A Fish Out of Water

We humans are endowed with genes that interact with our environment to form our personality.  But if environment and heredity combine to make us who we are, I never could understand the source of Lawrence Good’s mind.  I met him in my first week in the graduate program of psychology at Purdue University in a class called Theories of Personality.  When Lawrence commented about how Ayn Rand would have viewed a particular theorist’s opinion of human nature, I, having developed an interest in Ms. Rand’s philosophy as an undergraduate, decided to approach him after class.  Subsequently, he told me he was in his last year at Purdue and was taking a few courses while in the midst of completing his dissertation.

Before we separated, he told me that he was living in the grad house where I also was staying, and he cordially invited me to stop by when I chose.   Thus, began a most memorable relationship.  Because he was a dorm counselor, the room he had was much larger than other rooms in the grad house that allowed me to feel at ease when we conversed.   His breadth of knowledge of psychology, especially in matters dealing with research, amazed me.  I remember the conversations we had were intense with him being the teacher, and me the eager student, trying to assimilate the many ideas he had.  Some weeks into the semester I had the definite sense that Lawrence–as he addressed himself to acquaintances, but when I asked, told me it was fine to call him Larry–knew more about psychology than my professors. 

Our meetings were limited to academic matters.  I did learn that he was from Berea, Ohio, had been raised on a farm, and he had attended a small college there before coming to Purdue.  He had a younger brother with whom he had tried to motivate to read more but his brother appeared content with going no further in his life than staying on his parent’s farm.  I believe he mentioned that there was some history of mental illness in his family but he never went into any details regarding it. The only other thing I remember outside of academic conversation was his opinion of Richard Nixon, the President, at the time we met. Nixon, he told me, had “little social conscience.”  There are few today that would disagree with this assessment of our ex-President.

Lawrence gave me two very good suggestions to help me navigate my way through graduate school.  He rejected my interest in the professor of The Theories of Personality being a thesis advisor and, I later discovered that this same professor kept adding more work, without his ever being satisfied, to a classmate’s thesis proposal.   In the midst of his work on his dissertation, my classmate dropped this instructor, outright abandoned his project, and found himself a more reasonable advisor.

Larry’s other suggestion was to design an experiment for my master’s thesis in which I could quickly collect the data.  Like many graduate students, I was naïve when I first formulated the content and method of my master’s thesis study, as I had hoped that it would have an impact on society.  A noble idea but hardly a realistic one.  Lawrence pointed out to me the many “all but dissertation” students (ABD’s) had become perennial students, in part, because they aspired to goals that could not easily be achieved.

I heeded Lawrence’s warning and constructed a tight study that enabled me to collect all my data within two days.  I received little help from my committee members but the fact that Larry reviewed what I was doing and approved of it gave me the confidence to carry out the project on my own.  In fact, when I defended my thesis, the faculty members on my committee complimented me on the experimental design, and they suggested I consider pursuing research as a career aim.

At the end of the year, Lawrence had completed his doctoral dissertation and had an offer to join the faculty at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Around that time two things happened to him in quick succession:  1) He had a mental collapse and was in the hospital for a few days, and 2) He asked an attractive woman, who was completing her degree in the Ed Psych Department, to marry him.  When I saw Larry after his hospitalization, he looked like he had fully recovered.   But when he revealed his marital plans, he surprised me insofar as I had never spotted him with a woman, besides us rarely, if ever, spoke of women in our discussions.

At some point in our relationship, I had told Larry about my efforts to write poetry.  In 1971, he sent me a booklet of poems he had published called Observations along with Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl.  Perhaps this is an unfair stereotype but I can’t imagine too many people from Berea, Ohio reading Howl.  Larry meant a lot to me so I saved this booklet of poems.  Here is one of his poems:

Allusion

I contemplated the allusion

And found there much elusion

Caused by the suffusion

Of morbid confusion

Over a delusion.

About 35 years later, I was celebrating a birthday in which I wanted to invite people from all the different phases of my life.  Upon searching for Larry, I found he was still on the faculty at MTSU so I phoned the psychology department and left a message.  Some hours later I received a shocking and eerie message from his wife, Elaine, who said that Lawrence had been dead for many years having hurled himself into a river near the campus.

When I later contacted Elaine, she told me that Lawrence had published several articles in various psychological journals but had failed to procure tenure from the University on account of his mental condition.  He had been suffering from delusions believing that the walls in the psychology department were going to collapse.  She said that the physicians he had seen had insisted he was schizophrenic and had treated him accordingly.  She firmly believed that he had been misdiagnosed and that he really had suffered from a bipolar condition. 

I believe Elaine may very well have been right.  The American medical profession, historically, had an overdiagnosis bias for schizophrenia at the expense of overlooking a bipolar condition.  In addition, psychiatric diagnosis has had a history of unreliability due, in part, to the overlap of symptoms from each diagnostic category. The appropriate medication is vitally important in treating individuals with serious mental disorders.  The sad irony was that Lawrence was part of the psychological faculty at the University where one would think he would have received the state-of-the-art treatment.

Let me end this blog on a positive note.  Out of curiosity, I looked up Larry’s ex-wife, Elaine and discovered her obituary indicating that she had died about 5 years ago.  The obituary stated that Elaine was Professor Emeritus Psychology Department at MTSU and that in lieu of flowers, she had requested “memorials may be to American Cancer Society of Lawrence R. Good Scholarship.”  I was so happy to see that Larry had made a contribution to the betterment of society.