Random Thoughts

Psychiatrist and teacher Robert Coles, M.D.

... to honor Robert Coles

by Ed Boyd

Robert Coles, M.D. was going to discuss Terry, a troubled boy we both knew. This
was at the Judge Baker Guidance Center in the 1960s. I was looking forward to
hearing what Dr. Coles had to say, as Terry had me in a quandary. Terry was very
tall for fourteen; his arms kept flying about, seldom to stop. His sandy hair
seemed to fly in all directions. He giggled most of the time, as if life should
not be taken seriously. Terry could not read or write but that did not seem to
matter to him.

There were about twenty-five persons present for the conference. These were
social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and teachers. Dr. George Gardner,
M.D., in a long white coat, presided over such conferences. At a large table,
facing front was Dr. Gardner.  Dr. Coles, a resident psychiatrist, sat next to
him. Reports were given by the social worker seeing the family and a
psychologist describing the battery of tests he had given, both sitting at the
same table. After those reports were given it was time for Dr. Coles to tell of
his work with Terry.

Dr. Coles was tall and thin with dark eyes set deeply into his head, giving him
a haunted look. He sat comfortably with his long arms folded before him and
began to talk. Dr. Coles had a twang in his voice, not unpleasant, catching your
attention. He told of taking Terry for rides in his MG convertible and how he
helped Terry move the shift about. He told of taking Terry to his apartment in
Cambridge and they tried to understand the meanings of the letters in Dr. Coles’
mail. Dr. Coles talked along in this vein. After a while, he had finished what
he had to say, he excused himself and left.

I was sitting in back and heard a resident mumble something like, “Where is the
formulation?” This was in the day of Id, Ego and Superego, the language of the
day. As I thought about what Dr. Coles had said, it gave a whole different
perspective for dealing with Terry. I began to look at Terry as human, not a
collection of defects.

In the late 70’s I became the Director of a camp for disturbed children in New
Hampshire. I knew Terry was looking for work so I hired him as a “go for”. Terry
was delighted with the job and for seven weeks he did a good job. As I thought
about Terry, I also had a memory of Robert Coles and how he influenced me. I
wrote to Dr. Coles and told him how I remembered his talk that prompted me to
hire Terry. Dr. Coles sent me a very nice thank you note telling me he
appreciated me hiring Terry. Along with the note, Dr. Coles sent me a few of his
books and signed them in his hand as Bob. Such a fine gesture says a lot about
Robert Coles.

For many years I have been a fan of Robert Coles. I have a small collection of
his writings. He has published more than 1,300 articles, reviews, and essays
along with 60 books. When I try to think of what Dr. Coles’ had in mind when he
was treating Terry he says in “A Young Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession”,
(The Atlantic, 1987)
“When the heart dies, we slip into wordy and doctrinaire caricatures of life.
Our journals, our habits of talk become cluttered with jargon or the trivial.
These are negative cathects, libido quanta, ‘presymbiotic, normal-autistic
phases of mother-infant unity’ and ‘a hierarchically stratified, firmly
cathected organization of self-representations.' Such dross is excused as a short
cut to understanding a complicated message by those versed in the trade; its
practitioners call on authority of symbolic communication in the sciences. But
the real test is whether we best understand by this proliferation of language
the worries, fears, or loves in individual people. As the words grow longer and
the concepts more intricate and tedious, human sorrows and temptations
disappear, loves move away, envies and jealousies, revenge and terror dissolve.
Gone are strong, sensible words with good meaning and flavor for the real.”

This is Robert Coles, M.D.  

(The picture of Coles is from the jacket of Harvard Diary, The Crossroad Publishing Company, c. 1988.)

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