I’ve been chatting with Susan Winters Smith, a long-time friend and patient of the controversial late psychiatrist portrayed as the near-crazy “Doctor Finch” in Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors. I wanted to ask some questions about the real-life doctor, who died in 2000 and is now being played by Brian Cox in a fairly successful movie version of the book.
Susan is currently working with an agent on her own book deal regarding Doctor Rodolph Turcotte of Northampton, Massachusetts, so I appreciated her taking the time to tell me about her own personal experience with this difficult-to-understand figure.
The events portrayed in Running With Scissors took place in Northampton, a university town surrounding Smith College (where Sylvia Plath was once a student). The doctor had many friends and ran a thriving practice, but he was also fairly famous around town for his emphatically non-conformist ways. He would cover himself with balloons and parade through town for the appreciation of fatherhood, for instance. On the darker side, according to Burroughs’s memoir, he was a crazily permissive super-patriarch who ruled an impossibly disorganized and filthy household that amounted to a 24-hour nonstop id-fest. Burroughs also alleges numerous financial and sexual abuses (any many lawsuits and private settlements have ensued since the publication of the book).
A memorial website for Doctor Turcotte can be easily found, as well as a humble and attractive poetry website for Augusten’s mother, Margaret Robison (and, of course, Augusten Burroughs has a website too). Each of these sources describe utterly different views of the kaleidoscope, so it was refreshing for me to be able to ask Ms. Smith some basic questions.
Who was Rodolph Turcotte?
He was an innovator in family therapy, a Jungian with a great interest in synchronicity and the spiritual aspects of the human psyche. He believed that mental illness was a result of an interruption in the growth process, and that growth was accomplished through relationships. When his patients had no supportive family relationships, he would bring people into his own family.
He was always a top scholar, served his country in WWII and Korea, and was honorably discharged as a Captain in the US Air Force. He was also a concerned social and political activist, a peace activist who wrote hundreds of letters-to-the-editor, and was outspoken on every issue that concerned him, sometimes incurring the wrath of people in positions of power.
He believed that he was guided by God, and he followed that Divine Guidance wherever it led.
The book and movie paint a damning picture, portraying him as a con-man with horrifying personal habits. Is this treatment fair?
Was Augusten Burroughs unfair? I make no attempt to get into his mind. I cannot testify as to whether he actually believes what he wrote. All I can say is that my memory, and that of many others who were there, is significantly different than his.
What about the alleged eccentric housekeeping, the horrible unsanitary filth that all the members of the household somehow seemed to thrive in?
Eccentric housekeeping? There were a lot of people in that house, and it was “lived in”. If the sink was piled with dirty dishes (as mine often is), it didn’t last long. People pitched in and kept it quite acceptable. I never ever saw it as it was portrayed in the movie.
From about 1973 to 1990, the house was always full of activity, with creative interesting people involved in fascinating projects, and relating to each other in an atmosphere of free verbal expression.(Any form of physical violence was forbidden). On a Sunday, when Doc invited everyone in for Pot Luck dinners, there would be doctors, lawyers, professors, musicians, mathematicians, all interacting, brainstorming, arguing. It was inspirational. Of course (as you may know), a psychiatrist’s family could be quite adept at adopting the language of the psychoanalyst and teasing each other about being “anal” or “projecting” their own sins onto another. Alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity was extremely discouraged in that household. Those were not advocated as creative outlets.
He did not believe in keeping a patient to the 45 minute hour. He rarely prescribed drugs, and I would not say that he believed in sexual permissiveness.
What can you tell me about his wife, “Agnes”?
Mrs. Claire Turcotte, who celebrated 50 years of marriage to the doctor before his death, is a marvelous woman who, in my opinion, in no way resembles “Agnes” in Burroughs tale. She was not a weakling, sitting around eating dog food. She was a very strong woman who had no problem asserting herself with anyone, especially her husband, with whom she had many philosophical differences. She helped him care for many people over the years, and was dubbed “the Red Carpet Lady” for her graciousness. She always offered a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and a shoulder to cry on. She never watched horror movies, but did like documentaries and investigative reports. In her younger days she was a champion tennis player. Later in life she sang with the local Young at Heart chorus.
