tomorrow's history, and it seems to me that with all the influences and pingements that take place in the present, that the history of tomorrow or the next 50 years or whatever will hardly be different.
Studs Terkel Yet, you see, I would have to challenge you. You know, I would have to say that there is an alternative, that here we live in an age of technology, of the split atom, of the two-thirds of the world going hungry as well as many hungry people here, the tremendous possibilities for constructive work, providing, of course, the priorities were altered, providing that what--that all the dough was not spent overwhelmingly for destructive purposes. So there is this possibility too, this is the alternative I was assuming you were talking about that you don't quite see at this moment.
Garrett O'Connor Of course I see the alternative. But what I don't see is the implementation of it. Everybody sees the alternative, Studs, you know, and I think it's naive to say they've seen it since, you know, time began.
Garrett O'Connor There are 35 million people in this country who are poor white people. There are 22 million Black people who are poor. Every night in this country there are 10 million people who go to bed hungry. You and I go to bed filled with wealth and opulence. You know, going to sleep because there's nothing else we can do because we're so full of food and drink and everything else. Now, there are 35 million people who are poor. There are 22 million people, separate people, Black and poor, and there are 10 million people who are hungry. You know, if you total it up there are 55 million members of this society who are in that sense immediately deprived and we have the ability to feed them and the ability to not have them that way and, yet, there's nothing we do about it. Now, that, to me, if you look into it means pessimism, because there are things we can do about it and, yet, nothing is done.
Garrett O'Connor I'm talking about this country alone, because I think it's more local and I think it's more practical to think about solving the problems here. But, yet, we don't. And, so, this means to me that we need these people, we need somehow ten million to go to--people to go to bed every night hungry.
Garrett O'Connor No, I don't want to get in--well, we elect the government we need. You know, the government are in a bad position, too, because, you know, it seemed to me that in the last election, for example, and it seems to me generally that no matter who gets in, in the next 10 years, we're going to move rapidly or, perhaps, less rapidly toward some kind of totalitarian situation, because democracy has never yet been tried with 200 million people. Never, in the history of the world, and democracy thrives on dissent, but it thrives on dissent when there are only 3000 involved. When 50 million people are involved, then it's in trouble because every decision that must be made at the top is a critical decision that 51, 49 percent and the implementation of the decision, then, becomes difficult, maybe even impossible.
Studs Terkel I think Dr. Garrett O'Connor, being the psychiatrist he is, is really challenging individuals listening, challenging all, he's really saying, "This is how it is at this moment. This is how it is." And unless, unless of course, you're really, in your own biting, very perceptive way, imploring individuals to, obviously, to challenge whatever the situation is.
Garrett O'Connor There is a limitation on the individual, though. What institution can he use, you see, to bring about his own--what institution can he use to render himself potent? It's not only the poor who are impotent, but it's you and I, too. We can do it through radio programs and television programs and writing whatever, but most people can't. So there they are in their suburbs, in their estates, as Bernadette Devlin said, and everything else. They feel, maybe, but what can they do? Now let me tell you about something that last week that really moved me and confirmed personally and emotionally everything I'm saying now in that, you know, I think we need the ghettos, we need the poor people to do something for us. If you like, as you said, to confirm our own reality of being middle-class and opulent or whatever. Charles Manson, you know, the fellow out in California and whatever. I found myself reading the "Life" magazine article about him and I found myself morbidly fascinated by it, and I didn't know why. I read everything I could about this man, and I read everything about the situation in the Sharon Tate murders. And I had known somebody who was--who had known Sharon Tate and was extremely upset by these things, and you know, absolutely devastated by the whole event. And, yet, I found myself fascinated. And I puzzled with this for two days and I had nightmares, nightmares about it, one dream I dreamt I was a Gestapo officer in Auschwitz, and I puzzled about this and I wondered what was Charles Manson doing for me. Because I suddenly felt sad at the article in "Life" magazine which said, "Charles Manson will not be able to do in the future what he has done in the past because he is going to be in prison for the rest of his life." I suddenly felt that I didn't want him to be in prison somehow, that he was doing something for me with these 20 girls and these 10 men in the desert commanding them completely, and was a part of me that wanted to do that. Some part of me in there that I keep repressed, that I hate, but nevertheless is there. And I was sad in some strange, perverse, and paradoxical sense that he was being locked up and he would no longer do that. And, so, I know that in the future, other Charles Mansons or other Hitlers or other, you know, Rockwells or whoever they may be will rise up and do things for me. From which I can disclaim responsibility because I hate them and they're antisocial and they're psychopathic and they're everything else, but by God, they do something for me.
