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Sarah Sidis, M.D.

Unpublished manuscript, 1950



Home from the Gilded City

    We made many friends in New York, people, but in too many New Yorkers, even the great men of the state, we found a sharp quality that was at the bottom mercenary. Competition, which Boris despised as an incentive in life, was taught by breathing the air of the town.

    "Look," he said, "the very name for success in this city is 'getting ahead'. It is taken for granted that humans must be winners and losers. Why, if a man wants to walk through his life, exploring it thoroughly and enjoying the scenery on the way, he is made to reel guilty because he is not running fit to break his neck.

      "These gilded men," he said, "all bedecked with gold! I want no more of them! Let us go back to Boston."

      So when Billy was four, in 1902, we decided to move back home. I had long wanted Boris to get his MD degree, for I felt he would not be received so hostilely in some quarters if he could write those two letters after his name.

      He wanted to study medicine so that he might distinguish with more assurance between those cases which he wished to treat and those which should be turned over to medicine, for by then he was completely pledged to psychiatry for his life.

    After he became a doctor, he had one amusing trait. He would never prescribe a dosage which he had not taken himself. I think this trait came more from curiosity than from a conscientious principle, for all his life he wanted to know "how it feels" to be all sorts of different things.

    He had developed a distaste for anatomy through watching me pore over Grey at coffee in the morning when I was a student. He mentioned that he hated the tedious memorizing.

      Billy said, "Daddy, I will help you with anatomy."

      And I said, "I will help you deliver your babies."

    We both made good on our promises.

      Billy would occasionally drill him, and perhaps other fellow medical students when they dropped in the evening. I can hear his small, clear voice crowing triumphantly, "Aha, you forgot the fifth cranial nerve."

    It was when he was five that an aging spinster friend of mine came to me in shocked agitation with a story about Billy.

      "You were both out, and Billy invited me in to wait for you," he said. "He had out that skeleton and was sitting on the floor pouring over a big book. I saw that it was a text-book on obstetrics.

    "'What,' I said, "are you doing Billy?'"

    "And he told me, 'I'm trying to find out how the baby comes out.'"

      She was one of those women, many of whom are married, who seem to feel that evolution took a wrong turn when in the higher animal reproduction by simple cellular division was abandoned in favor of sexual reproduction.

    Boris laughed. "Sexual reproduction is the skeleton in nature's closet for your friend, I think."

      The skeleton of which he spoke was a literal skeleton that I had literally kept In my closet since my medical school days.

      When we returned to Boston we took a big house on _________ hill in Brookline. Billy used to climb the hill back of the house in the early night and look at the stars, first with his father or me, and then by himself. He always loved the night and by then he loved the stars. Their charm had been first. in the stories from mythology.

    When he was quite small he could find triumphantly on a winter's night the three bright stars in the belt, and the three little stare in the sword of Orion, the giant whom Diana had placed in the heavens. Then he learned to find the big Y that was Taurus the bull, pursued by the giant Orion. Next came the Pleiades, the sisters that the bull pursued.

      By the time he was five or six, he had learned that these constellations march always across the night in the same order. He learned as Greek shepherds learned, by lying on the grass on a hill-top. After that it was not mythology that appealed to him so much as astronomy in the true sense. He found a great delight in making out the orderly relation between what had at first seemed to him a chaos of stars. Before he went to school he was charmed by the puzzle of the planets--the bright wandering stars that did not keep their places.

      I used to go with him to his hill-top for awhile, but he soon told me he could see better and think more clearly when he was alone.

      Before he was six, Billy and I had put a great deal of bus riding and walking into his young life. We visited, we took Rose, Ida's daughter, to the zoo; we went to museums and libraries and parks. Billy began to draw maps of Brookline, and then of Boston. If I am sure of anything about Billy, it is that by the time he died, forty years later, he knew Greater Boston better than anybody did.

      Before he was six, the man he became was made. The Addington Bruces, friends of ours from the Adirondacks, used often to visit us in Brookline. Harold Bruce was Canadian originally, an editor and writer, first on history and then after he and Boris became friends, on psychology. Mrs. Bruce was a beautiful and charming woman, she looked like Ethel Barrymore.

      One evening, reluctant to see them leave, Billy walked out to their car with them and opened the door for Mrs. Bruce. Mr. Bruce gave him a quarter, and told him to buy something that he would like with it.

    "Why did he do that?" Billy, quite upset, asked me when he came back in the house.

      "Ah, Mr. Bruce thought it would please you," I told him. "What did you do?"

      "I didn't want to take it," Billy said, "but I didn't want to make feel bad. So I took it, and after he drove off I threw it in the gutter."

      I thought a minute, with amusement. When I was a waitress in the White Mountains, the tips had always embarrassed and confused me. But he was Boris all over again, with his savage contempt for largesse, for the padrone.

    What could I say to this son of mine who threw quarters in the gutter, without seeming to criticize his father, whose bone-deep scorn of money Billy had already absorbed? It was a problem too much for me, so I said nothing.

      For he was his father at six, in everything but temperament. In temperament he was me. And it was perhaps because he was so much like me in undiscriminating devotion to his father that he absorbed every shade and variation of Boris' attitude toward the world.

      That none of my family except myself was ever practical in one iota about the mechanics of living is perhaps due to vanity on my part. Boris couldn't drive a nail, and the only time I ever saw James try to drive a nail, he hit his thumb. So, naturally, Billy couldn't drive a nail.

      Since every creature must have a forte, it was my vanity to drive the nails for my two brilliant men.

