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Sarah Sidis, M.D.

Unpublished manuscript, 1950



    In June, 1897, I became Dr. Sarah Sidis, tucked my MD degree under my arm and went down to New York. On April 1, 1898, our April Fool's boy was born. We named him William James Sidis, for obvious reasons.

    Billy weighed seven and a third pounds at his perfectly normal birth. He was a big, healthy, happy fellow as an infant, slow to walk and to talk. I suppose a million, million mothers of healthy fellows have shared the feeling I had about him when I first saw him.

    "Here is this helpless little thing with his soft head and his ignorance of the world, looking so calmly and happily around! How can he be so sure of himself, so very arrogant."

    That he had no fears I knew, but I still marvelled. And a great, fierce tenderness swept through my heart, when I thought like prayer, "May I keep him fearless."

    Effie came down from Boston to help me when Billy was born. When she graduated they said that she was the brightest woman ever to go through Boston University Medical school. And she was like so many great New England women. she could cope with a sink of infant laundry as quickly and easily as she could with a course in anatomy.

    More than fifty years ago I discovered for myself what obstetricians have learned in the last decade--it is good for a woman to get her feet on the floor the day after her baby is born. I nursed Billy when he was hungry, and gurgled at him when he was awake, like a Russian peasant--or a very modern mother. So everybody was happy for that month that Effie visited us.

    In the years that have passed since then, I have observed that many fathers have a poor time of it when their offspring come into the world. They have so much hospital around when the baby is born, and so many female friends and relatives helping with the mother and the new baby attar they come home! Everybody in the house treats them like they are a nuisance and a fifth wheel. They sulk, have hurt feelings, and privately wonder to themselves if paternal love isn't simply a verbal convention, a shibboleth to explain the mystery of why a man lets himself get trapped by a family.

      Not so Boris! He was in the middle of everything as much as any young mother! He bubbled with tenderness and possession and pride. He did not hover around the edges, he was in the center--literally and figuratively. If he was not of much practical help, it was still quite impossible to make him feel in the least left out.

    In all his brilliant life, you would have thought, the most brilliant and marvelous thing he ever did was to have a son.

      That first summer in New York was hot, with New York's heavy wool heat, that I bad never known. We had an apartment on Central Park West, and we used to get up at three in the morning and take Billy in his carriage into the park and sit there before dawn to rest from the close night heat of our rooms. We talked about all our ideas for bringing up this baby and our decisions were products of the dawn.

    The most important thing we agreed on was that we should always agree. We decided that we would always stand together in our decisions, and not pull and haul this infant between us in conflict. We were entirely agreed on things like discipline, for we both thought the only discipline worth a thrip in building a worthwhile and upright person was the desire to please.

      If we brought Billy up to love us, by our love and gentleness, then he would want to please us. And if we were always pleased by good conduct, he would be a good boy.

      "From earliest infancy," Boris said, "too many parents shut the doors of curiosity, and shackle the spirit by fear. Before a baby can talk, his mind is there, it is a tool that may be sharpened if his parents are always reasonable and truthful and logical with him.

      "Minds improve with use. Muscles are not built by lying in bed. Encourage this baby of ours to think, walk down every path his fancy dictates as long as he is interested. Answer all his questions as far as you can go and as long as he asks."

    Boris theorized and I remembered my experience with my first babies. We were surprised at the way these simple theories worked. Billy was a little slow in learning to talk, so we were surprised when he learned Latin and Greek when he was three.

      An earlier surprise I got from my psychologist one morning, though, came when I heard from the kitchen the crash of a broken cup, an extraordinarily happy laugh from Billy, and the crash of another cup. I came from the kitchen in time to see Boris handing the baby a third cup.

    "What do you do?" I said.

      "But he laughs so marvelously when he breaks the cups," said my shame-faced husband.

      We were lucky in New York, though, in not having much money, even if it meant Boris could not afford to let his baby break cups for his amusement. We took our pleasure in having our friends in and talking, and we soon had many friends. Had we been quite wealthy neither of us could have found a luxury we more enjoyed.

      Soon after he came to New York, Boris was called in on the case of a patient in whom James Gordon Bennett, the publisher, was interested. The patient had been treated by Janet in Paris, and by New York psychiatrists with no success. Bennett sent the patient to the young psychologist that Teddy Roosevelt had so recently hired, and who was so original. Boris was so successful in his diagnosis and I treatment of this, a fear case, that Bennett was most grateful.

      "Send me a bill," he said.

       "No, I won't send you a bill," replied Boris, "because I am on the state payroll. The people pay me to do these things."

      "I'm no pauper," said Bennett outraged."

      So Boris sent him a bill for eight hundred dollars. 

      Bennett tore it up, sent it back, and said, "now send a bill, I tell you I'm no pauper."

      So Boris sent him a bill for $1,500 dollars.

      Bennett said, "You're insulting. Send me a bill that is enough. for the work you did. I have some money."

      Boris threw up his hands and said, "Enough. I send you no more bills."