Studs Terkel Aren't you now saying something about man himself, the way we live today? I'm talking about all societies where man lives today, in which the baser nature of him has appealed to you yet, don't you see within you as a psychiatrist possibilities in man yet untapped, unfilled?
Garrett O'Connor Of course I do! Of course I do! But we have to realize certain things first. And I think we have to realize that other people do things for us and then we can be, we can disclaim all responsibility for it.
Garrett O'Connor We can be righteous about it. You see, in my own field, the schizophrenics, the lunatics who are penned up in the state hospitals in the most appalling circumstances. It's just like the prisoners, it's just like the Blacks, it's just like the poor whites in Kentucky and Tennessee, there they are. They're penned up there, the programs are minimal, they have very little to do. It's purely a custodial care in most cases, although some hospitals have advanced beyond that. And I very--I believe very strongly that these people, the schizophrenics, the psychotic people, the people who are hospitalized in our institutions, are doing something for me because they contain part of my chaos, part of my madness, part of yours. I have observed over the years in treating many, many families that when we in some way have a chaotic hallucinating delusional schizophrenic person and we manage to alleviate those delusions and the chaos in which they live and send them home. And then a month or two months, the family come back, not the patient, and the family say, "You know, there's something wrong here." And the patient is still at this stage normal, functioning, maybe even working. And the family have to take back their own chaos which, prior to that, they have put into the patient.
Garrett O'Connor aspect--oh, I'm sorry, go ahead. That's terribly important, it seems to me, that we may be locking up and encapsulating and keeping in keeps and fortresses and whatever, you know, the symbolism of our own insanity, which is established and somehow demonstrated every day in man's inhumanity to man as we read in the newspapers.
Garrett O'Connor Now, I would say further than that, we must recognize the institutionalization of this, and that we have called things schizophrenia, we have called things madness and psychosis and criminality, and we lock them all up, so as we don't have to look at that in ourselves. God knows, doesn't every man want to rape a woman? Hasn't every man had fantasies of doing that, of throwing a woman down and raping her? And, yet, we agree with the death sentences, you know, handed out to people who in fact do it for us. Think of the fascination when you read about a rape. Think of all the magazines in the airports and everywhere you look. You know, a Black man rapes a white or a white rapes a--it's awful! What does that do for us? Where is the institutionalization of our own insanity? It's in the state hospitals, in the magazines, it's in these things--
Studs Terkel So we come--I think that Dr. O'Connor, being to me the brilliant psychiatrist he is, a very disturbing one as he must, we come to another aspect. You said in subsidizing the ghettos where they are fed and given and responsibility not given, manhood deprived, there's another incident in your booklet, in your paper for the "American Journalism (sic) Psychiatry", you spoke of your incident in the bar, the white bar, where you were almost attacked and maimed. You also spoke of your experience in the Black ghetto working in an aid station after the outbreaks, the King, and here, too, was an experience, and again you spoke of a need for autonomy in this matter.
Garrett O'Connor Yes. Well, this was when the Baltimore, the riots in Baltimore were at their height. I worked in the community and so was reasonably well-known there, and the Department of Health in Baltimore had set up very strangely and health aid stations in the suburbs to help people, staffed mainly by white people, incidentally, in high schools and hospitals in the suburbs to help people from the inner city who, because of a curfew and because of police guards and National Guard cordons, were unable to reach the suburbs. And they in fact, several as a result of this kind of perimeter ringing of the city with health care stations, no one in the inner city was able to get help when they got injured from tear gas or whatever else. So that several aid stations sprung up in the city spontaneously staffed by Black people, neighbors, volunteers, doctors, goodness knows what else, nurses and everything else. And I happened to be down there and found one of these and tried to offer my services as best I could. I was, again, known there in this place, known very well. I'd worked there before, they knew me by my first name--
Garrett O'Connor Because I was white. And there were people, you know, hanging around reading Mao and predicting victory for the revolution, other people were at the doorstep trying to keep the children off the street so as they wouldn't be hit by tear gas or flying glass or bricks or anything else of this kind. And I'm a psychiatrist, you know, and they knew me as a psychiatrist. Now I could do all the psychiatry I wanted down there, but it would have absolutely no effect. Finally, they asked me to leave because they could no longer guarantee my safety, because of the conflict within their own group. I wasn't known by all of them.
