Dr. Karl Menninger and his wife, Jean Menninger
An Autumn visit with Dr. Karl
by Stannie Anderson
November 30, 1969
Dr. Karl Menninger enters his office with deceptive swiftness. He almost seems to saunter.
He is tall, broad-shouldered white-haired, commanding. His keen eyes unobtrusively miss nothing.
On this rainy day, Dr. Karl's Tower office five miles west of Topeka is a charming place, with bright Indian rugs, carved curios hundreds of brilliantly jacketed books, and mellow paneled walls.
A stained-glass butterfly catches the subdued afternoon light at one of the windows. But even this colorful office fades into the background when Dr. Karl, at 76 the most famous living psychiatrist in the world, walks into it.
Dr. Karl gathers the visitor's hand warmly into both of his. There's a tiny smile in his eyes as he tilts his head slightly to one side.
The silent seconds stretch out. It's a startling, relaxed personal contact--almost communion--between two persons. Time seems to stand still.
It has sometimes lightly been referred to as "Dr. Karl's triple whammy."
Not that Dr. Karl deliberately turns on the charm. It's as though, for him, at that moment there is no other person alive. And when he concentrates intensely, his magnetism surges out so powerfully that it can--and often does-- engulf any fascinated bystanders who may be within five or six feet of him.
"Has the world gone mad, Dr. Karl?"
There's a quick flicker of laughter in his eyes, a smoothing of his lips.
It's a rare and joyous occasion when Karl Menninger throws his head back and laughs out loud. Usually he gives a pixie smile--or a broad one. Sometimes, even when most amused, he keeps the impassive face of a psychiatrist trained in concealing his feelings and reactions from patients. But there's no hiding that inner pleased glow.
No, Dr. Karl says, the world has not gone mad. It's improving all the time - -in most ways. But with such things as wars, suicide, smoking and pollution, man seems to seek his own self-destruction.
Babar and Celeste, Dr. Karl's poodles, who are father-daughter, nuzzle the visitor affectionately, then retreat good-manneredly to their "cave" under Dr. Karl's desk.
Dr. Karl leans back in' his chair reflectively rubbing the back of his head. He looks out one of the windows at the fountain far below, spurting its graceful streams of white froth in seeming defiance of the misty autumn rain.
In his half-century study of the human mind and the motives of people, Karl Menninger increasingly has expanded his exploration of the many ways in which man expresses his self-destructiveness.
"I think the greatest problem in the world today is not violence in the street racial discord, or rambunctious youth in the colleges. It is: What can he do to be saved? Can man survive? Man is on a downhill road of self‑ destructiveness, and I think it, is very alarming," he said.
"I'm very pessimistic about the consequences of this self-destructiveness of mankind. I do not think the human race can survive beyond the year 2050 unless there are radical changes made relatively soon in certain practices and philosophy."
But despite his pessimism about the self-destructiveness of man, Dr. Karl also is optimistic that man will make the changes necessary for survival.
He has great faith in the purposes and benevolence of God.
"Man's self-destructiveness is instinctual, but it isn't uncontrollable," Dr. Karl said. "The first step in controlling self-destructiveness is recognizing it and identifying it.”
If man wants to survive, Dr. Karl said, he will have to give up some things: Indiscriminate procreation, hunting, other than by primitive tribes for food and immediate consumption; a lot of fetishes and customs. A great many people will have to be displaced, because not all of them can settle in Los Angeles or get as close-to it as possible.
Man has polluted the air, torn up the soil, filled the lakes full of sewage and fertilizer. If the population continues to increase while food sources and water are exhausted at the present rate, "man probably won't live 50 years," Dr. Karl said.
Man pollutes his own lungs with cigarette smoke in his heedless rush toward self-destruction.
"People have been told-but they don't believe it. Or they say, 'I'd destroy myself some other way if I didn't smoke.' Too many people have an essential pessimism, which their self-destructiveness exploits," Dr. Karl said.
But man can change this course of human events, if he wishes.
"I spent the first 50 years of my life treating patients. And I intend to spend the next 50 years of my life in prevention," Dr. Karl said.
