Allan Fromme

The American Bicentennial

VTR Date: January 4, 1976

Guest: Fromme, Allan


THE OPEN MINDHost: Richard D. HeffnerGuest: Allan FrommeTitle: The American BicentennialVTR: 1/4/76 I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Our subject today is on being 200 years old. Now, I don’t really mean to play on Mel Brooks’ 200-year-old man and the stresses and the strains of being 200 years old as we Americans now are. Well, one may note indeed that that may not be a laughing matter. And so I’ve invited the most affirmative person I know to talk about our bicentennial mental set. Dr. Allan Fromme, philosopher, psychologist, therapist, author among many other books and articles of The Ability to Love and Our Troubled Selves. Dr. Fromme, I made note because we have such a serious subject here today on being 200 years old and I begin the program by saying I’m not referring to you, I’m not even referring to me. FROMME: (Laughter) HEFFNER: But I made note of a question, and the note is that Benjamin Franklin, old Benjamin Franklin was the homely philosopher among our founding fathers, and those friendly homilies of Poor Richard’s Almanac might be considered the 18th century’s guide to good thinking and good living. But with all of your contemporary psychological training and all of your modern-day insights into what makes us tick today, if we were to wave a magic wand and transport you back 200 years ago, do you think that you would be plying your psychological trade in the same way then as you do now? FROMME: I must say that’s a novel question. I thought you were my friend. HEFFNER: (Laughter) FROMME: The thought of having worked for 200 years just wears me out. And I daresay there are some times when I feel as if I have. The question brings to mind almost immediately the old anthropological dictum that cultures are many and man is one. The suggestion being of course that even as society changes, of essential selves remain the same and that our problems will be the same. I suspect they would be in large part but there would also be differences, very important ones. Probably, probably the most important difference will be the way in which we express ourselves and our problems today as compared to what we did then. HEFFNER: What do you mean “Express ourselves”? FROMME: Well, think of Hester Pryne, and you remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist in The Scarlet Letter. Consider the way she expresses herself sexually and the consequences she has to endure as a result as compared with the average, young college girl today. Or let’s move the clock up a little bit somewhat towards the middle of the last century when Thoreau said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I think we might be just as desperate, but I certainly don’t believe we’re nearly so quiet about it as we were then. I think today we let it, as we say, all hang out. We live in the kind of a world where we tend to overreact to things, where we talk a great deal about the things that bother us, where our attention has come to be riveted pretty much upon ourselves and embellished by the knowledge that we’ve achieved in the last 50 to 75 years, particularly since the writings of Sigmund Freud. I remember years ago if a child were brought to see you by his parents, his parents described the child as having difficulty in living with himself. He was involuted, his problems tended to bottle him up and make him withdraw from the world so that he had difficulty living with himself. Whereas today when parents bring their children in to see a psychologist, they say, “We have difficulty living with him”. I remember as recently as 20 years ago it would take months before a patient could get to speak out freely about the things about which he was bleeding. Whereas today in one hour you get the etiology, diagnosis, prognosis, and all in professional jargon as well. Everybody knows so much about this and feels so much freer to talk about these things. And I suspect that one of the major reasons is not just the fact that democracy has finally seeped down into our bloodstream, nervous system, etcetera, but also there’s been a great decline in guilt in the last 200 years. I daresay that at the inception of this government, although we extended freedoms they were largely political freedoms. Morality didn’t change by virtue of having the Constitution written. I think the church was a very much stronger instrument. And guilt of course has always been the great inhibitor. Today, because of this decline, I think that we get to face our difficulties and express our difficulties very, very much more overtly than we did 200 years ago. It makes the job a lot easier and it makes therapy much more effective, and I’m glad I’m practicing today rather than then. HEFFNER: Yes, but you say that guilt is the great inhibitor, and we perhaps experienced much greater guilt in those days than in our own time. But inhibitor of what? Of social and antisocial thoughts and activities? FROMME: Well, what was considered antisocial of course has varied over the years. When I mentioned Hester Pryne, and of course you know from your own movie experience what even in