Garrett O'Connor Yes. Well, I maintained contact with them, and I have to say that the Department of Health in Baltimore actually went on television advising people not to go to these aid stations, but to go to their own stations which were formally and officially set up, which in my view were staffed by white people and were totally inappropriate to the situation, and in addition, as I've said, were in the suburbs. So they called me the next morning anyway, and I said that I was at the hospital I stayed at the hospital for the four days during the riots, night and day, just in case I could be of any use because we expected an enormous influx of patients of various kinds into the hospital. Unfortunately, in many ways patients were afraid to come because the police were in the hospital and were taking people's names. And, so, if people had cuts on their arms, they were implied, implicated in having been looting. And, so, people were afraid to come to the hospital for fear they'd get arrested. How much time do we have?
Garrett O'Connor And anyway, what happened was we set up this carpool of volunteers who could bring patients in, people who had smoke inhalation or whatever else into the hospital, and we had difficulties with the National Guard and the police in getting permits signed for people to be out after curfew to drive these cars, and the drivers not only the drivers were arrested at one point, but also one man with a compound fracture of his leg was also arrested and put in jail, despite the fact that his permit had been signed by the adjutant general of the National Guard which the, whoever it was, either the police or the National Guard wouldn't believe, in any event they called me the next day and said, "Listen, we're running out of supplies. What can you do? We need antibiotics and we need oxygen and we need all sorts of things for us," well, all of the things they have to do. And, so, I went to the president of the hospital, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and told him this, and he agreed, and the administrator of the hospital agreed that--
Garrett O'Connor Hopkins. Well, you see, I think this is very important, because that's how one can be of help. Here was I a doctor, a member of the faculty of the institution which essentially governs East Baltimore which was founded for the--Johns Hopkins in his original endowment, said "For the sick and poor of East Baltimore," but has virtually paid no attention to them for 70 years. I mean, here was I, a member of the faculty trying to do my best. They allowed me to put some Band-Aids on there, but very little else. Now how could I be of help? Well, then they called me, you see, at seven o'clock the next morning, said they'd run out of supplies. I could be of help. So I was a member of the faculty, went to the president, etc., and they needed antibiotics. They needed incision and drainage kits, they needed bandaids, they needed bandages, this is what they needed. And, so, I managed to persuade them, we brought down about $2000 worth of equipment down there for them in the hospital bus and delivered to them, and I have never seen such a reaction. They called me "Garrett" again, you know. And in fact there was one fellow there who was a very militant Black Muslim, Yosef was his first name, with whom I'd had many arguments before. And he likes me as a person, but hates me as for what I represent because I'm white and a member of an institution which he regards as being immoral and oppressive, but nevertheless we have maintained some sort of dialogue over whiskey, as a matter of fact, over the years and he said--
Garrett O'Connor "What are they going to do to you for this?" he said. "You know, what, are they, you know, are you going to be fired for bringing us all down this stuff?" Because Hopkins, he could not believe that this institution which was located in the middle of the ghetto had done this thing. He thought I'd stolen the stuff, as a matter of fact, this was what he believed. And, yet, he could not, he could not accept the fact that the president of the hospital had agreed to this.