Prevention ought to mean ways of social living which would greatly improve the satisfactions and the productivity of it--and not merely "how do I keep from getting mental smallpox," Dr. Karl said.
‘I think the battle of treatment is a losing one. It's locking the barn after the horse is stolen. Prevention is the thing. My brother (the late Dr. William C. Menninger) talked about this for many years."
Dr. Karl's all-encompassing zeal now--as for many years--is conservation.
He admits his love for nature is militant--and sometimes inconsistent.
But Dr. Karl has no great love "for the virtue of consistency," an smilingly quotes, "Consistency is the last resort of a petty mind." Not because a person ought to change his mind every few minutes, but "because there are always two aspects to things--at least two; there is always a pull as well as a push."
Thoughtfully, Dr. Karl looked out his Tower office window at the broad green expanse below, beginning to show some of the faint brownish hues of Autumn.
"I have great sensitiveness about cruelty to trees, wild and tame animals, birds. I used to go to zoos in this country and in foreign countries--but I think now some of them are places of horror. Few are as progressive and humane as the fine one Gary Clarke runs here in Topeka.”
"As a youngster, I killed animals with abandon. I thought nothing of hunting rabbits or wild pigeons. But as I grow older, I feel a little like
Wordsworth in his ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’. I have that sense of belonging to all nature."
He paused and swung his chair around slightly, gesturing toward the meadow below.
"I look outs seeing the grass trying to grow, trees trying to stick out their little arms, flowers so cheery, the animals, the deer trying to multiply and keep out of sight. There is enough conflict in nature for man not to throw his weight against the defenseless."
Suddenly angry at a new thought, Dr. Karl said, "I'm going to burn up my alligator belt one of these days) because I am so furious about poachers in Florida. I don't want even to speak to anyone wearing alligator shoes.
"Every time some rancher tells me or I read about some more coyotes being poisoned by the government, I just see red. That doesn't mean I'm joining the Communist Party. But I think it is wrong for our government to do that. Coyotes are beneficial. And interesting. And harmless."
More quietly he continued.
"If I see a line of geese go by, north or south, I think it is wonderful and beautiful. But then, I think some rascal is hiding in the bushes somewhere and will blast some lead into those poor little things if he can."
A dreamy note entered his voice as he clasped his fingers behind his head.
"Then I remind myself that I used to do that."
He lapsed into silence for awhile.
What happened to me that I changed? I suddenly felt a little guilty, being so destructive. We ought to plant trees--not cut them down. We ought not to knock wild animals in the head or in the belly, which is where most hunters shoot them."
Softly he mused, "In fact, I believe very prominent in my religious conceptions is some kind of responsibility for the preservation of the beautiful living things on this earth - -and I include rivers and lakes as living things."
Sudden mischief shone in his eyes.
"And yet I hate mosquitoes and kill all I can. I'm in favor of rat extermination, because the Norway rat does a lot of damage and bites a lot of children. I admit this is inconsistent. So I don't love all nature. I love beautiful nature--and I love the constructive part of it."
Dr. Karl has a deep, profound interest and belief in religion.
"I think people thought for so long they could substitute mental health or psychoanalysis for religion. They thought they didn't—or couldn't--believe in both.
"But, why not? They aren't contradictory. Some people's interpretations make them so--but mine doesn't.
"I think everybody knows now psychiatry can't replace religion--not for everybody. But I think they don't quite understand the psychology of religion, and that the face of God has many forms. There are many different ways to worship."
He told about attending a small musicale given by some patients in a psychiatric hospital. His companion was a training analyst and also a man of strong religious conviction.
"How many different ways there are in which to pray," the analyst said as they walked back to Dr. Karl's office.
"Like this musicale," Dr. Karl said.
"Yes," the analyst replied.
"How about some of these intense scientific sessions you and I have sat through many times?"
"They're such OBVIOUS prayer meetings," his friend said.
Dr. Karl then suggested "Indian dances or a ballet" might also be classified as a kind of prayer.
All these things, he said are tied up with belief and conviction and hope and deference--the opposite of presumption.
It is a little unpopular, at present, Dr. Karl said, for any scientific man--especially in the behavioral sciences--to be too emphatically religious or to act too definitely his religious commitment.