She is 87, and in a protected situation watched over by her children.
What about the kids?
They were, and are, very intelligent and talented people. One is a neuroscientist, one is a graduate of Mt. Holyoke and Smith, one went to the Boston Conservatory of Music, one graduated from UMass in Art and English, one is a professional singer, and another is a very talented writer and artist. They were affected in many ways by the community disapproval of their father. Most of his biological children sided with his wife in wanting him to be the establishment doctor and play by all the rules, which of course he would not do. Yet, they all loved him, and had some appreciation for his idealism also. June [“Hope”] was his strongest supporter.
How did you meet him?
My husband and I sought out Doctor Turcotte for some marriage counseling in 1975, at the urging of another couple who was seeing him. We became good friends with him and his family, participated in several of his projects, and learned a great deal about families and relationships. We raised our three children to be strong, healthy people, and took in nieces and nephews and a handicapped uncle, and continue to support strong family relationships with all of our brothers and sisters and their families. We expect to remain happily married for the rest of our days.
Did the doctor realize how eccentric he was? Did he ever have doubts about his methods, or regrets about some of the things that went so wrong around him?
Doc did have a couple of regrets … for some of his outspokenness over the years. Knowing that repressing his anger could cause cardiac stress, he allowed his anger free expression, and a couple of times he forgot to size up his adversary beforehand. There were times when he looked back and wished he’d done some things differently, yes. He admitted to having made some mistakes with his kids and wished he had been more aware in that area.
He once fell in love with a patient, and though he never regretted the feeling, he often said later that he was embarrassed by his own foolishness in that matter, acting like a silly school boy. He quoted his old mentor Dr. Elvin Semrad who said that “Falling in love is the only socially acceptable psychosis”.
When Doc was being questioned by the Hearing Officer of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, he allowed himself some angry outbursts in the board r
oom, not realizing at the time that this man was the sole decision maker in the case, and held Turcotte’s license in his hands. For many years he regretted not having educated himself as to the actual workings of the board.He had assumed that he was being judged by a panel of his peers and not by one man.
The Doctor did not regret his outside-the-box methodology, as he felt that that box was too restrictive, and unhealthy. He felt that the whole system that we live in was not functioning in a healthy way…too much crime, mental illness, etc., mostly as a result of the lack of what he defined as “fathering”, healthy emotional growth through relationships.
Did he have doubts? He suffered from periodical depressions. He believed that these depressions were reactive to his life circumstances and not part of a bi-polar disorder. When he came out of them he was stronger and more creative than ever. He frequently reality tested and re-examined all of his beliefs and theories, and would reassert their validity.
He did occasionally trust people that perhaps he should not have. I sometimes thought him naive in that, but he insisted that he had to trust in the goodness of people. Of course he got burned. Some thought that taking mentally ill people into his family was pure folly, and there were two who turned on him, perhaps with transference of rage, and ultimately brought about his loss of license.
Did you have doubts when he was your doctor? Or when you read Running With The Scissors?
Burroughs, whom I knew as Christopher Robison, did not cause me any doubts about the Doctor’s theories or methods. I was there. I knew the story.
Yes, I had doubts on and off from the beginning of my family’s relationship with the Doctor. I may have been the Doctor’s worst skeptic. I made him prove everything to me, and I observed human nature myself, and I put his teachings into practice and saw them work. My husband and I have helped many people with these methods.
Is Dr. Turcotte in some sense an example of 60’s/70’s pop psychology gone amok? This was the age of I’m OK, You’re OK, R. D. Laing, Gestalt, Psychology Today, Dr. Spock. In a sense I see Dr. Turcotte as an extremist outgrowth of this cultural phenomenon. Am I on to something here?
Well, when he was interning in OBGYN he gave every patient of his a copy of Dr. Spock’s book. And, yes, he was a liberal.
Thanks to Susan Winters Smith for a very interesting conversation!