the last ten years the change has just been enormous, enormous. I daresay that 200 years ago if they had had television it would not have had nearly the number of programs involving hostility, aggression; or if they had movies I don’t think that that would have been the case at all, because the conception of what a man was allowed to do was very different. And if he felt this way, if he felt this way he was very strongly encouraged to inhibit it. In fact, I daresay that one of the reasons the church over all those years survived and was an important influence is that it took the place of a police force. HEFFNER: But is your judgment – and I admit to try to compare 200 years ago with today is fallacious, and I grant that even as we begin the program – but in terms of what you would consider mental health, would you consider that today we are healthier that we were 200 years ago, or the other way around? FROMME: Well, I think we’re getting healthier all the time. I really do. There was a time when we really couldn’t even determine the extent of mental illness because, you know, the simple way of ding it is merely to count the number of patients in mental hospitals. And as soon as a new wing was built, it was immediately filled. Today for the first time, that is within the last number of years, hospital beds go wanting in places for the mentally disturbed. There are of course many significant reasons for this, as a result largely of the improvement in modes of therapy. The most important thing I daresay is that we have many, many, many more opportunities for the early detection of emotional upset. Years ago when a patient was brought to a hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia on the average his age was about 42, when the onset of the disease was 14. Well after having suffered the disease for all those years it was very difficult to treat him, and the prognosis was a very cautious one. Today that isn’t the case. So that in a sense we are getting healthier. But we talk so much about mental upset that it sounds as if we’re all sick. And we call every body sick, sick, sick. The fact is we’re making enormous strides in this. HEFFNER: Dr. Fromme, except for the extremes of severe mental illness, taking more generally those neurotic symptoms that I would suspect that most of us talk about when we talk about mental illness today or disturbance, is it your opinion truthfully that aside from very severe illness there was more then of the kind of unhappiness that we call emotional disturbance than there is now? FROMME: Well, it’s awfully difficult, as you suggest, to make the comparison because the writings about earlier periods of time include virtually, you know, nothing on the subject. HEFFNER: Isn’t that a sign of something? FROMME: No, it’s that, you know, historians weren’t interested in it. You know, just as our styles change in clothes, so our styles of writing history changes. Our styles in the symptoms we develop change as well. It’s only fairly recently that social scientists have come to pay attention to the individual and his psychology and the way in which human nature is affected by the changes in society. So that we really don’t know terribly much. We interpolate a great deal; a nice word for “guessing” a great deal. And it’s kind of fun, you know, making some of these guesses. And I daresay that some of the novels written about the period or even some of the biographies if they’re not idealistic or romantic might give us some insight. But I suspect that basically we were very much the same, but the lives lived were simpler. There’s no question but that living in a small community or living in an agrarian community is very different from living in a very crowded and congested city. Take for example, the fuss being made these days about alienation. And, you know, it’s true, we are alienated from each other in many, many significant ways. And even from ourselves. And, you know, we are like characters in an Antonioni film or in a Kamune novel. But I wonder, I wonder if living in a farm where your nearest neighbor was five or ten miles away, or even a mile away, offered very much more opportunity for human interaction. Now you might say, “Yes, but they didn’t feel alienated because they accepted that”. Well, we don’t know if they accepted that. We don’t know. I hear they used to go to sleep at sundown, which doesn’t sound like much fun to me, not that I’m particularly a night person. But there weren’t the many opportunities, cultural, artistic opportunities that we now enjoy. When we speak of our being alienated from others – which is of course largely true – and we say we’re more alienated, I don’t think we mean we’re more alienated than people were at other periods of time. I think we’re saying that we’re more alienated than we want to be or that is good for us. HEFFNER: Yes, but that simpler life about which you speak… FROMME: Yeah? HEFFNER: Going to be early perhaps, going to bed, sleeping from dusk to dawn, working the rest of the time and feeding ourselves, didn’t that lead, that simpler life lead to a kind of acceptance of one’s lot and an adjustment to it? There weren’t as many temptations, there weren’t as many frustrations for that reason. And if we’re talking about your trade, that of helping people who feel themselves to be psychologically ill, and some people who don’t feel themselves to be so, wouldn’t it seem that by definition we were, mentally speaking, healthier 200 years ago? FROMME: Well, we might have been deader rather than healthier. We might have been, but I really don’t know. I really don’t know. You know they say (Laughter)… HEFFNER: You mean what we’re doing today you call living? FROMME: Yeah, well, I think we’re living very, very much more fully than ever before. