I owe Bert Karon a lot. BK gave me courage and faith. Courage to be with people and feel things, hear things, see things, try to understand things, and not run for the hills. Faith, that something good could come of this. People Can And Do Recover.
BK became one of my Virgils, and in a North Philly hospital, I very much needed something more than my rebelliousness and my wanting to help. BK encouraged me to try to meet people where they were and be clear about where I was. When people living at the hospital asked me if I was there to kill them, I learned to just say no. When people asked if I was there to rape them or steal their souls or waste their time, I said I wasn’t, because as far as I knew, I wasn’t. Well, what was I there for? I’m still learning about what I am there for.
BK wrote very clearly about his experiences, and this not only gave me courage and faith, but ideas about what my experiences would be like. I don’t really think it was his fault that I sometimes interrupted conversations I was having with people because I suddenly had one of his ideas in my head. There is probably something developmental about being a graduate student who wants to know about things and then says a lot of really dumb things to people. Thankfully, most people had a pretty clear way of letting me know I wasn’t helping in those moments, and after a while I started to listen to them. For me, this meant that I learned to let BK be BK in my heart, but kept him out of my mouth. This helped all around, I think. There are many Virgils.
What he said was always a light to me, however. A light on in a room that was really a hallway, in a mansion full of hallways and rooms. And I became much less afraid to be with people, and I was and still am truly very fucking grateful for that.
It was through BK that I found Sullivan and Fromm-Reichmann, and Lee Whitaker, who later became a supervisor and mentor, and also ISPS-US, and Berta Britz, and so many beautiful teachers that are helping me to hurt the people I want to help less often.
BK seemed to me a really giving kind of person. In the midst of my disorganized dissertation process, he took time to correspond with me, and reminded me of things like, “the real understanding is not a simple abstraction, but specific understandings of specific patients in detail.” Yes, of course! The man was gifted in many ways, and, yes, putting things bluntly seemed like one of his gifts. It also helped a great deal for me to start learning about the limits of ideas. To this day, I put this thing he said on every syllabus for every class or seminar thing I’m asked to do. I need a lot of reminding.
I once went to a talk about Lacan and psychosis, which are apparently impossible to avoid, and the speaker contrasted Karon with Lacan, describing Karon as a “humanist.” I should fucking hope so!, I barely managed to not say out loud. The man believes in people and their potential most of all. As I write about BK today, I now remember how he laughed when I asked him about some ideas in Arieti that I found really hard to understand. Perhaps what BK said should also RIP, but it was hilarious, and heart-opening, and I never worried about understanding what I was reading again.
Since the hospital years I’ve been working in America’s old-now-new-again hospitals, the maximum-security prison. In prison, people are confined and isolated even further if and when they can no longer hide what they feel, think, or believe. Courage and faith are essential to survive working there, not to mention living there, if one wants to keep something about their hearts and minds in tact. I need the courage and faith of BK to walk in there everyday - not so I can be with the people who live there and struggle mightily with the terrible realities there, for they are truly courageous and beautiful teachers - but to, in the inspiring words of Berta Britz, practice as ethically as I can while also fighting for changes. My comrades and I need courage and faith to try to hold open the spaces for people to do their connecting and creating and growing in, and keep disturbing the structures that are disturbing and harmful to people. There is so much that needs to change in some of these places, and as fast as possible.
I have many people around me and inside me that make me stronger and help me think more clearly, and become more fully and simply human. I am blessed by the cacophony of their voices. I hope to god that as BK leaves behind his mortal coil, he’ll continue to visit when he can.