Books by Robert Coles

Released: Aug. 31, 2010

"Intelligent observations about an array of important writers and worthy reflections on leading a more thoughtful existence, delivered with an off-putting undercurrent of self-satisfaction."
Pulitzer Prize winner Coles (Psychiatry and Medical Humanities/Harvard Medical School; Political Leadership, 2005, etc.) spotlights artists who guide us toward moral and social awareness. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 2000

A welcome collection of excerpts and essays from the work of the celebrated psychoanalyst (A Way of Looking at Things, 1987, etc.) who died in 1994. Coles, the eminent colleague and biographer of Erikson (Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson, p. 506), divides this volume into five sections: Coles's Introduction; On Children, Nearby and Far Away; On Psychoanalysis and Human Development; On Leaders; and On Moral Matters. The most extensive selections are from the now-classic Childhood and Society and Young Man Luther. For those who have never read Erikson—or have not read him in a while (his last book appeared a dozen years ago)—the compilation vividly illustrates the vast scope of his thought, explains the elements of his theories of development, and displays the language of an author whose best writing was often as lyrical as it was instructive. Commenting on his own profession, for example, Erikson writes: "A man, I will submit, could begin to study man's inner world only by appointing his own neurosis that angel with whom he must wrestle and whom he must not let go until his blessing, too, has been given." Erikson writes about a dazzling array of subjects—from the Lakota Sioux to Tom Sawyer (whose behavior at the fence-whitewashing Erikson playfully explores) to Martin Luther, Gandhi, and Jesus. He studies the small as well as the great, as in his account of a Yurok "doctor," an aged woman of the tribe, who sucks from the navel of a disturbed child the pain that afflicts him. Erikson's achievement, as presented by Coles, readily justifies such occasional excesses as his occasional descent into psychobabble: "A man should act in such a way that he actualizes both in himself and in the other such forces as are ready for a heightened mutuality.— Edited with intelligence and vision—a volume that confirms Erikson's honored place in the pantheon of psychological theorists. Read full book review >
THE SECULAR MIND by Robert Coles
Released: April 1, 1999

Prolific, award-winning psychiatrist Coles (Old and on their Own, 1998; The Moral Life of Children, 1986, etc.) falters in this rambling exploration of secularism in modern culture and consciousness. After a spotty discussion of secular, contemporary themes in the Bible, such as the self, identity, and power (no mention of the Golden Calf incident or the Book of Job), Coles looks at secularism in late-19th- and 20th-century thought, drawing upon literary works ranging from Middlemarch to1984 and upon his conversations over the years with such figures as psychoanalyst Anna Freud, Catholic socialist Dorothy Day, and novelist/philosopher Walker Percy. Yet the raw material from these interviews is poorly shaped, as Coles tends to quote for pages on end, rather than paraphrase and respond to his subject's comments. He also flits from topic to topic—egotism, abstract thinking, and the recent hegemony of biological psychiatry over psychotherapy, among many others—without delving sufficiently into any one, and without providing a sense of rhetorical direction. A more serious problem is Coles's style, particularly his many run-on sentences and his occasional penchant for pretentious statements: "In the midst of the darkness science asserts and explores, we crave whatever light we can make for ourselves, even if we do so as the proverbial whistlers (or, as the expression goes, with hope against hope)." Perhaps in writing about "the secular mind," which tends to be self-preoccupied and living in a "here-and-now world," Coles has taken on an overly broad topic, at least for a brief work such as this. Consequently, readers, after absorbing interesting allusions from a host of important cultural works, may ask, "What the devil is the author really getting at?" Whatever it is, Coles never quite arrives. Read full book review >
OLD AND ON THEIR OWN by Robert Coles
Released: April 1, 1998

A series of lengthy and for the most part unrevealing interviews with men and women from 75 to nearly 100 years old, that tells the reader more about the author's attitude toward aging than it does about being "elderly." Psychiatrist Coles (The Youngest Parents, 1997) achieved his reputation with revealing interviews of children that led to such celebrated works as Children of Crisis and The Moral Intelligence of Children. He has recently moved on to a fascination with the technique of documentary writing and photography. A grant from the Commonwealth Fund attuned him to aging in place, specifically nine men and women who have lived at least three-quarters of a century and remain in their own homes, not in nursing homes. His charge is to explore how these subjects deal with their lives. Most of them are waiting for death, starting with a near centenarian who sees only "shadows and more shadows," ending with a couple who've had "sixty-five years of a rocky, troubled life together.— To his credit, Coles struggles to put aside his psychiatrist's tendency to diagnose depression, for instance, in men and women who seem caught up in memory and are unwilling to engage the world. He tries but does not always succeed in getting out of their way, letting them define their own lives. One 83-year-old widow stands up boldly for her choices: After her husband died, she began to drink, she stopped drinking to take dance lessons at Fred Astaire (because she loves dancing, not to fill empty time), she now has Parkinson's but will stick with Astaire until she graduates——and who knows if there will be any dancing where I'm headed!— The substantial section (41 pages) of duotone photographs by Alex Harris and Thomas Roma is essentially without context: The images tell us—perhaps sufficiently—that age has many faces. Raw material, badly in need of the kind of shaping and informed interpretation that Coles admires in the works of documentary writers like James Agee and George Orwell. Read full book review >
Released: May 1, 1997