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. We pay a price for it. We pay a price in our frustrations. And then the trick, of course, is to learn how to handle our frustrations rather than merely to act them out in terms of the, you know, alternate states of depression or hostility engendered by them. But there’s no question but that we pay for it. But on the other hand, we get more for it too. There are many changes that I feel, you know, represent progress if we accept it, you know, as the yardstick for progress, some affection for people and a way of bettering their lives. Here, for example 200 years ago just staying alive was an enormous problem. That was an extremely difficult problem. The reason they worked 12 hours a day was not that they like work, I don’t imagine; they just had to. Building your own house is a very difficult enterprise. Worrying about whether you’re going to be attacked by, you know, alien natives is a very threatening thing. Making sure that you’re going to lay up enough food to carry you over a long, cold winter again is another threatening thing. Today survival is almost automatic. Almost. I mean, it’s still true that people get hit by automobiles every four minutes in many areas of the country, but it’s automatic in the sense that if you’re out of work the government helps you along, when you get old the government helps you along. In other words, we have such things as relief, welfare, unemployment insurance. We have public hospitals. It’s making life good, meaningful to you, which I think has become more our problem today at least in the affluent parts of western society. HEFFNER: That’s interesting that there are some people who look back 200 years and say it is that concept of the pursuit of happiness and or interpretation of it now 200 years later that really is what creates so much by way of disturbance, the notion that one can predicate one’s life upon the pursuit of happiness and making that so much of a goal the first time really in man’s history. It was a new experience, the American experience. And the concept of the pursuit of happiness was so new. Do you think that we entered the field 200 years ago with a notion that was to prove to be perhaps the source of so much of our unhappiness today? FROMME: Well, it’s the source of both our unhappiness and our happiness. Yeah, that was still a fairly aristocratic society in 1776. You know, wealth was still largely an inherited matter. Today, you know, money comes as a result of your effort, your luck, or whatnot. But it certainly is no longer something that you just inherit. It isn’t the only way. Also I think education which is far more widespread finally today than it was then even though they made efforts in that direction, education is the great equalizer. It gives us a chance to be the equal of most anybody else in society. But it doesn’t come easy. You know, it isn’t just the idea and the concept which automatically transforms us. All it does is to, you know, give us a learner’s permit, gives us an opportunity to get out and prove ourselves. And we have, you know, still many inequities that remain. HEFFNER: But I’d come back again to this question of whether the concept that one of the objectives of life and certainly one of the objectives of government is to assure ourselves a continuing pursuit of happiness, whether that hasn’t been translated in our own times given the materialistic nature of many of our happy products of the products of our happiness, whether that hasn’t led us into the psychologist’s office and the psychiatrist’s couch more than anything else perhaps. FROMME: Well, I like the concept. I like the concept. I’m not arguing the concept. I’m not so sure that the means by which we achieve happiness, that which has evolved in our society and which was not written into the Constitution but more derived perhaps from the concepts of Mr. Calvin sometime before that, you know, developing the whole notion of the work ethic. I’m not so sure that the means by which we achieve this has worked as well as we hoped. It’s true that members of a previous generation, I’m not so sure that people at college today or people developing professional or business skills today believe it to the same degree, but up until fairly recently a man believed that, you know, if by the time he died his obituary was a long one, that long obituary meant that he lived a good life. And more often than not what it did mean was that he earned a lot of money. And we’ve come to question now, at least youth has, and I think very significantly has come to