George Higgins (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
George is a retired college professor and counselor. He worked at Trinity College for close to 40 years. He also has had a private psychology practice in the Hartford area. He is now a grandfather and he and his wife June live in Durham, CT.
I was a psychologist at Trinity College in Hartford, CT from 1963 to 2000. Just before I was hired, the parents’ association of Trinity had decided that students were starting to have enough psychological problems that the school ought to hire a professional counselor. They established what amounted to a paid private practice, sort of like an HMO today. The counselor was to operate as if he were an independent professional and keep separate records that would not become part of a student’s school record. This allowed students to have a place to talk with somebody who would be insulated from the rest of the school, but paid for by the school. Services were free for the students, they could simply drop in and talk, and there wouldn’t be any record of their having been there. Essentially they could say anything they wanted, and it would remain confidential.
Starting in the ‘60’s, probably about 1966, there was a national turn towards student activism. It was coincidental with the rise in recreational drugs, the Beatles, and a kind of a pacifistic ideal. Students started very positively with many social activities and intentions: to increase minority student representation at the college, to create programs to take care of kids in the local neighborhoods, to change the curriculum to make it more responsive to the outside world. Some of these have since become institutionalized.
They also expressed considerable anger towards their parents for hiding them from the realities of life. This led to a real breakdown in the basic categories of authority. Students would stop a teacher in the middle of a lecture and say, “What’s the relevance of this?” or “What are we doing here?” Students started calling teachers by their first names and dressing shabbily. When I first came to Trinity, students in introductory history wore coat and tie to class. You were lucky to get students to wear anything by the time this period began. It was all anti-authority.
The Vietnam War to me was not particularly notable. I was born in 1937 and, if you count Korea as kind of a continuation of World War II, I had never lived in peacetime. I was in high school during the Korean War and Korea was still so alive when I went to college that I joined ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) to make sure I wouldn’t be sent to war as a foot soldier. So I never didn’t know war, and the period from when we left Korea until the time that we started in Vietnam was only about 4 years. What I can remember is a moment in the 1960 election campaign, listening to Kennedy’s plan for foreign policy, and calling a friend of mine to tell him that, “If this man is elected there’s going to be a war in southeast Asia in the next five years.” The rest, as they say, is history.
To me Vietnam was just more of the usual. I was automatically opposed to war. I had cousins and uncles in World War II , all sorts of people that I knew had fought, and I was draft eligible for Korea. I was a knee-jerk, non-political anti-war person. I never watched “MASH” (T.V. comedy about a medical unit during the Korean War) because it made me really distressed. The only war program I ever liked was “Hogan’s Heroes” (T.V. comedy about a German prisoner of war camp set during World War II) because it mocked the process of war. So when Vietnam started, it just seemed to me quite unsurprising, but also it seemed kind of offensive: all of these young people who I knew so intimately were threatened by this abstract sense of purpose by being sent off to be slaughtered in the Far East. I had a pretty good idea how lousy it was for them, so I was a non-passionate anti-war person. I guess I still am. I’m now 74, and how long have we not had a war since I was born? Probably fifteen or sixteen minutes.
Students in the ‘60’s, by and large, had this wonderful, young, positive, energetic sense of possible change for the better in the world. In some ways I joined them in this belief. If I had thought in my first years at Trinity in the early 1960’s that we would get to the year 2010 and Hartford would be just as segregated as it was in 1960, even more so than it was then, I would have been astonished. I believed that within the decade we would be done with racial segregation. That was my kind of unrealistic silliness.
My sense of most of the male students at Trinity and elsewhere was that while they were expending a lot of very positive energy in domestic social activities, their greatest concern with Vietnam was simply that they didn’t want to get shot in the war. That was certainly proved when, during the year of the Cambodian incursion, the faculties at colleges across the country voted to stop school so that they and their students could all participate in a united anti-war process. The professors voted to stop school at Trinity on a Thursday or a Friday, and they all showed up for the anti-war meetings on Monday only to discover that almost all the students had gone home. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised us all that much.
One of the things that I was troubled with as a counselor to these students was that at this particular time, the society began to move away from allowing counselors to grant absolute confidentiality. In the past everything said in counseling was privileged. Individuals who committed heinous and disgusting acts that everyone was distressed about could come in to talk and expect to get help. As a judge told me in my training, if a wife comes in and says she’s murdered her husband, your job is to counsel her distress, not to be a policeman or a judge or a jury.
