Talking Straight with Robert Coles

Robert Coles leaning on his elbow, talking, with a man behind, listening

Mark Handler

Magazine cover - yellow background with "Southern Exposure: Focus on the Media" in a camera lens.

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 4, “Focus on the Media.” Find more from that issue here.

The following remarks are excerpted from Robert Coles' discussion with an oral history seminar at the University of North Carolina on October 24, 1974. Dr. Coles, a child psychiatrist, has been communicating with Southerners since the early 1960s and has written a great deal about his experiences. His widely-acclaimed series, Children of Crisis (A Study of Courage and Fear; Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers; The South Goes North), best reflects his work in the South and illustrates his capacities as a compassionate listener and skillful writer. In the following interview, Coles discusses methods of oral history, his own technique, and the broader questions of conveying the "unheard voices of the poor."


Question: How would you describe the traditions that have influenced your style of work?

Robert Coles: I never thought of my work as tied up in a "method." I just look upon myself as someone who was interested in meeting some people and, in some way getting to know their lives. Now, the people that I look up to are not Sigmund Freud and other psychiatrists, but people like James Agee and George Orwell, and Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, although she was certainly not a field worker —she would think better of herself than that —and Simone Weil, if any of you know some of her efforts as a "sinner" on this planet.

So I'm not very strong on methodology as it is called. I would be in favor of the return of the social essay. I mean the tradition of a novelist like Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century, the essays of those writers who have been concerned with others. What would the "methodology" of an Orwell or Dickens be? They had eyes, ears, could look, listen, think, write down, come to terms with, understand, go into, try to set forth . . . we can go on and on.

Of course, this tradition antedates the existence of the tape recorder. But it seems to me that if social science has come to the point that it is a function of a machine that has batteries in it, then we are in a sorry state. It has been a source of confusion and dismay to me that when I talk about my tape recorder to social scientists, I am immediately granted attentive ears and focused eyes and a great deal of respect. If I talk about people whom I have met and am saying something about, then the question comes up, "Well, what is this? Is this impressionistic? Is this literary observation or mere journalism?" These characters with their interview forms, going around asking people to check things off! They talk about "mere" journalism ... Well, I suppose if we could get journalism of the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men caliber, then we would certainly be able to do away with this building.

Q: I think we all feel uncomfortable using this curious machine, but how do you handle the problem of reporting with some accuracy and integrity the people you interview? How do you achieve some objectivity in your work?

Coles: I would put in a strong plea for the capacity of the human mind, heart and soul to respond to others and to make sense of that, and I would hope that we not become captives of tape recorders and all of that stuff. And I would hope that we have the courage of ourselves so that we don't feel necessarily objective, whatever that means — objectivity being a form of subjectivity. Psychiatrists and other pain-in-the-neck phenomena of American life have fostered on us a secular religion of neutrality, objectivity, impartiality, value free this and that, numbers, forms, questionnaires. Let's have a study of those people who have the courage to tell those other people waving around these questionnaires where to get off. That is a form of liberation, I assure you, that has not yet emerged on the American political scene. But there is always hope, believe me, even in the darkest of times ...

I started using the tape recorder because I thought that if I didn't use it, it wouldn't be scientific. But I was never a great enthusiast of the tape recorder per se. I have tape recorded, I know it, because there are certain people whom I've grown to know and like, and I thought it would be nice to be able to listen to them sometimes. I don't think that I have ever learned anything from the use of a tape recorder that I haven't learned much earlier from just being with people. I am certainly willing to talk about tape recorded interviews, knowing that many of the interviews are not tape recorded, in order to persuade anyone that I might be worried about that I am a scientist. But I am getting increasingly fed up with it. You can read in between those lines whatever you wish. I haven't really used the tape recorder as a constant part of my life. What I have done is gotten to know these people. And what they are therefore impressed with is me — a pain-in-the-neck doctor who they can't quite figure out and who, believe me, at times can't quite figure himself out, notwithstanding all the apparent coherence some would find in those books.

