I have spent my whole professional life in the field psychology and mental health, and in addition to that I have spent my whole personal life dealing with all of the psychological problems and pains of growing up in the slums of New York City as an immigrant child, and growing up in a dysfunctional home because of parents made imperfect by their own traumas of life in early 20th century Eastern Europe and from the effects of World War I and the beginnings of World War II.
My training and experience as a psychologist is fairly straightforward. I got a Master’s degree, and, afterwards, a Doctor’s degree in psychology at the University of Nebraska. Since 1970, I practiced my psychology as a professor in a university for 10 years and then as a private practitioner in my own clinic for over 40 years. Without question, my education and experience have been invaluable in shaping my understanding of human behavior and life and my skills in helping others overcome their psychological problems.
My personal life’s experiences, however, also contributed to the person and psychologist that I have become, and, in hindsight, I have come to appreciate how powerfully those experiences have affected my views, values, and dealings with people.
As I review my personal life’s experiences, the following things stand out most for me.
I experienced what it felt like to watch the “haves” enjoy their luxuries of life while struggling to maintain basic daily survival needs with my family, as “have nots”. I experienced what it felt like to believe I was different than others, and therefore be uncomfortable around them, because of speaking Russian as my first language and having to learn English in school and because of being a Russian kid during the Cold War when Russia was our hated enemy, I experienced what it was like to be afraid of being “found out”, as a Russian, as different, as less than others and undesirable, and having to struggle with daily anxiety and occasional panic attacks without help from others or from drugs. I experienced what it was like to sit for hours among hundreds of other sick people in the waiting room of an understaffed public clinic for the poor in the lower East side of Manhattan, and to feel the dread and anxiety when being called out of classrooms to get on the bus that took us to the Guggenheim dental clinic where we went to a large room containing many long rows of dental chairs staffed by dental students, all of whom were practicing on us to learn their dental techniques while using antiquated pain inducing drills and other dental equipment.
Despite those hardships, I survived; not only survived, but was able to live “the American dream”. I was one of the few people who got breaks that help me escape my inner city background to get a full education, a career, and a normal life for me and my family as one of the “haves” in our society. Because I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a top academic institution where I maintained a B- average, and because I played football and was recognized as an all-city player, I was one of six inner-city graduates recruited by Wesleyan University in Middletown, CN, a school in an “Ivy League” called the Little Three which included Amhurst and Williams colleges.
Wesleyan University was ahead of its time in deciding to experiment by opening its doors to underprivileged students in 1956, especially because they did this before any social or political pressure was put on institutions to do so. At that time, academics had no meaning for me and the only reason I went to high school was to play football. The reason I accepted the opportunity to attend Wesleyan University was because of my football coach, whom I respected unconditionally, who urged me to go to the “Ivy League” college.
The fact that I lived for and successfully played football was my first big break in life. The fact that I did not have drugs or alcohol available to me in my developmental years caused me to learn how to cope or live with pains without fearing them or needing to run from them. I consider this to be the second big break of my life.
Attending Wesleyan University was my third. Going to a school with privileged students who came from wealthy homes and prep schools was probably the most difficult challenge and transitional period I experienced in my life. I was forced to give up my envy and hatred of rich people and to start thinking like a normal middle-class person with hope. The psychological difficulty of that transition has always reminded me of the difficult challenge faced by the underprivileged people in our society who try to become “normal” middle-class citizens. But, I did survive this challenge and was able to graduate with a major in psychology, a major I chose because psychology was considered an easy major. However, taking psychology put me in contact with the college professor who had the most significant impact on my college life, Dr. Stanley Coopersmith.
Dr. Coopersmith became the source of the fourth major break of my life. Somehow, he recognized my personal struggles and gave me unbelievable support and encouragement to become involved in learning and thinking about human psychology rather than treating me as an unmotivated and uninterested student. At the time he was working on developing a theory and test of self-esteem, and I credited him with helping me develop my own self-esteem to the point that I could envision becoming a professional and, several years after graduating from Wesleyan University, going on to graduate school in psychology. Some years after my graduation, Dr. Coopersmith took a position with the University of California and became known for his self-esteem research and self-concept scale, which is still being used in the field of psychology. Unfortunately, he died in 1979 at an early age, but I have never forgotten his compassion and concern for me.
After coming to America when I was two years old, my father started earning money to support our family by working up to 10 hours a day in a sweatshop production company filing rough edges off mass-produced metallic pieces. By the year of my graduation from college, he had worked his way up to being the senior toolmaker in a manufacturing company that decided to move to Manchester, New Hampshire and asked my father to come along with them. This is how my family physically moved out of the inner city of New York. Now we began living in an inexpensive apartment in a middle-class house in Manchester New Hampshire and I began attending Wesleyan University.