question whether earning a lot of money is the sine qua non of happiness. Even the people who say, “No, of course it isn’t”, continue by virtue of their early conditioning, but virtue of their training to pursue happiness by becoming first of all a financial success. You know, in America you’ve got to go out and kill a bear to establish yourself. I think it’s good that we question this. In other words, its not the goal as written into, you know, that initial Declaration of Independence that I question at all. I think it’s the means by which we’re trying to achieve this. And if people in the process do develop, you know, some wear and tear and wind up in psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ offices, that’s all right, that’s all right. You know, just learning involves a certain amount of wear and tear, and you’re going to see a doctor for one reason or another anyway. It doesn’t mean that life isn’t worthwhile because you’re going to spend some time getting help. HEFFNER: But this question of the pursuit of happiness and having happiness as a goal, doesn’t it put its emphasis particularly much upon individual and individualistic values… FROMME: Oh, yes. HEFFNER: …that are different from the values of 200 years ago? FROMME: I’m not so sure that they’re different, but I can’t comment on that. You know, there’s an old Spanish proverb that suggests, “A fool knows more in his own house than a wise man at his neighbor’s”. But, but I think we, I think there would be great values in examining, and reexamining some of these principles. I think that the notion of rugged individualism is making life very, very much more difficult for us. My goodness, we trust machines more than people these days. You know, when you turn the key in your car you know it’s going to start, especially if you have a Diehard batter. (Laughter) Whereas on the other hand when you say hello to somebody today you’re not so sure of the kind of answer you’re going to get. I think that the stress has been overly much on what’s in it for me in the narrowest sense. Of course I’m not about to propose that we give up singles in tennis and play nothing but doubles (Laughter) and stress cooperativeness, but maybe that would work. You know, there have been other people that anthropologists have brought to our attention where, for example, at a sporting event, it would be in very bad taste for anyone to win more than one event. Whereas in our Olympics if you’re the decathlon champ you’re the greatest champ of all. In other words, if you make, I don’t know, one million dollars, that’s enough, you’ve got to quit; you don’t make any more than that. Or if you have a factory of this size you keep it that size and then devote your attention to other things that are more personally rewarding. I don’t think we’ve been trained to do that. You know, it reminds me of some of the interesting interplay that we get between our needs and desires and their consequences in our world. Like, you know, you want to get somewhere in a hurry so you take your automobile and of course you wind up in a traffic jam, so you’re late. Or you want more leisure and you buy labor-saving devices for your home and then you don’t know what to do with your free time. Or you want to be happy at home and so you blame your unhappiness on your present wife or, and you dissolve that marriage, you remarry only to find after a while that you’re recreating the same conditions that existed in the same marriage that led to unhappiness. Because we get trapped very often, trapped. I don’t think much has been stressed in our whole education on these values. We’re brought up in a way where the facts are the important thing, not whether they’re good, bad, or indifferent for us, not whether getting along with others is important or not. We’re not learning how to use our leisure or how to enjoy Shakespeare or whatnot; that isn’t the important thing. You’ve got to know Columbus discovered America in 1492. Period. Not 1493, even if there’s no historic significance in the difference. HEFFNER: Well, Id be prepared to say I know a great many people who would maintain that that is not the essence of our contemporary educational system today, knowing facts. But let me go back again to this matter of changing values, and as to whether the emphasis upon the pursuit of an individual’s happiness hasn’t over the past 200 years led us down – I was going to say the garden path – led us down, at any rate, a path that may lead more frequently to your office than to the kind of achievement that was represented 200 years ago in the Declaration of Independence or a little later in the creation of the Constitution, whether we haven’t really shifted basically into a kind of “I’m all right Jack” philosophy, into a pursuit of individual happiness that must of necessity end up by putting its emphasis upon material things, the kinds of things that you were talking about. Isn’t that a major difference between now and then? FROMME: Well, it exists now. I’m not sure how much of it existed then. But I don’t feel like blaming our Founding Fathers for this. HEFFNER: No, I’m not suggesting that. I’m talking about the idea of the pursuit of happiness as interpreted today. FROMME: Oh, oh. