The world has lost one of its finest. Dr. Bertram P. Karon passed away on August 25, 2019 at aged 89. Bert was a formidable force of intelligence, kindness, and generosity. He was born April 29, 1930 in Taunton, Massachusetts (40 miles outside of Boston). His Jewish parents were both immigrants to the U.S.; his father from Lithuania, and his mother from Russia. Bert excelled in academics and grew up to receive a full tuition scholarship from Harvard and, afterwards, a graduate fellowship from Princeton.
Bert’s kindness, passion for learning, and drive to truly listen to his patients was the hallmark of who he was as a psychologist. Over his entire career as a psychoanalytic-psychologist—over 60 years—he ferociously defended the humane treatment of mentally disturbed persons. He is well known for his work with severely mentally disturbed persons. He believed that, given enough stress, no one is immune from becoming psychotic. But whatever the problem—severe depression, psychosis, anxiety—he believed that it was helpable. Bert was always one to shun labels, instead, believing that all problems where human problems to be solved. Bert said once,
It may be noticeable that when I talk about these patients’ problems, it is not in terms of diagnostic categories because diagnostic categories really don’t describe anything important about what people’s problems are. They are useful to insurance companies and record keepers. At best, they are like a black and white photograph of a person’s life, which is in full color. At worst, they are not talking about anything that is important.
In Bert’s professional view, a person didn’t “have” a mental illness/disease; they had problems to be solved. Anxiety was a feeling; depression was a feeling; terror was a feeling. When it came to medication, he continually taught us that it should not be the first and/or only choice in treating mental health problems. Rather, if the setting, the patient, and the therapist can tolerate it, medication should not be used at all; or, if required, medication should be withdrawn as soon as possible, so the hard work of real therapy could begin.
Bert is probably best-known for treating schizophrenia with a form of directive psychoanalytic psychotherapy. His book (co-authored with Gary VandenBos), Psychotherapy of Schizophrenia: The Treatment of Choice (1981), is heralded as one of the most seminal professional texts on treating schizophrenia. Bert understood schizophrenia as being in a state of “chronic terror.” He spent his entire professional life understanding how to help those who were suffering. Simply put, Bert Karon cured schizophrenia; repeatedly. He showed us that there is no magic in doing so. It simply takes quality psychoanalytically oriented training, hard work, the willingness to be confused, and good old fashioned kindness & understanding.
I’d like to share some fun facts about Bert that many may not know. When he was in college, he hosted a radio program where, on one occasion, he performed a radio presentation of Orson Wells’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. From time to time, he reflected back on this performance with great fondness. Bert also loved good cuisine. Eating well prepared food was one of his joys. He used to say, “The only food I ever couldn’t stand the taste of was sea cucumber.” Everyone knew Bert was a coffee addict. He used to joke that he should just have a coffee IV put in his arm. You’d always see, strewn all over his desk, piles of papers and they would be sprinkled with those circle coffee cup stains. In his office at Michigan State University hanging on the wall by his door was a framed photo of one of his favorite Shakespeare quotes: from the play Coriolanus, it read, “There is a world elsewhere.” I often pondered about the meaning this quote had for Bert. As he wasn’t a very religious man, I tended to think it was because departmental politics drove him mad, and when he went back to his office from a departmental meeting, he’d read this quote and feel comforted.
Bert once told me a story about of one of the reasons he chose to work at Michigan State University (he could have gotten a University job anywhere). When visiting the MSU campus as part of an invited colloquium, he was walking along Farm Lane (a busy road that runs down the middle of the large land grant college and crosses the Red Cedar River), when suddenly a car stopped and the driver got out and went into the middle of the road, waving his arms which halted the back and forth traffic. Bert noticed and watched as a mother duck and her 8 ducklings began crossing the road; traffic remained at a standstill until all the ducklings reached the other side of the road. He told me he said to himself then, “Anywhere where the traffic stops for ducks to cross the road is a good place to be.” He loved attending the Wharton Center shows, especially classical concerts. And he loved visiting the MSU Dairy store with homemade ice cream and cheese! In hindsight, Bert said that MSU was the right decision for him because it allowed him to do research, teach, and treat patients.
Upon hearing about the death of one of his esteemed colleagues, Bert casually commented, “When I die, I want to die from my feet up.” And he did; his great mind was the last to go. He was in a car accident in 2007 that left him, initially, completely paralyzed from the neck down; through arduous and daily physical therapy, eventually he was only partially paralyzed. Despite this challenge, in the 12 years that followed this car accident, he kept up the struggle for persons having access to real treatment—psychotherapy, and specifically, psychoanalytic psychotherapy. He continued to see patients, supervise therapists, attend professional meetings, give papers, and publish. His latest book was a book of his collected papers (only a sampling of his work, as Bert was a prolific publisher), The Widening Scope of Psychoanalysis: Collected Essays of Bertram Karon (2018), which was published only 9 months before he passed away. In his forward for this compilation, Bert wrote:
“All that patients need, including patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, is a competent therapist. They do not need shock treatment or even medication. These papers share what I think a competent therapist can use…. This book is a compilation of what I have learned in a lifetime.”
Bert Karon was trained by Richard and Editha Sterba who were trained by Sigmund Freud. Richard Sterba supervised Bert when he was getting his psychoanalytic training. He worked with Richard Sterba for over 20 years. The psychoanalytic legacy started by the great mind of Sigmund Freud was continued by Freud’s students, and passed down again by Bert Karon to his students and colleagues. As Freud originally said and Bert often quoted, “The struggle is not yet over.” We lost Sigmund Freud and we lost Richard and Editha Sterba and we have now lost Bertram P. Karon. But if we continue the fight, if we continue the struggle to provide real treatment—psychoanalytic psychotherapy—to persons who are suffering, we honor their legacy, we honor the brilliant, kind, and generous spirit of Bert Karon…and his legacy and memory live on.