Going Rogue Seven decades ago, renegade Baltimore shrink Robert Lindner shook up psychoanalysis and coined the term “rebel without a cause.”


baltimore-styleOne hot summer morning in Baltimore in the late 1940s, Dr. Robert Lindner, chief of psychological services for the Maryland Department of Corrections and a psychoanalyst in private practice, received an unusual telephone call from a physician at a classified government installation in New Mexico. The doctor was calling about a patient whom he wanted to send to Baltimore; only Dr. Lindner, he believed, was qualified to help this talented but troubled young man. The patient, whom Lindner called “Kirk Allen” in a subsequent case study, was a research scientist whose strange behavior while working in a high-security government post had begun to alarm his superiors.

Specifically, Allen had been covering the margins of his government reports with odd, hieroglyphic-like symbols. When questioned by Lindner about the bizarre inscriptions, Allen revealed that he was “Lord of an interplanetary empire in a distant universe” far in the future. “I have crossed the immensities of space, broken out of time,” his patient replied, explaining that the odd symbols were notes, written in the language of his home planet, taken during his galactic explorations. While undergoing analysis, Allen showed Lindner how to interpret and speak the bizarre language. He also brought in 12,000 pages of typescript dealing with various aspects of the planets over which he ruled, including 2,000 pages of mathematical formulae, a 100-page glossary of names, a 200-page planetary history and 82 full-color maps, drawn carefully to scale, of his interstellar empire.

In order to cure Allen of his delusions, Lindner decided to use the radical technique of immersing himself in his patient’s fantasy world. He scrutinized Allen’s maps and histories intently, searching for errors and inconsistencies, and sent Allen on interplanetary errands to bring back further information about his cosmic realm.

By his own admission a “rather reluctant” science fiction addict, Lindner confesses in his case study of Allen that he was going through a time of personal and professional stagnation when he began working with the patient; gradually, the pull of Allen’s fantasy life became irresistible. “The materials of Kirk’s psychosis and the Achilles’ heel of my personality met and meshed like the gears of a clock,” wrote Lindner, who began finding himself, in his idle moments, jotting down, in Allen’s strange tongue, words and phrases that would come into his thoughts “unannounced and unbidden.” At the same time, the more curious and excited Lindner grew, the more Allen came to see his fantasy for what it was, eventually admitting to the doctor that he had given up his delusion some time ago but had continued to concern himself with it because Lindner seemed to need it so badly.

Lindner, a tall, good-looking man with a red moustache, was radical in his thinking and controversial in his practice. He had a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell, and while he had studied psychoanalysis in New York City and Philadelphia, he was not a trained psychoanalyst. Instead, at a time when most psychoanalysts were medical doctors, Lindner went rogue. He created his own system by combining traditional Freudian psychoanalysis with hypnosis (he called the hybrid “hypno-analysis”), which, if his case studies are anything to go by, was unusually successful. Although Lindner was considered a renegade in the eyes of the psychoanalytic establishment, his stimulating and provocative ideas led many patients to move to Baltimore, at least temporarily, in order to be analyzed by him.

He was also considered radical for working in depth with the kinds of patients who were not normally candidates for psychoanalysis: prison inmates. His first professional position was as chief psychologist at the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.; in 1945, he took up the same post for the Maryland Department of Corrections. Lindner’s office was located in Harlem Lodge, a private home built in Catonsville in 1831 and previously owned by Dr. Richard Gundry, former State Superintendent of the Insane, who turned it into a private asylum on the site of what is now Spring Grove Hospital.

fiftyminutehourWhile in Baltimore, Lindner also maintained a large private practice, published influential studies on gambling and matricide, and wrote or edited numerous books, including Stone Walls and Men (1946), an analysis of the American penal system; Prescription for Rebellion (1952), a condemnation of mainstream psychology; and Must You Conform? (1956), a critique of orthodox family life, law and education. “We no longer send our young to school primarily to be taught and given the tools of thought, no longer primarily to be informed and acquire knowledge, but to be ‘socialized’—which in the current semantic means to be regimented and made to conform,” railed Lindner, by this time himself a married father of three, in the latter book.

Robert Mitchell Lindner was born in New York City in 1914, earned his undergraduate degree from Bucknell in 1935 and, three years later, received a doctorate in psychology from Cornell, where he stayed to teach for two years. While there, he met and married Eleanor Johnson, known as Johnnie, whom the author Norman Mailer, a close friend of Lindner’s, described as “a sort of pepper-pot blonde… She was full of strong feelings, full of love, full of lust, full of fire.” It was through Prescription for Rebellion that Lindner first came to Mailer’s attention. So impressed was Mailer by the book that he felt compelled to send Lindner a long, admiring letter: “I had the feeling,” he wrote, “that here at last was an analyst who had the courage to attack everything I have found most dispiriting in psychoanalysis.” After their first face-to-face meeting in New York, the two men talked on the phone almost every day, and Mailer often took the train to visit Lindner in his Mount Washington home.