"But I hate vagueness of that kind, and I hate cowardice," Dr. Karl said. "To expose religious convictions is to expose oneself to ridicule by some colleagues - -but not the best ones. Ridicule is the least painful weapon that people have to be prepared to endure."
Dr. Karl is complex, intuitive, impulsive, understanding, infinitely gentle with the troubled, monumentally wrathful with the incompetent and the unconcerned.
He earned his fame as a psychiatrist and writer. But he's probably even more brilliant as a teacher.
He expends about two or three times the daily energy of most men. He works a top-speed, 10 -to -12 -hour day normally. He's been known to start his appointments at 8 a.m. and run them straight through the day until 8 p.m., often inviting a noon visitor to share lunch at his desk.
Dr. Karl is a lightning reader who can take in a whole page almost at a glance. He reads an amazing number of books magazines and medical journals, often funneling them on to other persons he knows will be interested.
Aside from seeing patients and attending to his duties as chairman, of the board of the Menninger Foundation, Dr. Karl has many other demands on his time.
He spends two to three weeks of each month in Chicago, where he serves as a consultant to millionaire philanthropist W. Clement Stone. He is an adviser to the American Indian Center in Chicago, where there are about 16,000 displaced Indians.
Dr. Karl is consultant to an educational television program in Chicago. He travels coast to coast and often abroad to make speeches and attend professional meetings.
Requests for him to speak pour into both his Topeka and Chicago offices, and he must always decline many more than he can accept. He is writing a new book. His teaching schedule is full, with lectures at a number of universities, including three in Chicago--the University of Chicago Medical School, Chicago Medical School, and Loyola University.
Because of his fame as a psychiatrist, letter's - -hundreds of them in the course. of a year - -come to Dr. Karl from desperate lonely, miserable people.
"The very fact that most of these people write long-distance messages indicates they are kind of bankrupt for. somebody to talk to near at hand," Dr. Karl said. "I refer some of them to other people, but some of them I try to answer myself.
"Sometimes they are people in prison. Sometimes, they are people in pulpits. Sometimes they're students who have read something I've written or something I've been quoted as saying. Some of them argue with me--and occasionally they denounce me."
The fiery criticism of some of the letter writers doesn't ruffle Dr. Karl's composure.
"They're probably as opinionated as I am," he said mildly.
Recently the U. S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee sought Dr. Karl's advice. Primarily the senators wanted to know what he thought about the Vietnam War, about the rebellion of the young, the ways in which psychiatry might help the nation's leaders and foreign representatives.
Dr. Karl told them there seems to be a general mood of discouragement, uneasiness and even despair in the world today. People feel vaguely guilty.
The Vietnam War seems a prime example of aggressiveness and self-destructiveness-- one more likely to spread Communism and other evils than to contain them. Three of the nation's leaders have been assassinated within recent years.
"These leaders were the heroes of a better day to the young men and women who are growing up now in these uneasy, restless times, Dr. Karl told the senators. "And for our young people to lose their inspiration is for our older people to lose their hope.
"The young people think we have dealt--or talked--hypocritically with them. And I think we have," Dr. Karl said.
"Life is too precious to waste or to be wasted. Our country is too beautiful to be selfishly ravished. Our world, for all the scars me have inflicted upon it, is still too wonderful, too magnificent, too holy--may I say--to be destroyed by our sloth, our pettiness, our hates, our heedlessness or our failure to use our intelligence.”
Dr. Karl told them he believes behavioral scientists could be of assistance to the nation's leaders because of long experience in dealing with frightened, desperate, angry, deluded, disorganized, irrational, misbehaving persons.
"We could be helpful," he said, “like the old chiefs in the Indian war councils, not so much for what we do as for what we have seen, and felt and remember, and because of what we believe. Especially we remember about the motives of men, all men."
Dr. Karl does not believe retaliatory violence is the answer, either in war or civil disorders or the vindictive punishment of lawbreakers.
"We must find a better way than counter-violence to stop violence. If a buffalo comes charging at you 100 miles an hour you don't charge back at him 100 miles an hour, even if you are a bigger buffalo. You sidestep him. Or trip him. Or go around him. But you don't butt head on into violence. The progress of civilization has been through the substitution of intelligence for counter-violence against brute force violence."