We moved in the summer after I graduated, and knowing nobody, I eventually began meeting some of my age peers in Manchester. One of them was a young man by the name of Stanley Brodsky. His family lived about two blocks away from my home, and we gradually began hanging around with each other more regularly. Not only did we do things together, but Stanley and his family began inviting me into their home where I spent time with him, his mother, and his younger sister and brother playing a lot of “bridge” or occasionally doing other things. In essence, this family, who, despite losing their father when the kids were young, was well stabilized and healthy because of the immense loving strength of their mother, took me in and treated me as a family member in a time when I felt lost and alienated in life. My own family was always very loving and loyal to each other, but our collective difficulties made it hard for us to effectively spend time together. The Brodsky family support during that critical time in my life provided me with another big break.
At this point, I should clarify what I consider to be the biggest break of my life: that of the undying love provided to me and my brothers by our mother and father. Despite all the pains and heart aches, fears and anxieties, conflicts and fights that occurred in my family, my brothers and I always knew that we were loved and would be supported by our parents. In addition, our parents constantly underscored the importance of getting an education to the extent that it was so internalized in me that, despite my anti-intellectual orientation until I got to graduate school, it only felt right for me to continue going to school until I finally got my PhD. To this day, my two brothers and I have maintained a bond that has transcended our differences regarding money, politics and various other things, as well as living our lives in different parts of the country since early adulthood with only occasional reunions with each other. We have always known that we would be there for each other and our families whenever needed, and this has provided a source of security and strength to each of us.
The first job I got after graduating college was a management trainee position with RCA in Camden New Jersey. This, too, was an experimental venture for a production company that historically had been upgrading workers on the basis of their work experiences to supervisory positions, including the top position of superintendent of production. Unfortunately, the employees of the company, including the supervisors, looked on the idea of bringing in green college students to become their supervisors in a very unfriendly manner.
My first position was that of assistant production line supervisor under one of the upgraded supervisors. He basically “threw me” into the job of running two production lines consisting of employees who were members of a very powerful union in the company. The first employee who spoke to me was a tough blue-collar woman who was the union representative for my production group. I’ll never forget her chastising and fear inducing words, when she told me in no uncertain terms to clear anything that I see as a problem with her before taking action or I would have grievances filed against me to the point of having me driven out. From there, everything seemed to go downhill.
However, I was eventually assigned to supervise the night shift in a copper-plated board etching department in the company. I remember being appalled on my first night by the fact that almost 50% of the etched boards failed quality control standards and had to be discarded. My fear was that such a loss of money would clearly result in some kind of retribution to me and workers. When I talked to my supervisor about this problem, he laughed and told me that RCA had a government contract for producing these boards and that we made enough money to not worry about excessive losses. I never forgot this lesson in government contracts and government spending. Nonetheless, I soon realized that this was not where I wanted to make my career.
My next job was working for the state parole department as a parole officer in the Camden New Jersey office. It was here that I first began seeing our social discrimination against the underprivileged African-American members of our society from the position of a majority member in society.
Camden was a ghetto which was comprised of nearly 100% African-American families, while most of the white middle-class people lived in surrounding suburban communities. Therefore, my total caseload consisted of African-Americans. Because I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood that was basically a melting pot of various ethnic families who were all equal in their indigence and limited lifestyles, we learned to play with each other and treat each other as equals without understanding what discrimination meant. This made it easy to relate to my parolees, because they were not much different than the kids with whom I grew up. But, it also made me very sensitized to the disrespectful and discriminatory treatment of these people by police, employers, and, worse of all, social workers in the County welfare department. I used to find myself becoming extremely angry when I observe such behaviors and starting to stand up for these underprivileged people when they were being discriminated.
That was also when I realized that I was able to successfully get out of “the hood”, not only because of the breaks I got in my life, but also because I was a member of the white majority and had an acceptable religious orientation. The minority kids with whom I grew up didn’t get those chances. That is also when I began realizing that the white middle-class people who were in human service positions to help the underprivileged inner-city people were totally clueless regarding the trials and tribulations of those people, their mentalities, and their styles of coping. This included social workers, case managers, probation officers and teachers. That was in the early 1960s, and, unfortunately, I continue seeing similar ignorance in people holding the same positions today.
I should note that the other place I became aware of discrimination was on the campus of Wesleyan University when a Jewish family from the next street over from where I lived in New York City, with whose two sons my brothers and I played when we were kids, came to visit the campus with the idea of their younger son attending the college. These kids were good friends of me and my brothers, and we never thought about the differences in our religious backgrounds. However, when David’s father, a physician who had an office in his home and visited people in their homes when we all lived in Manhattan, asked me if the college was friendly to Jewish people, I remember experiencing an extremely sad feeling and the pain of having to tell him that my best observation was that the Jewish students on campus were discriminated against in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This was probably the first experience in which my awareness of religious discrimination was solidified by a real-life situation.
