Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fifty-Minute Hour

I recently bought a used paperback copy of The Fifty-Minute Hour, Robert Lindner's bestselling 1954 study of some of his most interesting psychoanalytic cases. The book caught my eye because my father, who died almost eight years ago, would talk about this book when I was a child. Seeing the title brought a vivid rush of memories.

We never owned the book, but I remember my father's great enthusiasm for it, although I was never sure if he'd actually read it. One of my father's great hallmarks, especially in his younger days, was his sense of wonder. He would open the conversation with: "Did you know, that when a psychiatrist charges you for an hour of therapy, you really only get 50 minutes?" He would then go on to explain that the psychiatrist needed time to clear his mind between sessions. This would lead to the Lindner book, and the essay that most fascinated him.

In that essay, his most famous, Lindner describes being confronted with a patient who is convinced he is traveling to other planets. As my father told the story, Lindner finally acknowledged the man was telling the truth because of the enormous level of detail he supplied. Once Lindner believed him, the man was cured. All he needed was to be believed; then he admitted his story was fabricated.

I bought the book to make visceral a memory: it was a way to hold my father. I also wanted to test my memory--did the book match up to my memory of my father's telling of it? Did his telling match up to the book? Two levels of memory were to be interrogated: mine and his.

I girded myself to dislike the book. After all, it was written in the 1950s and therefore sure to be the work of a sexist, racist and domineering white man. However, I was pleasantly surprised and had my own stereotypes challenged: Lindner comes across as a very humane individual, with a genuine liking of other people and a system of ethics rooted in deeper soil than the fashions of his decade.

For instance, he takes time out in the essay about the space traveler to blast lobotomies: "No, I could not ... consign him to the new kind of vegetable kingdom being created by so many of my well-intentioned but mistaken colleagues." (p. 189)He understood that many of his patients were more sinned against than sinning and didn't flinch from the horrors of poverty or orphanages.

However, he was a man of his time in his belief in the wonders of technology. His book reads sometimes like a Rod Serling narrative, perhaps the opening to the Twilight Zone: "Very likely the day is not too distant when the remarkable animal we call man will be … concerned solely with the command and care of appliances that do his work." (xiv) Perhaps this wonder and embrace of technology derives from the lives he witnessed: Most of his cases date from the 1940s, and involve people born shortly before the First World War. The harshness of the lives many led in a pre-New Deal world is immense and the book unwittingly testifies to an enormous social change over the course of a century.

I most enjoyed this read, which was an easy but yet informative. It also confirmed my memories--my memory of my father's memory of the space traveller was (almost--I won't spoil the book) correct.

As a Baltimoron, I was delighted that Lindner had his practice in Baltimore, in a building overlooking Mt. Vernon Place.

However, when I tried to find out more about him, I discovered that what's on the web is scanty, especially for a person who was both a best-selling author (he also wrote Rebel without a Cause) and a serious scholar. I could find very little. He died suddenly of a heart attack at age 41, two years after this book was published. I spoke about him to the Earlham School of Religion reference librarian, Jennie Kiffmeyer. She also poked around and could find very little--the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she said, represent a dip in Internet information as much of that era has not yet been well digitized. She was planning to look in the physical reader's guides. I imagine Lindner must have been profiled in big spreads somewhere: Perhaps the Baltimore Sun magazine or Esquire? It's a mystery and there's nothing like sleuthing.

I did find Internet discussions of the identity of the planet hopping man. One popular idea is that he is Cordwainer Smith (see , who published the sci-fi work Norstrilla.

So, to finish, every once in awhile we discover books that put us in touch with the past in more ways than one. Has this happened to you?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember reading the 50 min Hr as a young psych student in the 70's. It was indeed fascinating. By the way, the full title of the book Rebel without a cause was Rebel Without a Cause: the Hypnoanalysis of a criminal Psychopath. Nicholas Rays 1955 movie shortened the title.