The pendulum clock near the window begins to strike the hour softly. Dr. Karl waits silently, listening to each melodious stroke until the clock's hourly chore is ended.
Dr. Karl's wife, Jean, glances through the doorway. There's an instant undercurrent of rapport between them.
Jean Menninger shares her husband's varied interests and also assists him in his writing and research.
A poised brunette she has quick intelligence and humor. After 28 years of marriage, she and Dr. Karl at times seem to read each other's mind.
Formerly a newspaperwoman, Mrs. Menninger is editor of the "Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic." Dr. Karl too, is a former newspaper reporter. She worked one summer for the Topeka Daily Capital while a high school senior.
After a few minutes of conversation, Dr. Karl glances sideways at his wife. Then, with impulsive warmth, he extends his hand toward her, palm upward.
Mrs. Menninger’s face lights up in responsive radiance, as she lightly places her hand on his.
With mock sternness, he tells her, "All right, you've stayed long enough. I’ll see you later."
Mrs. Menninger laughs and excuses herself.
“We're a team," Dr. Karl confides when she is gone.
Their daughter, Rosemary, 21, also is intrigued by writing and is editor of the College of Wooster (Ohio) weekly newspaper, "The Voice."
Dr. Karl has three other children by his first wife, Mrs., Grace Menninger of Topeka. They are: Dr. Robert Menninger, a psychiatrist and member of the board of the Menninger foundation and of The Villages Inc.; Mrs. Julia Gottesman, a school teacher in Los Angeles, wife of a psychiatrist, and also a Menninger Foundation board member; and Mrs. Martha Nichols of Cheyenne, Wyo., wife of a hospital administrator.
Dr. Karl has nine grandchildren. He may say admiringly of one grandchild, "He's a peach!" But then immediately he thinks of some outstanding quality of the others too.
"I don't think of them as being grandchildren--just as young people. I like all my grandchildren. They're all promising," Dr. Karl says.
Now Dr. Karl begins to autograph a huge stack of copies of his latest book, "The Crime of Punishment," continuing to talk as he writes.
Much of today's campus unrest, he said, stems from students' apprehensiveness about their role in the Vietnam War--a life-threatening war to which they are not committed.
Dr. Karl is reluctant to have people believe he could immediately and, wisely solve the problems on college campuses.
"I don't know the answers, he said, shaking his head."I don't know what's wrong. But it is well known that students complain about the methods of teaching and of college organization. Many things do justify great discontent. They are not being taught the things they are going to use later. Often there is too much insistence by teachers on one answer, when usually there are several possible answers."
Then he added, "If I were a college student today, I might be interested in some of the protests myself--but not the violent, destructive ones. I deplore violence."
From the vantage point of age and experience, Dr. Karl observed with amusement, a person hangs around long enough, he finds himself right back on the other side of the generation gap and in with the thinking of the young people."
A lot of grade-school children might well dissent, too, Dr. Karl said, and carry picket signs around.
"They could be taught better than they are. There's a lot of devotion and dedication on the part of some teachers. But we don't value education highly., My mother (the late Flo Menninger) was a primary school teacher. She said it was the key to the whole education business. It is right then that the child begins to learn--and to want to learn--and to like to learn. When a child loses this fascination with learning, one must wonder: where has it gone, and why?"
Adolescence is a stormy time for all teenagers, Dr. Karl said.
Taking a small red top out of a desk drawer, he gave it a little spin on the top of the desk. At first it lurched wildly back and forth, then steadied and smoothly gathered speed.
Dr. Karl glanced up with a smile.
"Teenagers are like that. They come out all right."
Dr. Karl's book "The Crime of Punishment," is an extension of a long crusade he has waged against a spirit of vengeance in legal process he believes does not lead to protection of the public or to the rehabilitation of offenders.
“When I first worked in a psychiatric hospital, where there was so much to be done, I saw thousands of people with nothing to do. That distressed them--and me.
"Similarly when I visited prisons, I was struck by the sight of so many able-bodied men with nothing to do--just waiting, walking, staring.”
"Some would come up to the bars and say to me, 'I don't want to sit here in idleness, day after day. I'm going crazy!"