Now, Faulkner, how did he get it all on paper without a tape recorder? And believe me, with word for word accuracy. Word for word. He is someone that kept what came in, and it came out through the hand holding a pen, or maybe the typewriter, another gadget. Word for word — it doesn't make any difference if there is a tape recorder or there isn't a tape recorder. I'd much rather be Faulkner pouring out the words, but you know not everyone is gifted that way. Now, look, I'm not going to say that I haven't carried a tape recorder and put things down, but never, never as a primary source of being with some people. And I urge upon you Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris, pre-tape recorder documents in the history of western civilization.

Agee, even with bourbon in his mind, or maybe because of bourbon in his mind and head, was able to go there into that little county located between Birmingham and Montgomery and he picked it all up. It's all there, what goes on between the people. Now, you say, "I want the literal word." O.K., no one is saying that you shouldn't have that, but I would think that the last thing that any of us would want to do in going to visit people is to behave in a crude and uncivilized way.

I am urging civility in my pompous, smug way. The whole damn profession of psychiatry has been based on unmasking and tearing down civility, tearing down those day-to-day adjustments that we all have to have with one another, in the interest of those group therapy-sensitivity training things where people strip themselves in order to lose all these so-called inhibitions, so then a kind of truth will come out. Well, what truth? The banal truth that we are all a bunch of murderers and cut-throats, rapists and God knowswhat? What we find out from that and therefore what distinguishes us, it seems to me, ought to be some willingness to behave one's self. And therefore, when one goes up a mountain hollow or goes into a migrant camp or goes to visit some people in a log cabin, I think they are entitled not to be suddenly confronted with this machine and someone pressing that Sony thing and "Wait a minute, testing . . . would you mind saying something?" For what?

If I spend a number of months with a person and say to the person out of friendship and camaraderie, "Look, I would like to have something. Would you just mind? Would you put up with me, having put up with me all this time, put up with me in one more way?" I think that people are entitled to have you not know something until the moment comes for you to know it. And then when that moment comes, you won't forget it. This sounds a little mystical — I hope it does —because I believe that what we need is a little fogginess in the world. All these precisions, you know, that's artificial, too. Life is not precise. Life, as Flannery O'Conner said, is a matter of mysteries and manners. It is a matter of ambiguity, confusion, contradiction, inconsistency. Consistency is not a virtue; it is an impossibility in this world. This is an ambiguous and confused life. All mental processes are confusing and should be. And therefore you and they are coming to something through one another.

O.K., I know that I am going overboard and am being a bit cranky and a bit difficult. But this field is going to become as institutionalized as all those dull, pain-in-the-neck pedants that we all can't stand. It's already happened in psychiatry, and it will happen with this oral history field, too. People will say, "We've got to be careful; we've got to correct against madmen and anarchists and kooks and everything else. We've got to get discipline, rigor, have a Ph.D. program." And all sorts of organizations and accreditations will spring up. But what does all that have to do with human


Q: From reading your books, it seems to me that despite your criticism of social scientists, you have a very deep commitment to your profession, to child psychiatry. You seem to be arguing with them, or with yourself, to affirm your right to be a child psychiatrist, and to be intuitive in your method, and to expose the larger social or political implications of your conversations with children, all at the same time. I'm interested in how these functions or preoccupations or missions have become naturally compatible for you.

Coles: Well, I'll tell you my feelings about psychiatry. I think it's an interesting phenomenon of the twentieth century, and I'm all for anyone talking with anyone where it will work and help. There are some very fine people who call themselves psychiatrists, who in turn talk to other people who call themselves patients— there would be quotes around all these words, you know. Of course, as you can tell, I do have a quarrel with a lot of the junk, not only in psychiatry, but in all the social sciences, about the jargon, the abstractions, the arrogance that we are all capable of. Maybe my worries about this are based on my own arrogance; maybe not.