An intermittently arresting, consistently disconcerting portrait of teen parents and expectant parents in America today. Harvard child psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prizewinning author Coles (The Moral Intelligence of Children, 1997, etc.), along with his three adult sons, spent several years interviewing dozens of teen parents of different races and classes in cities and small towns. Despite the divergence among the interviewees, a number of patterns emerge, among them the distrust between females and males. This is most apparent and unsettling among young blacks. The girls view the males as worthless beyond their powers to create a baby, and the males sense that the girls exploit them solely for this purpose. As one young man tells Coles, ``The girls you're going out with, they don't really respect you, they just don't. Why? They have something in mind for themselves, that's what: to get themselves pregnant, it's all they want from us, the juice . . . when it's over they want you . . . out of their lives.'' Another common link among most of the interviewees is their lack of success in school. Most of these young parents hated the time they spent there and look forward to having a ``legitimate'' excuse to end their schooling. Parenting a baby gives these teens a raison d'àtre; they sincerely love having something they can call their own. While none of these parents wants children for the sake of securing welfare, welfare is clearly an indispensable part of their lives. When Coles asks one young mother if welfare reform can break the cycle of poverty and dependence, she considers the difficulties of finding work and child care and says, ``You take welfare from us, we got nothing.'' A disturbing if inconclusive study, memorable for the voices of these young people. (80 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1997

A challenging exploration of documentary writing and photography, focusing on the ways in which researchers can affect, reshape, or misrepresent what they see. Coles, the noted psychiatrist and Harvard ethicist (The Moral Intelligence of Children, 1997, etc.), notes in the introduction that he has been preparing to write this book ``for over 35 years''—ever since he and his wife, while studying the integration of schools in Louisiana in 1960, first tried to make sense of what it meant to be witnesses, researchers, and onlookers. A fascination with the moral and practical consequences that arise when observers (journalists, academics, or social activists) probe the lives of a class of people— whether coal miners (George Orwell), migrant workers (Dorothea Lange), or Mississippi farmers (James Agee and Walker Evans)—led Coles to become one of the founders of Duke University's Center of Documentary Studies. Poet/doctor William Carlos Williams and biographer/therapist Erik Erikson are Coles's heroes, and from them and others he draws his theme: ``We notice what we notice in accordance with who we are.'' Coles offers striking examples of the way in which preconceptions can alter what is seen, including Lange's famous ``Migrant Mother'' photograph: That seminal Depression-era picture was selected from a series of shots and then cropped for dramatic impact, in accordance with Lange's personal vision, with who she was, with what she wanted to communicate about poverty in the South. Also examined, in sometimes rambling, verbose passages, are the impact the observer makes on those being observed and the tendency by writers like Agee and Orwell, for instance, to put on a pedestal the farmworkers and coal miners who helped make them famous. Journalists, social workers, and therapists, as well as producers of print or film documentaries, will find this ruminative volume of special use, reminding them of the questions they should ask themselves before they invade schools, workplaces, and private lives. (18 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 1, 1997

The prolific Coles, Harvard's noted social ethicist and author of the Pulitzer Prizewinning five-volume Children of Crisis, muddies the ethical waters conceptually in this rather loosely organized guide on raising a child to be a moral person. Linking morality to general character development, to ``goodness,'' rather than to specific issues of ethical attitudes and behavior, Coles meanders from topic to topic, discussing such matters as the process by which young people develop a worldview and manners, how career choices emerge, the nature of sociability in the young, and the origins of spirituality. Coles has a penchant for rhetorical overdrive, resulting in too many run-on sentences (one tops out at 138 words). Readers may feel that he quotes too liberally from his mentor, Anna Freud, and that he relies too frequently on excerpts from transcripts of group discussions he has held with parents, adolescents, and children. Finally, Coles sometimes states as a seemingly fresh perception concepts that have been in circulation for years, such as the idea that children, particularly adolescents, need and hunger for moral values and limits, that they often feel alienated or lost without such values, and that parents and teachers best impart these values through the day-to-day manifestations of empathy, kindness, and similar forms of sensitivity to others rather than through preaching or nagging. To be sure, Coles does glean some telling comments from young people. An adolescent girl, fed up with her parents' obsessive fretting about her possible romantic and sexual entanglements with boys, says shrewdly, ``I wish my parents would stop turning me into one more reason not to worry about themselves.'' In general, however, Coles has considered the issues raised in this book more profitably in a host of earlier works, particularly The Moral Life of Children (1985) and The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (1988). He has little to add here. (First printing of 75,000; author tour) Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 15, 1993

