Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dr Rush looks in the Magic Mirror

Look at the logo of the American Psychiatric Association and you'll see that it features a portrait head of one Benjamin Rush MD (1745-1813), who has been called "the founder of American psychiatry". Dr Rush is a most interesting figure in the birth of the United States. An early abolitionist and agitator for independence from Britain, he encouraged Thomas Paine to write Common Sense and helped him to edit it. He was a doctor for the Continental Army, a member of the Continental Congress, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A recent biographer calls him "a Revolutionary gadfly".

He was medical adviser to the Lewis and Clark expedition, supplying those intrepid explorers with laxatives whose effect was so noisome they became known as "thunderclappers". The high mercury content of Dr Rush's "bilious pills" made it easy to track the exact path of the members of that famous expedition.

Ahead of his times in some ways, Dr Rush had quirky and - to us - almost absurdly outmoded views in his practice of medicine and his approach to mental illness. He advocated heavy blood-letting as a universal panacea. He insisted that mental disorders were the product of faulty blood circulation, and had mental patients strapped to a primitive centrifuge, a whirling chair of his invention, and spun around violently in the expectation that this would force their malady out of their skulls.

Dr Rush developed a very reductionist theory of dreams of a type that can still be heard, alas, in certain psychiatric and medical circles. He maintained that dreams were the side-effect of physiological processes, including sexual urges, and that dream content was nothing more than "incoherent ideas", trash from the night that could corrupt and derange judgment and memory.

This dismissive theory of dreams was entirely at odds with Dr Rush's lifelong practice as a dreamer. He made a faithful record of dreams, studied them as clues to the future, and regularly swapped dream reports with no less than John Adams, the second president of the United States. One of Dr Rush's dream reports influenced John Adams to mend his broken friendship with Thomas Jefferson and contained specific long-range precognition of the death of those two former presidents on the same day, a story I tell in my Secret History of Dreaming.

There was a deeper, fascinating and creative tension between Dr Rush's dream life and some of his waking attitudes and opinions. Over much of his life, Dr Rush had a tendency to try to control and lay down the law to those around him. Thus he prescribed a course of "proper reading" for his wife and advocated a diet of "controlled education" for the new American republic. In 1790, when he was 45, Dr Rush dreamed that he was watching an amazing individual up on the steeple of Christ Church in his home town of Philadelphia. The man on the steeple claimed to command the winds and the weather. To the amazement of the crowd, the weather wizard got the wind to shift direction. When he failed to bring the rain, however, he became agitated and dejected and an observer standing near Rush (in his dream) declared that he was certainly a "madman". At this point a flying figure appeared, like Mercury, and held up a banner in front of Dr Rush that announced, in Latin, "This story is about you."

Dr Rush got the message. The madman on the steeple was him. He was both observer and actor in his dream, which spoofed his waking attitudes and behaviors so outrageously that he could not fail to get the message: stop trying to control the elements. After this, people noticed a pleasant change in Dr Rush.

Another example of how Dr Rush's dreams held up a magic mirror to his life takes us deep into the American tragedy of slavery. In 1773, influenced by the gentle Quaker abolitionist Ebenezer Benezet and his own horrified observation of slave ships at the docks in Liverpool, the young Rush issued a passionate appeal to slave owners to free their slaves, offering the caution that those who failed to do so would be "registered" and processed in the "courts of heaven". Yet two years later, Dr Rush purchased a slave named William Grubber, in preparation for embarking on married life. Grubber was a remarkably loyal and helpful servant; Dr Rush wrote that the slave saved his life during a serious illness. Yet in 1788, when Dr Rush's abolitionist hero Benezet died, Grubber remained in servitude. Soon after that, Rush had a powerful dream that appears to have shaken him to his core. He dreamed that he visited a "Paradise of Negro Slaves" where black men ruled on where white men would go after death - and allowed only one white man, Benezet, to enter heaven. Rush published an account of this dream, anonymously, in the Columbian Magazine, and it inspired him to write out a formal statement promising to free his servant William Grubber. Somehow it took him a further six years to complete the manumission.

Once again, we see dreams serving as a vital corrective to the opinions and attitudes of the ego, holding up that magic mirror that shows us how we really look. The central role of dreaming in shaping the self-image and social attitudes of Dr Rush, John Adams and other key figures in the Revolutionary era in America is something that has yet to be acknowledged - let alone properly investigated - by most mainstream historians, though one trail-blazer in this field, Mechal Sobel, rightly observes that in this seminal age America was "a dream-infused culture" where "work with dreams proivded an important bridge into the modern period, helping people change their world-view and their selves". [1]
[1] Mechal Sobel, Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. Princeton and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.4.


Jeni Hogenson said...

My hope is that this period we are now entering will also mark a time when leaders and citizens find that work with dreams leads them to important insights and changes in their attitudes and behaviors...and I'm including myself in that group. Wonderful stuff Robert, thank you!

Robert Moss said...

Thanks, Jeni. With your own dreaming and your many generous contributions to growing the Dream School in the Pacific Northwest, I certainly count you as one of those who are helping to foment a gentle revolution that will help to birth a dreaming society adapted to our conditions and our neds. It's time!