Now, there is no doubt that when I write about the children and their drawings and all, that I am a child psychiatrist. There is that element of my life, and it is part of my being. I am genuinely interested in children. It's not a question only of getting them to show me something; I sit down on

the floor and draw with them. I draw and they draw, and I show them what I've done and they show me what they have done, and we go through this thing and then we play with games, and I enjoy that.

Now, since I'm also an "intellectual," trying to make sense of this, I draw conclusions and make observations, generalizations, formulations, writeups, analyses, commentary, all that stuff. You can't avoid noticing things. For example, upper-middle-class children do have a sense of destiny. When an eight-year-old boy tells me that he is going to be a lawyer and free the blacks, I may say to myself, "If I were black, I'd run." (laughter) But eight-year-old children who are migrants or Appalachian kids, up the hollow, do not talk like that. I don't think my mind is especially political, but you have to notice that this sense of destiny is a class thing. It comes across as the children speak.

I am writing now about a boy who is eleven years old, from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, a Chicano family. I'm weaving in his relationship with a foreman of this large company, owned by

Senator Lloyd Bentsen, by the way. The boy goes around with this foreman in the truck, and the foreman talks to him as a friend, telling him all about his wife and his kids. Then, there is the daughter of the grower. She is a year older than the boy. She has what we would call "fantasies." She is interested in freeing all the poor "Mexicans." as she calls them. And she tells the foreman and the boy, who sit around, "I want to get a magic wand some day and I'm going to free everyone in the Rio Grande Valley." The boy is amazed by this. The boy has a much older cousin who was driven out of the Rio Grande Valley for politica activity and is now up in Chicago. And the cotrast of the foreman's child, the grower's child, and the Chicano fieldhand's child has to do with social class. The upper-class child has a notion of power, privilege, of the relationship of history, of what can be done. The foreman's child is troubled by the imperatives of his father. "Stay in school," when the child wants to get out. Then there is the boy, the child of the fieldhand. And what are his preoccupations? Should he become like his cousin? No, because his father wouldn't like it.

Incidentally, I'm developing something different in this new book. I weave in my own descriptions and summaries of behavior in the third person, I speak in the third person, and I work it so that I never mention myself in this narrative description. It's all impersonal, so that I remove myself and talk about the foreman the way the boy does. He never mentions the foreman's name; he always talks about "the foreman." So the foreman has no name. Mr. Long, who is the grower, has the name, "Mr. Long." And what I'm trying to do is to evoke the way that this Chicano child sees these people, through his eyes, but also bring in some contrast with the other people from different classes.

Now, a lot of people probably say, "Well, why should you remove yourself?" I feel that I will be myself in the first chapter, which is a description of the scene, so to speak, and the second chapter in which I describe the "method." It's different from the other volumes, where I am always talking about, "I saw this and I saw that..." I just decided to get rid of myself. Not because I want to be anonymous — anyone who writes as much as I do is not concerned with anonymity — but because I think it brings the reader closer to what I would conceptualize, if I may, as the "mind of the child" and the way that mind gets along with others, which is more important than the way the mind gets along with me.

As far as why I do this, why I write these books, I do it not only to make other people, hopefully, understand a little, to help them understand, but also to advance my person. I do have the need, if you want to call it a need, to write. I've always wanted to do that. I suppose it can be said I do it to feather my cap —egoism, narcissism, drive, need, all those words. But I would also hope that there is a political dimension to this. It isn't only a matter of understanding; it is a matter of seeing social change. But many of us who worry about such things are not the kinds of people that lead the Long Marches or maybe even start the American Revolution. We're not the ones that go dumping tea in the Boston harbor. We are the ones who write pamphlets at best.

My work on Still Hungry in America was directly the product of a political campaign, an effort on the part of Robert Kennedy and others to deal with the problem of hunger in the rural areas of this country. You can call it a tract, a polemical tract. So, my work varies, I guess. I did a book on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement because I love her and love what she stands for. These are books that were a little more self-consciously attached to social and political problems.

