Carole Owens: Riggs at the century mark

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STOCKBRIDGE — This year the Austen Riggs Center is 100 years old. "Unfettered by health insurance company demands or cost, Austen Riggs provides 100 years of maverick mental health care" Eagle, August 31.

"We look forward to the next 100," said Eric M. Plakun, M.D., medical director/CEO, in a statement released by the Center. The Center's website describes it as "a leading psychiatric hospital and residential treatment program."

Ten years before Riggs opened, E. L. Doctorow wrote that after Sigmund Freud's visit to America in 1909, no man could admit to loving his mother. True or apocryphal, it was a way for Doctorow to describe how deeply Freudian Theory had seeped into the American ethos. Four years later, The New York Times reported, "American receptivity to the idea of mental healing is unparalleled in the world." That year, Austen Fox Riggs, an internist, opened a small clinic in Stockbridge.

On March 2, 1913, a piece in the New York Times Magazine described Freud's methods as, " psychoanalysis, which bears the same relation to mental and nervous diseases that the microscope does to pathology." An interesting analogy, but seven days earlier, The Times produced a wordier definition: "It is an analysis by a trained psychologist of the patient's mental life, a probing into the deepest recesses and darkest corners of his mind, with the idea of bringing back to consciousness the repressions which are at the basis of his condition."

Everyone in America became an amateur shrink. The butcher, the baker, and the candle stick maker adopted the jargon. Anyone could say with impunity: you're projecting or deflecting; you're being defensive or paranoid. It sounded great and they even knew what it meant — sort of.


Freud became a household name; his theories, unquestioned, permeated the culture. Freud and Freudian theory were everywhere; someone even psychoanalyzed "Moby Dick." Americans loved all things Freudian.

In the midst of this early 20th century passion, Riggs thrived and in 1919 the Austen Riggs Center was incorporated in the center of Stockbridge. Stockbridge welcomed the mental health community with typical warmth and humor.

Early on, Tom Carey operated the closest thing to a taxi service that Stockbridge ever had. He drove his horse and buggy in a widening circle from his house on Sergeant Street to the train station and points between.

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As unhappy as any patient might be arriving at Austen Riggs, Carey learned from experience that they might be equally sad to leave.

To comfort one sobbing woman as they drove away, Carey said, "Don't fret, you'll soon be back."

Years later, Stockbridge Police Chief Rick Wilcox walked down Main Street by Selectman Mary Flynn (she preferred to be called selectman). She stopped in front of the Austen Riggs Center and said, "Riggs Ceter was founded the year I was born."

Without hesitation, Wilcox responded, "They saw the need."

According to the history of Riggs Center, "Though he denounced what he called Freud's `mental gymnastics' and criticized the Vienna doctors' emphasis on sexual conflicts as the root of neurosis, Riggs's practices bore commonalities with the emerging field of psychoanalysis. He believed neurotics to be troubled by the `residue of past experience,' and that they would heal in part by self-knowledge."

Riggs invited Mary Lord and Prentiss Coonley to Stockbridge. Mary served on the first Board of Trustees. Riggs died in 1940, and many assumed the center would die with him. However, the same year, Prentiss, a member of FDR's brain trust, was named president of the Riggs Foundation and chairman of the Board of Trustees, 1943-'44. Prentiss is credited with the save.

The Riggs Center survived, grew, and changed with the times. It now includes the Erikson Institute for Education and Research. As a young adult, Erik Salomonson attended a school run by Freud's daughter Anna. She encouraged the boy to enter psychoanalysis. He did and changed his name to Erik Erikson. Erikson came to America and was at Riggs Center from 1960-'70. He left a permanent mark.

Today drugs are replacing psychotherapy as a treatment for many mental ills. A Columbia University study reported that one in 10 Americans is now on antidepressants. Yet some version of Freud's talking cure — with or without the dogma — is an accepted feature of American middle-class life. The interest in understanding human behavior still runs deep. We still want tools to better understand our motivations, ourselves.

The annual fall conference will explore "The Mental Health Crisis in America." The conference will be at Tanglewood's New Linde Center for Music and Learning on Sept. 21 and 22. The public is welcome. Registration is required.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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