Health care workers have a duty to do no harm, and I was presented with a lot of problems in that area. I was not conflicted morally with aiding people to avoid the draft, but I was very reluctant incorrectly to label an individual as mentally unhealthy because I knew what that was likely to entail later. What I always tried to do was to write letters that would force somebody else to do the labeling if necessary. I would write letters saying this person sleepwalks, or other things that would be obvious disadvantages to the military, so the physician at the induction physical could declare the state of illness. But that was, of course, just passing the buck.
What bothered me most were students who come in expressing the conviction that they could in no circumstances kill somebody. “I could never bring myself to hurt or kill somebody.” I believe, very strongly, that as a mental health person I should not support such an act of non-adaptive denial. Everyone can kill under some circumstance, and it is imperative that we know that fact in order to avoid killing when we find ourselves in an unusual situation. A person who has convinced himself that control of deadly anger is no problem for him, is ill equipped to exist well in this world.
While I believe that nobody should have to go to war, every time I wrote a clever letter for somebody sitting in my office that was not going to get picked as a result of my efforts, I knew somebody else somewhere was going to get picked in his place. After a while I just thought to myself, as well as an atheist could say it, “Well, god put me here at this place. I’ll do what I can do with these students,” but that’s a dilemma that still bothers me. I know there were folks out there that I harmed. I know there were other men who died in the place of the ones I helped get deferred. But everyone in the education system was fearful for the fate of “our” students. Teachers were reluctant to flunk students for fear that they would then be drafted and killed in the war. We simply moved to take care of our own, to take care of those who were known to us.
Still I had problems. Some students tried to fake an illness, and I had to tell them I was going to give them a diagnostic test that could not be faked. The real position I was put in was that I had a license, and one thing a license is taken away for faster than anything else is not acting like the professional you are licensed to be. One thing I could absolutely not do was knowingly make a false diagnosis. I told students, “I am going to give you a test and if you’re faking it, I’m going to say that.” Now I could say, “This person is so crazy that they’re even faking the test to get out of the war. This is not somebody that I would want watching my back in the army,” and I did that in a couple of cases.
I had professional colleagues who routinely gave unsupportable diagnoses that would make a person exempt from induction. I never did that. I had a highly verbal and highly intelligent population. The ones that came to see me asking for a false diagnosis I could talk to. False diagnosis is just something I never did. One of the healthiest, most capable people drew draft number 1, and what I said to him was, “Look, if someone like you had been standing on the knoll in Kent state, those kids wouldn’t be dead.” He wrote to me from grad school three years later and said, “You remember how you told me about the Kent State kids. I was the best marksman in my class. I was sent to riot duty in Philadelphia and everyone got rubber bullets except the one person who’s supposed to take care of snipers. That was me.”
My therapeutic notion is that we are gardeners of a perennial bed, not an annual one. We can’t make the bed look like what we want. We have to work with who our patient is, to help him be the best that he can be. To my knowledge I never faked a diagnosis. I never refused to write a letter, but I showed the students their letter and some students didn’t want it sent. One student showed up at a draft board with my letter in his hand but the examining doctor said, “I’m a shrink today, I don’t need a letter.” He ended up declaring him unfit anyway. My main interest was the psychological impact of the whole process on the student, including his potential death, but I probably didn’t see the life crisis differently than if they discovered their mom had cancer or their dad was arrested. I avoided formalizing a sexual diagnosis, a psychotic diagnosis or any diagnosis that had to do with breaking the law. It’s impossible to avoid depression or anxiety in one’s life, so I believe I stayed in those areas 99% of the time. And they were true diagnoses.
Are there things in retrospect that I would do differently? You bet your ass. What I wish had been possible was for the college administration to have been more proactive. A few were, like the president of Amherst who sat in at Westover Air Force Base and the Yale president. But we were limited to taking care of students eligible for the draft, rather than stopping the war. We might have spent more energy and time on dealing with people of power, with parents and with high schools. I don’t know what we would have done precisely, but I’m quire aware that we were reactive and not proactive. It’s like the 21-year-old drinking laws that are so destructive now. Colleges are simply reacting to the problem posed to their students’ development not being proactive. We didn’t do our job in those days. It was a pity.