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I agree that we could do very much better by ourselves learning to get along very much better with people. This is one of the major problems we face in the world today on an individual and on a national scale, international scale. But again, I don’t think when the phrase was used, you know, “The pursuit of happiness”, that the individual was really the focus of that whole concept. I think the notion of freedom, the notion of self-determination was the important thing. HEFFNER: Yes, but really my question has to do with whether we haven’t perhaps misinterpreted… FROMME: I see. HEFFNER: …that notion today. And if one were talking about this 200-year-old man, this 200-year-old entity known as an American, whether one might not assume that he’s too very much wrapped up in a phrase that, in terms of its contemporary interpretation, is too individualistic, puts its emphasis… FROMME: Yeah. Oh, I agree. HEFFNER: …upon me rather than us, puts its emphasis upon the “I” rather than the “we”. FROMME: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t agree with you more. As a matter of fact, William Meninger used to say repeatedly throughout his very successful life, you know the founder, one of the founders of the famous Meninger Clinic, that the most important thing in life, that is in living life well is to seize upon a cause that is something bigger than you, something outside of you, something that would involve you with others, something in a sense that’s never finished, and to some degree lose yourself in it. Today we live in, you know, what philosophers call a very solipsistic society, that is we are concerned with the “I” and the “me” overly much. In fact sometimes you ask a person why he did something irregular or peculiar and his answer is simply, “I had a need”, which may be factually true, but you know, I regard as, well, in some instances even immoral. I don’t mean it in a prudish sense at all. HEFFNER: That reminds me though, of the way we began. You Hester Pryne, and I wonder whether there wasn’t a function to the guilt that you said that time there was, guilt was the great inhibitor in American life, whether it wasn’t an also rather positive fact of our lives which we don’t possess too much of today. FROMME: Well, we need some inhibition, but I hate it to take the form of guilt. (Laughter) HEFFNER: It worked. FROMME: Well, but the price was I think, higher than… HEFFNER: Higher than what we’re paying today? FROMME: Then what we’re paying today, yeah. I don’t think the symptoms people have today hurt nearly so much as turning all of that inside of us and letting it fester and fester and fester inside of us. I think we’re very much better off for what’s happening now. HEFFNER: Yet when one does go back and reads the novels of the past – and you’re right, historians haven’t presented to us a picture of the past; they haven’t had the resources, perhaps, be adequate to our own times – isn’t there, is it just nostalgia, is it just that the good old times were the good old times and that there’s no reality in that notion? FROMME: Yeah, I think that was mostly it. You know the way we use our minds. When we look back at the past they were always the good old days because, you know, we’re not sweating the horrible heart of last summer so that it was a great summer. And then when we look at the present if you say everything’s great you sound like, you know, like Candide, you know, when Voltaire wanted to criticize society he had to make a musical comedy of it practically. You know, if all our great minds wrote articles on what’s right and what’s good in our world, we would say that they’re, you know, they all have rose-colored glasses, they‘re not really using their fine, fine, steely minds in the right direction. We’re supposed to find what’s wrong. So compared to the things we find wrong in our present society – mind you, not that I say that there aren’t things – yesterday always stands out like a rose. HEFFNER: So the 200-year-old man isn’t as badly off as I think? FROMME: He can begin to live to 200 now. (Laughter) HEFFNER: No, no, no. It’s the question of whether another 200 years would make things even worse than they are today. FROMME: Well, no, there’s no guarantee that we just get better. We’ve gotten better in some ways, and I suspect in many ways we haven’t. HEFFNER: You mean we’ve gotten better rather than just older? FROMME: Oh, I think we’ve gotten better. I mean, a lot of our social legislation’s a lot better than we had at one time, wouldn’t you say? HEFFNER: Social legislation, yes. But we’re really talking about the people who would or would not come into your office. FROMME: Well, let’s consider some of the basic things you find… HEFFNER: In about 15 seconds. FROMME: All right. (Laughter) HEFFNER: I’m afraid we really don’t have time to do that, but I must admit being much more of a pessimist than you are, and being delighted with your optimism. I’m so appreciative of your being here today to start off the next 200 years, Dr. Fromme. Thanks so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.