      After I came to New York, Dr. and Mrs. Alexander Lambert gave a party in Boris' honor. Dr. Lambert was Roosevelt's personal physician. Bennett and Miss DeForrest were there. They started him talking, and he talked for an hour, until I pulled the leg of his trousers.

      "Forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, I have held the floor like a prima donna," said Boris.

      "No! Go on! We find it fascinating," came the response.

      He had been discussing the need for revolutionizing the handling of psychopathological cases, for removing the stigma from mental illness. He had been describing how very brilliant and able people could be blocked and crippled by buried fear.

      They protested when he stopped, so he talked another hour.

      He told them of insane asylums, and of how people who were once confined to them were better dead. An unstable person confined to an insane asylum of those days, said Boris, might easily be driven insane by the confinement. What was needed was a hospital where psychopathic cases could be kept for a month, or two or three months--diagnosed and many of them treated and released to return to a useful and happy life in the world.

    "Our asylums are driving people crazy," he said.

    The result of all this was that Bennett decided to help establish the Psychopathic Hospital, at Boris' suggestion and under his guidance. It was the first of its kind in the country, and even the name was Boris's idea.

      "'Insanity' is a word that terrifies people," he said. "'Mental illness' is almost as bad. 'Psychopathic,' though, is an unknown word to the average person, a neutral word, with no old unpleasant connotations. It is serious, and scientific sounding, and gives patients of such a hospital dignity." Boris was made director and the laboratory when it finally took shape.

      Julie DeForrest, who had also become personally interested in his work, helped in creating the hospital. As a member of the board of directors of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, she made space available in the infirmary for the hospital and laboratory.

      All this did not become concrete until 1901.

      His assignment during that first year in New York when he was with the Pathological Institute was to travel throughout the state lecturing to the various heads of hospitals on treatment of the insane, and to suggest ways of using the $50,000 that had been appropriated to improve the conditions of treatment.

      Many stiff necks did he find at first among his colleagues. They resented this young "foreigner" with no medical degree who wanted to do horrible things like abolishing the straitjacket.

      But it was hard to resent Boris as a person. He could attack ideas and conventions and traditions with an intellectual fury, but for people he had a great affection. He enjoyed people, loved them, got along well with them. He did not make the intellectual's favorite mistake of thinking that ideas were more important than people.

    Boris disapproved of capitalism, of big clumps of wealth in the hands of a few men. He said it hurt the few as men, as well as the many who did without. But this never prevented him from numbering millionaires among his personal friends.

    In his heart he always felt, in Debs' great words: "While there is a lower class I am of it, while there is a criminal class I am of it, while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

    By the time he reached New York Russian jails and William James had led him to the belief that no men or women were so truly and tragically imprisoned as those who lived in the impalpable dungeon cells of their own fears and mental illness. So he brought a deep and ready personal sympathy to the treatment or the patients that were referred to him.

    His earliest success in New York had been within a month of his arrival there. A young minister who had been thrown from a buggy on his head had been referred to Boris for his opinion.

    Dr. Simon P. Goodheart. a professor at the Columbia Medical school, brought the patient, a Reverend Hanna, to him. It became a famous case, which Boris later described in detail in a volume "Multiple Personality", which he wrote with Goodheart.

    The young man was a case of complete amnesia. He knew no more than a new born baby, and had to be cared for as such. But Boris felt from his psychological examination that the patient had received no organic damage, and that the disorder was functional.

    In this case he first studied what he described as the hypnoidal state. From about this time he used this state in his exploring and treatment of the subwaking mind. As a mother, I learned to use it, for it is a very simple tool which many sympathetic people down the years have learned to handle, though they may not be able to read a book.

      He found that when people first wake up, and just before they fall asleep, they are most amenable to suggestion. He found that buried memories that hurt, fears too deep for the waking mind to look at may be dug up and dissipated. Healthy attitudes may be implanted.

      He stayed with the young man as much as he could, slept beside his bed at nights, and found that in certain stages of half-sleep the young man's personality returned completely. Boris used the hypnoidal state to cure this young man completely. In this state, just before sleeping, and just before waking, he found that the subwaking mind was nearest the surface, and could be controlled and educated by suggestion.

      By skillful suggestion in the case of the young minister, Boris found that he could prolong the periods in the half-waking state when the young man's old and educated personality returned intact. He could shorten the periods when he was a helpless baby. In a few weeks the process of re-educating the patient was complete, and he was his old self.

      This took skill and delicacy in Boris, and it also meant that he lost much sleep. But he was always willing to give very greatly of himself to those that needed him.

      Boris was the first modern psychologist to use this as a tool in treating sick patients. But mothers who have told and read little stories to their children and sent them to bed with minds full of wonder and happiness have known of this for generations.

    This I tried to do with Billy in those first years, but I always felt that it was very important not to tell him stories that were trite or commonplace or ugly. So much of the Grimm brothers' tales I found ugly, and Hans Christian Andersen seemed sad and melancholy, so I turned to the Greek myth, for Billy's first bedtime stories.