Again, I think that part of the reason I'm doing this is because I want to write and I want to write these books. Part of it is because I'm doing a research project and I have a foundation grant from the Ford Foundation and they are paying for me not only to do the work, but to write the books. And believe me, if I didn't write the books, then I probably wouldn't get any further support, and understandably so. But who reads these books —you and I and all the others like us.

Q: That brings up the whole question of your relationship with the people you interview; I mean, with you writing books from these encounters, there is the possibility of an exploitative relationship. What are you able to give these people?

Coles: In some of these homes, I began and proceeded to be and ended up being a royal pain, pure and simple. In other homes, some things happened — human involvements, some of them precious and lovely to me. And the involvements have been as various and diverse and as hard to categorize as the variations of human life that we all are. Now, if you want me to be officious about it, I can say this: I brought a child in Roxbury, a black section of Boston, to the Children's Hospital for medical help. Great! You can say: "He not only was taking something out of him in these interviews, he was performing an active service." I participated in Congressional hearings that ultimately led to the food stamp program. I was involved in that. Great! The proceeds from Still Hungry in America went to the Southern Regional Council for distribution among the needy. Great! We can all understand that. There is a family here that I got in touch with, an agency there, and this or that happened. O.K., I'm not denying that. I don't want to say that I don't do things that are of a little value.

But I am not going to go on the defensive, to the point that I feel that this is the only thing that, you know, I can fall back on for the justification of this work and that anything else is "exploitative." I do not apologize for those moments that we had — some individuals and I — even if no social or political change resulted. And I don't mean only the good moments, the bad moments, too. It isn't necessarily hurtful and exploitative when a strange, kooky guy comes on the screen and talks and maybe a little news is exchanged, you know, something. That doesn't have to be looked upon as political oppression or manipulation from the point of view of aggrandizement in a professional career. I'm not saying that that isn't something that should be taken into consideration; but why do we have to strip these meetings, these encounters, these moments, of the fact that they have to do with being human beings on the planet, for a moment, a brief moment of eternity. In addition to being social scientists and social observers and all these things, we are, after all, men, women, people, citizens, a lot of things. There is room, you know, in all this work for a little bit of humor, a little bit of willingness to relate oneself to some larger things. You know, writers, thinkers, essayists, and just plain people are interested in talking to people and they do it very well without worrying about all these confining structures, jargons. To end this, I'll tell you a little story about my father.

My father is just an ordinary human being. I remember as a boy that he used to tell me about when he would go down to London from Yorkshire; he was interested in talking to people. Well, my father, my son and I went to South Africa at the end of August to give a lecture on apartheid. (They bring in outsiders to say things that South Africans can not say.) We stopped off in Rio de Janeiro and on the beach, my son and I went for a long walk, and we came back and my father was talking to four young people of a whole range of racial backgrounds. He wasn't doing any fieldwork and he had no tape recorder, but they were smoking a lot and he told them that they shouldn't smoke so much. And that led to a whole series of things and then he went and bought them some ice cream to tell them that it was much better to have some of this ice cream than to smoke all those cigarettes: "It is going to hurt your lungs." Part of this he was doing with some Spanish he knew, and a few words of Portuguese, and his English and the broken English of the young Brazilians and whatever. So then we came back, and with this mind that I have, I said, "Oh, this is interesting. He's talking to these people; I must get involved . . ." (laughter) So, I started questions, you know, other kinds of questions and then they didn't seem as interested; they began to get ready to leave. So my father resumed by talking to them about the cigarettes. And then, of course, I realized what I was: I was hungry and greedy. We were going to leave the next day and I had thought, "Ah, I'll just snatch something, learn something." Meanwhile, my father, who has no methodological training and you might consider politically to be rather conservative, not as liberal and generous and kind as I am, had got something going. Him and them.