Remembering Karl Menninger

Feb 6, 2012 - by J. J. Maloney

Feb. 2, 2012

Dr. Karl Menninger

Dr. Karl Menninger

Former convict and Kansas City Star reporter J.J. Maloney recalls his 17-year association with Dr. Karl Menninger, the avatar of prison reform.

by J.J. Maloney

In December, 1972, I attended a conference on prison reform in Topeka, Kansas, in connection with a prison series another reporter and I were writing for The Kansas City Star.

At lunch I found myself sitting next to Karl Menninger.

I'd seen pictures of him, but he was much more of a presence than I had expected. About 70 at the time, he was developing bags under his eyes, had silver hair, and was getting jowly; but he radiated intelligence, confidence and power.

Menninger remained slightly aloof until I mentioned to him that I had enjoyed a piece he had written for a bulletin published by the W. Clement Stone Foundation in Chicago.

What piece was that? Menninger asked.

The piece on the history of prison literature, I replied.

Menninger looked puzzled and said he didn't remember that piece. When I said I had a copy in my suitcase, he insisted I go to my room and get it.

He read the piece then said to me, "I didn't write this."

I finally told Menninger I had written the piece myself, for Book World, which was published in The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune. Apparently someone at the foundation had thought it would have more impact with Menninger's name on it.

Menninger appeared deeply embarrassed, but from that moment forward we had a warm relationship. Every time I would cover one of his appearances, or happen to attend some event at the same time he did, he would insist that I sit at his table.

We met frequently in those days. The 1970s was the heyday of prison reform in America, and Menninger bore the torch for the movement.

It wasn't always cordial. On one occasion when I attended a seminar sponsored by the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Menninger talked on the subject of training prison management personnel.

I asked him if he'd considered the common problem of prison managers using convicts as pawns in office politics – i.e., after one official gives a convict a job, that official's rival determines the convict isn't really "qualified" for that job and has the convict reassigned. The object of the game is to place the first official's judgment in question. The convict is just a pawn.

Menninger tried to ignore the question and became visibly irritated, as I insisted he elaborate on the issue. You can't work effectively with prison managers unless you consider factors such as this, I said.

When the session ended, Menninger was chilly toward me. But the director of the Kansas Reception and Diagnostic Center thanked me. "We've all wanted to do that for years," he said, "but we don't dare." These doctors and psychologists were intimidated by Menninger. If they irritated him, as I had, they felt they would be risking their careers.

The next time I saw Menninger he insisted that I sit at his table. He told me that my comments at the seminar were correct. The issue needed to be considered. "But that wasn't the time or place," he said. "If we had taken up that issue, we would have had to abandon what we were there to talk about."

It was then that I began to wonder if even the people who worked with Menninger really understood him.


* * *

In early 1975, Menninger was approaching his mid-70s, and I suggested to my editors that we do a major piece on him – a piece intended to put him in perspective, to examine his contributions to psychiatry and the world in general.

They agreed. So I contacted Menninger and, on a Monday I drove to Topeka, an hour west of Kansas City, and went to the Neiswanger Building, a quaint building with a steeple, and found Menninger waiting for me.

I had already read a half-dozen of his books and felt I was prepared to spend a few hours with him and produce a meaningful profile for the Sunday paper. Menninger quickly disabused me of that notion. Had I read about the Menninger family? No. Had I read his mother's book? No.

Well, he said, you can't really write anything meaningful about me unless you know my family, my parents. But, he said, if you just want something for the Sunday paper, I'll try to cooperate.

I spent several hours with him that day, and by the time it was over I realized I was into a project that was bigger than the Sunday paper could hold. I told my editors it was turning into a major project. If Menninger will cooperate, they said, so will we.

There were delays. Menninger was always going somewhere: to give a speech, receive an award, something. The next time I saw him was about a month later, and I discovered George Rapaport had gotten there ahead of me.

Rapaport, who'd written for Rolling Stone, was writing a book for Playboy's book division on the 10 most famous doctors in America. Menninger was one of them. However, Rapaport had irritated Menninger right off. Rapaport was in an outer office because Menninger didn't want to be interviewed by him. Rapaport didn't know what to do.

As I was being ushered into Menninger's office, Rapaport asked if he could sit in and listen while I interviewed Menninger. The thought didn't thrill me, but I said it was up to Menninger.

I mentioned Rapaport's request to Menninger, and he rolled his eyes. Menninger's secretary came in to repeat the request, and Menninger said, with exasperation, "All right, if agrees not to say anything."

Rapaport would say something to Menninger, and Menninger would say, "What was that you said?" as though he'd suddenly been struck deaf. (Menninger wore a hearing aid, and was adept at using it as a defensive weapon.)

Fortunately, Rapaport said he had a conflict with his airline schedule, and had to leave soon. At which Menninger looked immensely pleased. As soon as Rapaport was gone, Menninger relaxed, and we spent approximately four hours together that day. He asked if I would drive him to his doctor, since his toe was bothering him. So I took him for a drive in his first Wankel-engined car, something that seemed to please him greatly, and he lectured me on the development of the Wankel engine.