    Boris worked with Dr. Ira Van Giesen, Pathological Institute of the New York state Hospital. Van Giesen was one of his colleagues who bad at first resented my wild Russian Boris, but his resentment lasted a matter of days, for from the time I reached New York he was a regular visitor at home in the evening. He was a brilliant man with a sharp mind, and we both enjoyed his conversation enormously.

      To "The Psychology of Suggestion" Boris had given all the best of his work during the years he was at Harvard, and when it was published in 1898. shortly after Billy was born, he said proudly, "Now I have two babies."

    This first book of his became a text-book and a standard reference work in psychology, but I think what I enjoyed most was the clear and simple style in which he expressed himself. He deliberately chose a big and scientific-sounding name for the Psychotherapeutic Hospital, but when he wrote of complex and little understood psychological phenomena and experiments, he used a clear and simple language and style that made him easy to follow.

      This was in him, and also it was part of James' gift to him, for he really admired the grace and clarity of James' writing. They laughed together at the "German school" of professors who deliberately used the involved sentence structure and the big words to make their work seem difficult.

      All of the revolutionary things that Boris was advocating during his first years in New York--like abolishing the straitjacket--drew upon him many attacks from the newspapers and from other psychiatrists. They became quite angry at this crazy foreigner had no MD degree, and who said that New York's insane asylums were as cruel as Russian prisons.

      The attacks in turn drew new friends to him. Dr. William Alanson White, head physician at the state hospital at Binghampton, N.Y., came to Boris and talked and listened. They worked together on ideas and methods for the hospital until Dr. White was called to head the federal hospital for the insane in Washington. D.C.

      Professor [Joseph] Hyslop, head of the department of philosophy at Columbia, was drawn to call upon Boris because of a newspaper editorial denouncing him. He became a good friend indeed, and came often with Mrs. Hyslop and their three children.

      With Hyslop, Boris was very congenial, except upon one score, and the occasion came when my husband shocked the professor in one of his cherished beliefs. Hyslop was deeply interested in psychic research. and was president of a group devoted to its study in this country. He published a little magazine, and was much in correspondence with English men interested in psychic research.

    When the celebrated Piper case was much debated, Hyslop was a staunch believer in Mrs. Piper's* powers. She was a medium who went into a trance, and explored the world of ghosts. Hyslop was greatly taken with her, and so also was James, who liked this psychic exploration.

      They believed she had mystic powers. but Boris said stoutly, "She is no fraud, she is quite sincere, but she is purely and simply hysterical. All this talk with spirits is simply stuff dredged up from her subwaking mind when she is in a state of hysteria.

      Hyslop was much hurt and shocked. but since he did not insist his friends agree with him. they remained good friends. Why these brilliant men, whom he admired so greatly, should insist on believing in magic, Boris could not understand.

      I myself thought that with James it was because, though he was a man of great intellectual courage, he did not have a great deal of animal strength and vitality. He could see the world very clearly as it was, and much of its pain and cruelty he did not like. So, feeling not strong enough to change it by himself, he looked a little for magic in odd corners to help him. Good magic was what he wanted, certainly.

      Out of one corner at his eye, as he went down the hard road of reason, he looked for a sort cut.

      Hyslop and James did us a great favor in our New York years, introducing us to Mount Hurricane, which became the most delightful part of those years. It was a small and special resort in the Adirondacks near Lake Placid. Each summer Billy and I went there for several months to escape the New York heat, and Boris came up on his vacation.

      Life on Hurricane mountain had an unusual pattern. We took a cottage among several that were owned by Professor Davidson. John Dewey, who was then head of the department of education at the University of Chicago, and his wife and children had a house nearby. James came and stayed at Hurricane hotel. The Hyslops had a cottage, as did the Madison Taylors from Philadelphia. Taylor was professor of Neurology at Temple University, and his wife was a distinguished painter of miniatures. A famous Spanish rabbi came, there were others who loved above all the things of the mind, and who preferred to enjoy them in the cool mountain summer.

      Davidson was the moving spirit, the host of all this. He was a Scot, and gaily wore his kilts on Mount Hurricane. He arranged a loose schedule for us, so that each afternoon we met at different cottages for tea, and one of us was required to lecture informally on the subject of his spcial interest. James used to ask me to sit beside him at dinner. To me it seemed that I had reached my own special Olympus and I was happy.

    The Deweys were a very interesting family to me. Mrs. Dewey was a brilliant woman, who has done distinguished work in education herself. With their three children she said, "They will learn by doing for themselves."

    So they ran around barefooted in the summer, and got their legs scratched by briars, and the baby used to sleep on the porch with an eight hundred foot sheer drop below it. The three of them were growing up by themselves, and they were nice, honest children with no formal manners, but pleasant.

    "If they cut themselves once on a knife," said Mrs. Dewey, "they still learn not to cut themselves again."


* Is this the Mrs. Piper referred to in one of James's letters to Sidis?


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