Dr. Karl was indignant about this waste of human resources--and still is.
"They spend their day marching to meals eating, marching out, going to the bathroom, marching out, going to another meal, marching out, going to bed. And it's the same thing the next day. It hits you like a hailstone. You think-- all that wasted human life Why? For what good? At whose expense?
"Every one of these people might be doing something--at least supporting himself. Yet here he is kept, because the public is afraid of him or because the public doesn't know he's here or because we are in such a rut. I think that's such a waste."
But Dr. Karl doesn't believe every criminal can be rehabilitated with the treatment knowledge that is available today.
"Some persons have committed horrible crimes 'and might do so again. The only solution is to pen them up until we are sure they have changed—and I don't think they're all going to change. So this means for some pen them up for life."
Dr. Karl's love for Topeka is the most consistent thing about him.
Years ago, in a national radio network broadcast, he paid tribute to Topeka. This classic talk, "My Town," often has been reprinted.
With great pride and simple, beautiful language he told how Topeka became a "psychiatric community," with thousands of its citizens involved in some way in helping the mentally ill get well.
Not that people in his town were better than people in other towns, Dr. Karl said then, but "they're better than they used to be."
"There is something about Work with sick minds and hearts that makes ordinary people more sensitive to suffering, more tolerant more human-even to each other. They discover that love cures people, the ones who receive love and the ones who can give it, too." Psychiatry has changed Topeka, he said, and "perhaps Topeka has changed.
Of course it has. And now, years later, Karl still says, "I love Topeka. It's a beautiful city a wonderful city. I think about the influence the people of this city had on the Foundation. Maybe the most wonderful thing about the Foundation was the support we got and love we got from so many of the citizens. Topeka people have been most kind to us."
Dr. Karl said he is proud that his son and grandsons-like Dr. Will's sons and grandsons--are continuing the tradition and ideals of the Menninger Foundation.
Dusk at last begins to gather on the rolling meadows below Dr. Karl's Tower office.
"Let's go home, boys!" he calls jovially to the dogs, and begins to turn out the lights in his office suite.
Instantly the poodles hurl themselves headlong toward the staircase, growling softly, prancing, shoving, and joyfully trying to bite off each other's nose.
Dr. Karl heads down the stairs. On the first floor' he passes the darkened and deserted lobby where, in large black letters mounted on the wall are the words of George Santayana:
“We must welcome the future
Remembering that soon it will be the past
And we must respect the past
Remembering that once it was all that was humanly possible."
Outside, a soft, misty rain is falling. Harvey Hadley--Dr. Karl's friend, chauffeur and caretaker of his Topeka home--waits patiently in the car, the engine idling.
In the rear seat the poodles' eyes are riveted expectantly on the Tower door. When Dr. Karl steps outside; they begin to whine and wriggle ecstatically.
But Dr. Karl is not quite ready to go home.
He leans a moment on the car door, the hilltop breeze slightly ruffling his white hair. His eyes linger on the hazy skyline of the town where he was born.
"Wait awhile," he tells Hadley. "I think I'll walk part way down the hill."
Slowly, unmindful of the rain, reveling in the beauty of this damp autumn day, he strolls down the incline. Though distance makes his indomitable figure appear smaller as he walks down the hill, still he remains a giant, an uncommon man set apart.
Dr. Karl has listened to "the still, sad music of humanity," in his work as a psychiatrist the last 50 years. Now there are no more surprises for him about people or their motives. Nor are there sudden shocks about man and his struggles to maintain "the vital balance" of mental healthiness.
There have been many shining achievements, many impossible dreams realized. Dr. Karl--if he were any other man--well might look back on the past with quiet satisfaction at having lit a candle of hope for the mentally ill.
But there can be no such complacency for Karl Menninger. There are many more battles to be won tasks to be finished, impossible dreams to pursue. And Dr. Karl, better than most men, knows "the impossible" lies within reach of the grasp of mankind.
Up at the top of the hill, Hadley smoothly puts the car into gear and edges downward to a halt beside Dr. Karl. The great psychiatrist climbs into the front passenger seat.
The big, red car heads down the steep, winding road toward home.