Lindner and Mailer had a lot in common. Both were successful writers; both were ambitious and competitive; and both shared an interest in the nature of creativity, freedom and rebellion. On top of this, they both struggled with sexual fidelity. (Mailer’s then-girlfriend—and, later, his second wife—Adele Morales, did not accompany him on his trips to Baltimore because, according to Mailer, there was “tension” between her and Johnnie Lindner.) But when Mailer once asked Lindner for an analysis, the doctor wisely refused on the grounds that it would destroy their friendship. Nor would Lindner treat another friend, the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon; but he did see science fiction writer Philip Wylie, the author of When Worlds Collide and Gladiator, who moved to Baltimore in 1952 specifically to undergo analysis.

However, Lindner’s most famous patient, whom he referred to as “Harold,” was a defiant criminal he met while working at the federal prison in Lewisburg. “He was an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program, a rebel without a cause,” wrote Lindner, coining the felicitous catch phrase that might be his most enduring legacy. His study of Harold, published in 1944 as Rebel Without a Cause, was immediately hailed as a classic of psychoanalysis, and it inspired the 1955 James Dean movie of the same name. Warner Bros., the film’s producer, paid $5,000 for the rights to the book and then tossed out everything but its title, so angering Lindner that he threatened to sue the studio.

rebel-wncoo-causeAs for Kirk Allen—whose case study was detailed in a two-part article entitled “The Jet-Propelled Couch” that Lindner wrote for Harper’s magazine in 1954—his identity was, many believe, uncovered in early 2002 in an article by Alan Elms published in the New York Review of Science Fiction. According to Elms and others familiar with the case, Allen was most probably Paul Linebarger, better known as the science fiction author Cordwainer Smith. Although no direct link between Linebarger and Lindner has ever been established, the connection is impossible to ignore. As well as being a successful writer, Linebarger, who held a Ph.D in political science from Johns Hopkins, was a distinguished military advisor to the U.S. government and worked for a time as an Army intelligence officer in the basement of the Pentagon, where he was responsible for decoding information about China. Not only was  Linebarger fluent in Chinese, he was also known to have used a self-invented pictographic language to make private notes to himself, and apparently remained articulate enough in this code to continue using it until late in life. (He died in 1966.)

Shortly after Lindner recounted Allen’s case in Harper’s, he also included it in his best-known and most successful book, The Fifty Minute Hour, whose fictionalized narrative renderings of real-life analytic case studies helped expand the popular audience for psychoanalysis. Along with Allen’s tale, the book tells the story of “Mac,” a neurotic Communist who dreams that he is walking through Mount Vernon toward the Washington Monument but seems unable to get there (“it is shaped like an erect phallus,” explains Lindner, predictably, of the monument, “and in Baltimore, perhaps because of this, the park at its base has become a hangout for homosexuals and prostitutes.”).

Another patient in the book is “Charles,” a convict serving a life sentence for a violent homicide. He tells of stealing money and a ring from his mother’s pocketbook to visit The Block, described by Lindner as an area of Baltimore “consisting of bars, gin mills and loose sexuality.” Once there, Charles picks up a prostitute but remains impotent until the woman puts on his mother’s ring, which Charles happened to have in his pocket at the time; when Linder puts his finger directly on one of Charles’ darkest secrets during analysis, his patient attacks him in a violent rage, requiring three guards to intervene. Lindner was removed from the case; still, later in his life, Charles referred to the doctor as “the best friend I ever had or ever will have.”

Robert Lindner died in 1956 at the shockingly young age of 41. He suffered from a congenital heart complaint. On Jan. 14 of that year, he called Mailer from the heart unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “There’s nothing they can do,” he told his friend. “I’m going to die.” Then he burst into tears. At the time, Mailer was embarrassed by Lindner’s expression of emotion—Mailer felt death should be faced stoically, like a man—but when Lindner died on Feb. 27, Mailer was taken by surprise. “It was one of the great blows of my life,” he confessed.

At Lindner’s funeral—he’s buried in the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cemetery in the city’s Belair-Edison neighborhood—Mailer gave a speech celebrating his friend, referring to “his charm, his generosity, his intellectual curiosity, his foibles, his weaknesses, his kindnesses, his ambitions, his achievements, his failures and his great warmth—he was truly one of the warmest people I have known.” At the end of his eulogy, Mailer added (in front of Lindner’s grieving widow and children) that on top of everything else, his friend was “a rogue.” His words no doubt upset some mourners, but Mailer knew that “Bob Linder would have loathed a facile eulogy.”

Lindner, after all, had always insisted that all authority be questioned, including his own. Kirk Allen had taught him, he wrote, “that the chair and the couch are separated by only a thin line; that only a happier combination of accidents and circumstances determines who shall lie on the couch and who shall sit behind it.”

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