Garrett O'Connor That's, well, that's terribly important. In fact, what this led to, can I tell you what this led to, this experience I had, too, because it's also very interesting. My association then, you see, during the riots with this particular group, the aid station happened to be located in a family planning center which was administered by Family Planning of America, Incorporated. And they had a very strange setup. This is right in the middle of a Black ghetto neighborhood and they had a lot of Black people there, but the director was white. Now I happened after that to be asked to be a member of the board of advisors. And there were 35 members of the board of advisors, yet only eight of us ever turned up to board of advisors meetings, and the other seven people happened to be Black and, so, we kept on putting in reports into the central agency, and nothing ever happened and whatever. So finally we took over the clinic one Friday morning. We got in there before they did and we locked out the whole staff. And what has emanated now from this, we became not only, we translated ourselves from a board of advisers into a board of directors, took over the clinic, and managed to get the first contract or the first grant from the government to a neighborhood unit in the country on a third-party contract basis for family planning services to a Black community. It was the first one. Now, I still remain, for eight months I was still the only white member of the board, and finally managed to get one other white member on the board. And, so, there were 20--there are 19 Black people representative of the community and two of us from the university. And this is the most, I mean, the most fantastic experience of committee membership or board membership that I've ever had, because everybody turns up to every meeting on time, and we get a hell of a lot of work done and we get our job done and the program has expanded beyond all that could ever have been expected, and in fact may become a model not only for Black community, but for white communities as well for family planning. Now this emanated all out of this, you see, and I think that's terribly important because it implies a relationship in which you can give something or you utilize your skills or your prestige or your, you know, whatever you represent, in order to provide people with something--
Studs Terkel There's something you just said, Dr. O'Connor, that is terribly important, you see, coming back to the question of race and the question those guys in the bar who you met earlier, who were going to attack you, something good not just for the Black community was happening there but for the white community as well, a sense of being somebody, a sense of being recognized. And, so, from the very, to use a phrase, "Black revolution," this can come, too.
Garrett O'Connor It is not as much of a matter of being recognized as a matter of accepting the fact that I'm white and you're Black, or whatever. You know, my first contract with this group was, this board of directors, was I'm white and you're Black and we're bound to put, you're about to put your foot in it sometimes, and I'm bound to put my--so when you talk about burning down my buildings or my hospital or whatever, you know, I'm going to get tied up and I can't work anymore in this board, I'm going to put my hand up and say "Stop." You know, and when I talk about euthanasia and genocide in terms of family planning, you know, or whatever. You know, if I get into that thing, then you have to say to me, "Stop," and we're going to get into these things because you're Black and I'm white, and there is little likelihood that we're going to change, and we're both embedded in our own cultures but we've got to work together. And this has worked fantastically because we have a common task.
Studs Terkel You know, I realize that in talking to Dr. Garrett O'Connor, this is the first of probably several conversations, I realize it now, you just said something about euthanasia, genocide, and family planning, which, obviously, opens the door, avenue to another subject entirely that is a very, very open one, controversial one, indeed, particularly involving Black women, Black families, and family planning. Whole new question arises here, doesn't it, that we have to talk about?
Garrett O'Connor Again, it may, perhaps, be how we use the ghetto, how we use the poor people, you know, to limit our own economic and population requirements. I mean, these are the people, we hardly require the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers or anybody else to limit their growth.
Studs Terkel And, yet, we do know there's a problem today of the world of overpopulation itself. And, so, we come, perhaps this is an almost an arbitrary and, to me, a very rewarding, disturbing, and I trust to the audience revealing conversation with Dr. Garret O'Connor of Johns Hopkins of Baltimore. His paper, by the way, I hope it's, this is available, the paper that he wrote, "Reflections in the Rubble" and the subtitle, "Some Thoughts on the Aftermath of Civil Disorder".
Studs Terkel Write to Garrett O'Connor. Garrett, G-A-double R-E-double T, O'Connor, Johns Hopkins University. You end with a quote from the American historian teaching at Northwestern, Christopher Lasch, "Will events"--why don't you read it, the last paragraph, you end with that.
Garrett O'Connor Well, this was the termination of his own article in "The New York Times", and I thought it very appropriate. "Will events wait for analysis? Immediate crises confront us, and there is no time, it seems, for long-range solutions. In critical times, militancy may appear to be the only authentic politics. But the very gravity of the crisis makes it all the more imperative that radicals try to formulate a provisional theory which will serve as a guide to tactics in the immediate future as well as to long-range questions of strategy. Without such a perspective, militancy will carry the day by default; then, quickly exhausting itself, it will give way to another cycle of exhaustion (sic), cynicism, and hopelessness."