These early life’s experiences were very likely the most powerful forces that shaped my values and attitudes for the remainder of my life and made me a perennial champion of the underdog and sometimes unrestrained dissenter against injustice practiced by those in positions of power and/or privilege. At times, my tendency to have “over the top” reactions to those who practice injustice have resulted in a lot of personal loss and punishment by those in power. Here are some examples.
Because I confronted a group of graduate college professors with whom I served as research associate for a large grant project while I was working on my PhD, about what I saw as wrongful action, I lost the opportunity to get a professorial position in my department because I didn’t know how to be a “team member”. While working at Mankato State University as a college professor, I was denied promotion to a full professor position because I publicly confronted statistics that were tweaked by the institutional research director to suit the administrative desires of the academic VP so that he could justify how to allocate funds to departments.
When I began my practice as a licensed psychologist, I refuse to accept an error made by BC/BS regional representative that would have caused me to receive lower payment for my therapeutic services than the payment to which I was entitled. For him to admit to the error and have to correct it would have probably jeopardized his own image with the company, and, so, after my refusal to accept his error, rather than making the correction, he filed a complaint with their fraud investigation department that I may have been billing for services that I was not providing. This resulted in a conflict between me and BC/BS and eventually the Minnesota Attorney General’s office insurance fraud unit, whom the investigators from the BC/BS fraud unit convinced with falsified client information that I was guilty. Despite the public discrediting and the bullying tactics of the AG office, I stood my ground and eventually the AG investigative team had to close my file on the basis of insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, I suffered a significant public and financial beating which took years to overcome, and I could not sue the AG’s office for the negligent investigation in which they engaged. I still have all the paperwork related to this case.
You would think that I learned to “play the game” through these punitive experiences tolled out to me by institutions that no individual can defeat singularly. I did, to the extent that I modified my style with people in authority whom I could not respect but needed for the purpose of reaching my goals, but I did not, to the extent that I have had moderate to minor conflicts since those days, with the latest being my confrontation with the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter Minnesota on what I see as extremely ineffective and potentially unethical treatment practices of their court committed patients, very likely because of political pressures from state officials and probably legislators to reduce or eliminate situations that could cause public criticism and embarrassment of that institution and its administration. In examinations of MSH patients for court hearings, I have documented the failings that I have observed in the hospital, and one of my last reports was sufficient enough to provoke some of the hospital administrative staff to file a complaint with my licensing agency, the Minnesota Board of Psychology. This led to an extensive investigation of my behavior in this case, and, once again, resulted in a closing of the case because of no evidence of wrongdoing. I’m getting too old for this and I should know better, but I just can’t turn my back on the ongoing injustice to the innocent and vulnerable people of our society.
Probably the most significant career change I made was my decision to leave my professorial position at Mankato State University after 10 years and to become fully involved in my own psychological practice and my psychological clinic. The next significant event in my professional life came by chance and not by design.
I became involved in providing therapeutic services to veterans of the Vietnam War after I started working with one veteran who kept refuting the assumption that his problems might have been the result of his early life or family relations. He forced me to begin listening to the injustices he experienced while serving as a Marine in Vietnam and this led to my further research and involvement in learning about and working with other Vietnam veterans in the general Mankato area. My work with war veterans became my primary professional endeavor from about 1975 to the present, where our clinic now has therapists who are very well trained and experienced in combat related PTSD and other adjustment issues of military personnel. It allowed me to work with a whole range of people who I grew to respect immensely for their humble courageousness, honest integrity, and unpretentious openness. During these years of working with veterans, I observed how many injustices they had to experience and witness, not only in the field of combat, but also back home with the very government and country for whom they served. I also observed how the VA, a medical organization created to serve veterans who served this country, evolved into a massive self-serving bureaucratic organization that frequently provided substandard services to the veterans because they had no competition or effective methods or incentives for evaluating and improving their services.
It should also be no surprise, that during these years I continued working with the underprivileged members of our society who suffer from various disabilities, significant among which are poor education and learning, mental illnesses, and addiction disorders. These people come from backgrounds with which I have always been familiar, and they face the same struggles that I had experienced and have seen in several generations of people who have been unable to overcome the barriers they face. Most of them were simply not as lucky as me, despite the fact that many have similar strengths to the ones that help me escape the powerful grasp of the ghetto. This is why I have given a lot of free or low paid services to people from this segment of our society and I will continue doing this until I am no longer able to practice psychology.
These and the other factors that I have cited in this blog are also the reasons why I have decided to start sharing my views, attitudes, and beliefs about society and human behavior.