Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Forensic Homage to Professor X

Above: Photo of Chester Gillette & Grace Brown
Below: Theodore Dreiser

“Life's little ironies are not always manifest. We hear distant rumbling sounds of its tragedies, but rarely are we permitted to witness the reality. Therefore the real incidents which I am about to relate may have some value.”[i]

My college history professor killed himself. He had bipolar disorder, stopped taking his lithium and his life ended tragically. His classes were among the most popular on campus and included enough humor, drama and multimedia to routinely fill the 200 plus seat auditorium. I was never quite sure what to make of him, and this was well before I really knew what bipolar disorder was. I went to all his lectures faithfully – not just because of his captivating lecture style, but also because he never failed to say something outrageously controversial, and I simply did not want to miss out. It was a rare lecture that did not send one or more students stomping out in disgust. In truth, there were many times when I wanted to stomp out in disgust. But I didn’t.

I couldn’t. I was transfixed, I believe, for a number reasons. The most obvious to me was that I had the unnerving sense that something about this man was driving him towards his own personal apocalypse, and I did not know what to do other than bear witness to it. The more subtle dynamic that compelled me involved the search for truths about the human condition. Professor X, as I shall call him, was a true renaissance man. His lectures and assigned readings were sprinkled with literary gems unknown to most college students. One of these gems, which became a sacred find to me, was Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser was an American writer who is most known for dealing with the gritty, raw reality of life. His novels often focused on themes of social inequality.

Professor X was obsessed with social inequality. He beat you over the head with social inequality. But in doing so, he exposed you to some human truths which, if you had patience and tolerance, you might glimpse. Dreiser’s prose contained many of these truths, and Professor X had slipped them into some of his teachings so casually that I might have missed them. I didn’t miss them, partly because they demand to be contemplated in all of their sad and sobering veracity. I later bought an out of print copy of Dreiser’s poetry, and was again transfixed. His short poems were raw, honest and arresting. I am forever grateful to Professor X for the gift of Dreiser. As it turns out, Dreiser had a bit of forensic psychiatrist in him. One of his most famous novels An American Tragedy, was based on the notorious Gillette murder case of 1906, which grabbed national attention just as the Scott Peterson case did in 2005. In preparing to write his novel, Dreiser researched the Gillette case extensively.

The Gillette case bears striking similarities to the Peterson case: Chester Gillette was convicted of murdering his pregnant, 20 year old girlfriend, Grace Brown. The murder trial drew international attention, particularly after Brown’s poignant love letters to Gillette were read in court. Gillette was convicted of the murder, and executed by electric chair at Auburn prison in NY. Dreiser’s adaptation was a novel of naturalism that presented a man struggling against psychological, social and environmental forces. It dealt with subjects most found too uncomfortable to consider at length, such as abortion and capital punishment. Through his novel, Dreiser dared to shine a light on a darker side of the Horatio Alger myth – a side that revealed a national obsession with social and economic “climbing” which promoted greed, selfish ambition and inequality.

In a sense, An American Tragedy is an unflinching examination of the dark side of desire and ambition.
[i] In it, as in all of his work, Dreiser tells us not to turn away from parts of the human psyche that we would rather not see. Stand in awe if you must, says Dreiser, but don’t dare turn away. As a naturalist writer, Dreiser always tried to present life exactly as it is, without sermonizing or judgment. In this respect, naturalism overlaps with forensic psychiatric principles. A naturalist writer tries to be objective and detached, while realizing that “pure” objectivity is but an ideal, and next to impossible to achieve.[ii] To the well grounded forensic psychiatrist, this should sound familiar.

I believe that the instincts compelling me to remain open-minded to the example of Professor X were among the same that led me to a career in forensic psychiatry. I now recognize those instincts as: a desire to face and not turn away from the objectionable, and a need to explore the human condition. Why repeatedly and daily bring oneself into contact with the “gritty,” tragic aspects of life unless, among other things, you are in search of some truths? Certainly, some might point to the voyeuristic gratification, which in itself lies a truth of sorts. But voyeurism alone cannot be the answer. It is insufficient to sustain more than mere episodic visitation to the lands of human tragedy. “And what of masochism?” some might ask. Let us temporarily allay this issue by noting that psychiatry is not the only medical discipline who must reckon with this line of inquiry. Further, medicine has a long tradition of making discoveries by examining biological processes that are dysfunctional, or otherwise in extremis. This was how we learned what we needed to in order to defend against disease and suffering. It also how we comforted ourselves – by giving ourselves the illusion of victory over death.

We have a desperate need to deny the reality of death. Throughout the life span, the giving over of one’s cultural values, ideals and sense of meaning is, in essence, a masking over of anxiety about death.[iii] It is no easy task to acknowledge and live with “the full extent” of one’s helplessness and “insignificance in the machinery of the universe.”[iv] But after a point, the flight from reality may become devoid of inwardness and filled with “certainty” in an attempt to avoid tragic reasoning and knowledge.

Tragic reasoning is “the ability to preserve those facts we are reluctant to confront because of the pain they involve and connect them with other facts that escape detection because they would extend and magnify that pain.”
[v] Tragic reasoning exposes the fraud of all ideologies and guarantees. It challenges all our ways of knowing and of being. It enables one to glimpse the cruelty and destruction that is in our nature – our heritage from the ancestral struggles of our evolution. The importance of the tragic is that it gives life one of the very few meanings we can discern when we step outside of our own imposed system of guarantees. It is our point of unity: “The tragic is the situation that all subjects face insofar as they are subjects.”[vi] For it is the fact that we can die from within that makes us human, and life can only be lived by internalizing “death so deeply that it becomes not that thing that will happen at some distant point in the future nor that intrusive thing we spend most of our lives forcing out of our consciousness, but that finality that must enter into and transform all of our choices in a way that fully delivers us over to our finitude.”4

Certain aspects of my travails in forensic and correctional psychiatry have always seemed to taunt and mock with the question: “Can you find the beauty in absolute ugliness?” Poetry and writing became one of my attempts to answer this question. I must concede that there have been occasions in which, try as I might, there was no beauty to be found. Still, Dreiser’s message was there for me – “Don’t turn away. Don’t you dare turn away…” And perhaps it is simply in the act of bearing witness where the beauty may be found.

“We toil so much, we dream so richly, we hasten so fast, and, lo! The green door is opened. We are through it, and its grassy surface has sealed us forever from all which apparently we so much crave—even as, breathlessly, we are still running.”1


[i] Dreiser T: W.L.S. In: Twelve Men. 1919. At:
[i] Lingeman R: Introduction to: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2000.
[ii] Cummings M: Plot summary for An American Tragedy: Study guide. At: accessed on: 9/14/2008
[iii] Becker E: The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.
[iv] Freud S: The Future of an Illusion. J. Strachey, Ed.; New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961.
[v] Davis W: An Evening With JonBenet Ramsey. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2003.
[vi] Davis W: Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9-11. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006.


  1. Surely, to bear witness in itself is to give meaning to a tragedy. What would be known of it if there were no witnesses? Does perception = reality?

    I can find beauty in absolute ugliness.
    If there is truely no discernable beauty....How can one still not see the beauty of something so pure?