As the visits continued I began to learn the nuances of Menninger's personality. He was a terrible painter, but mentioned more than once that Churchill and Eisenhower had both painted, and I suspected his failure to paint would be perceived, by him, as a failure to be a Renaissance man. I was tactful in discussing his painting with him, and on one occasion he expressed frustration at not being able to get his sky to turn out the way he wanted. I told him to try cerulean blue, and he peered at me.

"I didn't know you painted."

"That's what I did before I became a writer," I explained.

The next time I saw him he raved about the qualities of cerulean blue.


* * *

Menninger had a poodle named Celeste, a dog devoted to him, which obeyed him remarkably. He loved to toss peanuts to Celeste so she could catch them in mid-air. On getting into a car, Menninger would say, "In back, Celeste," and she would hop into the rear seat and rivet herself there. In his office she would curl up out of the way, and become an invisible fixture.

In all the time I spent around Celeste, it was never necessary for anyone to take her outside to relieve herself, and I never saw her do that. Nor, in all the time I had spent with Menninger, was there ever a time when he had to go to the bathroom.

I've often thought it is that very sense of propriety upon which the concept of civilization is constructed.


* * *

Menninger had been a handsome man when younger, and with his charisma and success, I'm sure the opportunities for affairs with fascinating women came his way with some regularity. But I made no effort to discover that.

By more contemporary standards, many journalists would fault me for not delving into that area of his life. They would argue that the private life of a psychiatrist surely illuminates his work and gives it meaning.

But I remember pointing to a print by Pablo Picasso and asking Menninger what he thought of Picasso. Menninger's face lit up. He's great, Menninger said, and I don't want to analyze him.

He understood that analyzing Picasso's work is different from analyzing the man – why he painted what he did, or whether he had an inner ear disorder that caused him to do this or that. Van Gogh, for instance, is one of my favorite painters, and I resent efforts by doctors to explain away his talent by linking it to his mental illness.

Shortly before Menninger's death, a book was published that did reveal Menninger's affairs, or those that the author could uncover. But to what end? There had been brief hints during our conversations. During a discussion of prostitution, Menninger shook his head and bemoaned that sadness of driving around the block and having anonymous sex with someone you'll never see again, and didn't care about in the first place.

"You'd think," he said, "they would at least want a nice, comfortable room, where they could be caring and loving about one another."


* * *

At one point I asked Menninger to tell me about some of the subjects he'd studied. He laughed and called his secretary into the room.

"Take Mister Maloney into the next room and show him my research files," Menninger instructed. "Then bring him back a humbler man."

As I browsed through those files, housed in binders that looked like books, my respect for the man deepened. His interest, over a half century, ranged from the tall grass prairie to the American Indian, homelessness, homosexuality, every imaginable form of mental illness – there wasn't anything I could think of that wasn't contained in those files. More important, he had taken firm stands on controversial issues decades before those issues became chic.

I returned to his office a humbler man.

During a discussion on pornography, I asked him if he'd seen Deep Throat.

"I saw it," he said, looking bored. "It was just another cocksucking movie." Then he explained that a woman's ability to suck a long penis was a matter of throat control, not unlike that needed by a sword swallower in the circus.

"You have to control the gag reflex," Menninger said, picking up a long yellow pencil from his desk. He lowered the pencil into his throat. Then he pulled it out, threw it back on the desk and changed the subject.


* * *

Late one evening we were discussing prisons and Menninger told me of the mines at Lansing prison, in Kansas, and the miserable conditions in which the convicts lived and worked.

"Sometimes I think of some poor convict, lying on his straw mattress late at night, asking himself, 'Why did I do it? Why did I do it?' But I also ask myself, 'Why do we do it? Why do we treat our fellow man that way? Are we any better?'"

It was snowing outside and getting dark. Menninger's chin drooped toward his chest. I couldn't tell if he were dozing or thinking. Celeste was at his feet. After about five minutes he raised his head.

"Would you be kind enough to drive me home? We can have a cocktail there."


* * *

Not long after my articles on Menninger ran in The Kansas City Star, he had several strokes. He underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and most people assumed he was finished. He recovered, however, and I called him to see if he were up to an interview.

He invited me to come see him, and agreed to let me bring a photographer. I took my wife, Chris, along and when we got to Menninger's office he was nowhere around. His grandson, Karl Menninger II (a lawyer) took my wife and me to lunch, since the photographer, after waiting an hour, had to go to another assignment.

After lunch we returned to Menninger's office, but again he was nowhere to be found. Karl II seemed slightly embarrassed, so Chris and I decided to go back to Kansas City. However, I sat in my car for several minutes and decided to go back into the building to try to find out what had happened to Menninger. He was difficult to get in to see, but I'd always found him to be punctual once an appointment was made.

We walked up to the door of his office, and Menninger was seated at his desk. When he looked up and saw me standing there, a look of shame swept across his face. He motioned for me to have a seat.

One side of his face was like melted wax. "It wasn't until today that I realized you were bringing a photographer," he said, adding that he didn't think he was ready for photographers yet. We chatted for about an hour, and I wrote a story to the effect that Menninger was back at work.

That was the last time I met with Menninger in person, although we corresponded, and talked on the telephone, until shortly before his death in 1990.

After his death, I spent considerable time reflecting on why I'd been so impressed by this man. I decided that Menninger was representative of a dying breed: a genuine humanitarian, a true gentleman, who saw the cup as half full rather than half empty. A man who could inspire you to want to be a better person.

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