      The artist in my husband, that had led him to write his stormy revolutionary poems in Russian, also led him to enjoy folklore very much, for he was charmed with the imagination interwoven in this kind of story. There were shelves of such tales, too, in our library, and when he died he had just begun the "Psychology of the Folk Tale," a book he should have written.

      He loved and hated the chore of writing a book. Flatly he would say after each of his volumes was finally finished, "I will never write another book! I would rather dig ditches."

    Six months would pass. He would become interested in the psychological aspect of another facet of human life. The tedium of finishing a book he would have forgotten a little. I would say, "Why don't you jot down some notes, do an article on this?"

    Soon under my pushing he would have started again on another book. He always insisted that I correct the manuscript and proofs of his books. In return he helped wash dishes.

      No matter how big a man he became in the world of the learned, Boris never tired of teaching very simple people. When his name had become known to psychologists throughout the world, he was teaching our forty-year old hired man, Vasil, how to read, so that he might read the Bible.

    Only one glaring failure do I ever remember him suffering as a teacher. I asked him, early in our marriage, to teach a young relative of mine simple arithmetic.

      For you I will do it," he said, with misgivings in his voice.

      Six weeks later he told me, explosively, "Calculus I can teach to that blank wall sooner that I can teach him the multiplication table!"

      "What do you think is the matter with her," I asked in concern.

      "Oh," he said with a philosophical laugh, "it is a case of boys before the eyes!"

    Members of my family visited us a great deal after we came back from New York. Rose, Ida's daughter, tells me that she thought when she was a little girl that she really did have two fathers and two mothers. She called Boris and I her big father and big mother. Of all my family, Boris always loved Ida the most, for he said, "She has a good mind, and is so honest, straight and kind.

    When Boris went back to Harvard as a medical student, the staff of the school recognized that he was already a psychiatrist, and were good to him. "We will exempt you from lectures," the dean told him, "but you will have to do the dissecting end the anatomy and six cases of obstetrics." They let him enter in December. and counted his attendance es s full year.

      While he was a medical student Boris was frequently consulted as a psychologist and had many patients from all walks of life throughout the country referred to him, so that when he finally received that MD degree, he already had the kind of practice he wanted.

      After Boris and I opened an office on Beacon Street, I took care of all the money. If a patient by any rare chance gave any money to Boris, it burned his pocket before he could turn it over to me.

      "Do you want to know how we stand?" I would ask him when I added accounts.

    "Two at the wheel? That would wreck us," he would answer with a flattering smile.

    The only bills he ever concerned himself with were the ones that must not be sent out. No bills for professional services as psychiatrist must ever be sent to ministers, priests or rabbis, or to professors or students. And he was always adding individuals to the list who must not pay.

      His attitude toward organized religion seemed at first a mixture of contradictions, because in the years when he wrote with a fury about religions that shackle and cripple their believers, numbered priests, rabbis and ministers among his close friends.

      Boris was a recognized authority on the Semitic languages, with a thorough knowledge of Arabic, Armenian, Persian and others besides Hebrew and its dialects and variations. He was a profound and sympathetic student of the Bible, the Talmud, and the sacred books of the Hindus. He never believed in the literal truth of any established religion and his friends of the cloth knew it.

      But they knew, too, that he had the greatest love and respect for that spirit of man that they were each in their separate way trying to save. Several shelves in our library were given over to books in many languages on the religions of the world. Written in Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek and Hebrew they were, and scholarly Baptists, Jews end Catholics used to come to him to discuss shades of differences in translation.

      "Surely we all search for a 'Why of Life'. Now and then we feel along our nerves and bones and muscles and in our hearts and brains that we have found it. It is a grand feeling of well-being and love for the world, of harmony and belonging. Now and then we rest where we find ourselves and it is good. That place is heaven.

      "Some ways of life lead us to this place more often and more easily than others. The way of the open heart and the open mind is the best way for all men, I think. But we must never forget that Heaven is really as available to an Irish teamster or a red Indian in a skin tent as it is to a man who can read Plato in the original."

    To all this Billy listened, almost before he left his high chair, with as lively an interest as he showed in the stars and in The Odyssey.

      "While Boris was still a medical student, he was working with Morton Prince on material for Prince's "Dissociation of a Personality," which was published in 1906. Prince had a sharp mind, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in psychology.

      It was after we came beck to Boston that Boris met Herbert Kalmus who was then professor of physio-chemistry at M.I.T., and we became good friends with him and his wife, Natalie. Boris and Herbert did some psychological experimentation together.

      Other experiments in psychology that he made both alone and with colleagues called for publication, so Boris said to Prince, who had inherited a million dollars, "Look here, Prince, let's have a Journal of Abnormal Psychology."

      Prince said, "If you think it's a good idea, let's do it." During our years in Boston Boris was an associate editor, and until his death he contributed regularly to the journal, which lasted until Prince's death in 1929. James was also on the staff, along with our two neurologist friends Dr. Putnam and Dr. Edward Taylor, professor in neurology at Harvard.

    Shortly after Boris entered Harvard Medical School we were separated briefly, for one of the few times we were apart in all our married life. He was asked by the dean of the law department at the University of Chicago to come there and to help set up a criminology institute. Boris formulated the way to treat prisoners kindly and nicely. For Boris believed that if a man is treated nicely, though he come red-handed from the kill, results will be better for him and for society.

      Within a year Boston had also established such an institute, and Prince, James and Judge Rubenstein of the children's court were directors.


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