An exceptional blend of observation and reflection, literary report and personal revelation, that once again finds Coles (Psychiatry and Medical Humanities/Harvard; Anna Freud, 1992; etc.) exploring important social concepts—community service and the sources of altruism—with the tenacious moral energy that has characterized his writings for 30 years. From the first, Coles clearly cherished his encounters with people whose conduct claimed his imagination: In book after book, he presented them with dignity and respect. Here, he recalls the six-year-old integrating a southern school who sees ahead not trouble but opportunity; admires the white teacher who introduces Tillie Olsen's short story ``O Yes'' to a class of black middle- schoolers; learns from the Bowery bum who values not only the daily meal at his shelter but also the staff's acceptance of his angry moods; and understands the older tax lawyer who maintains that ``there's still a little of 1964 in me.'' Coles contends that— while motives vary and overlap and stresses frequently wear people down—the satisfactions of service are plentiful and sustaining, conferring importance on small interactions and providing affirmation to those involved (often in place of, say, apparent social change). In his usual meandering way, he examines not only what those who serve mean to us and what their actions mean to them—most of his subjects emphatically resist the ``idealist'' designation—but also his own part in the equation (as volunteer and witness) and his enduring sources of inspiration: the examples of his own parents; of novelists whose ideas he finds edifying; and of mentors familiar from earlier works. Early on in his career, Coles abandoned the jargon of psychoanalysis and staked out his own territory—and a grateful audience. This work, a wellspring for those touched by ``national service'' headlines, echoes the spiritual tones of previous books and secures the author's place as a peerless interpreter of individual initiative and moral direction. Read full book review >
ANNA FREUD by Robert Coles
Released: Jan. 30, 1992

A slender but rewarding intellectual portrait and appreciation that ultimately reveals as much about Pulitzer Prize-winner Coles (Psychiatry and Medical Humanities/Harvard; The Spiritual Life of Children, 1990, etc.) as his subject. As the author admits, pioneering child psychologist and generous teacher Freud served him as both mentor and model. In fact, the very form of this ``intellectual biography,'' closely following Coles's studies of Simone Weil (A Modern Pilgrimage, 1987) and Dorothy Day (A Radical Devotion—not reviewed), was, he notes, suggested by Freud's helpful comments on those books. What is offered here is not a full-scale biography, then, but a consideration of the effect and the spirit of an unusually self- effacing but undeniably important pathfinder, with the life only briefly outlined and glancingly analyzed. Coles faithfully transcribes various discussions with Freud, supplemented by her thoughtful and revealing letters and by additional comments from such sources as Erik H. Erikson (Freud's analysand) and psychologist Grete Bibring. Coles pays particular attention to the wartime British nurseries established by Freud and her longtime companion Dorothy Burlingham (a relationship he simply characterizes as ``complex''—the author's word for Freud's dealings with her illustrious father as well), to Freud's lectures, and to such important works as The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Reflecting his own preoccupations as much as those of his subject, Coles examines Freud in her overlapping roles as teacher, theorist, healer, leader, idealist, and writer. Ever the visionary, excited by the ``dream'' of the transformative possibilities of psychoanalysis, yet confident (and wise) enough to admit her occasional failures, Freud emerges from this loving if idealized sketch as an unusually open-minded and dedicated, and genuinely laudable, figure. Odd, worthwhile, disappointing. No more than an introduction to Freud's work, but, because of the light it sheds on Coles's thought, of interest to his many admirers. Read full book review >
Released: May 23, 1967

Robert Coles is a psychiatrist who is interested in how people relinquish old ways and take up new ones. He finds the South "Filled with an underground of sly liberals in the midst of situations hardly likely to support their efforts." In a pace-setting study, Dr. Coles investigates and analyzes some twenty persons who represent the spectrum of the South, from the Negro children like Ruby who are "bearers and makers of a tradition" as they Face down the mobs to go to desegregated schools, through their white classmates, both hostile and protective, Negro and white teachers, dealing with their respective backgrounds, the protesters, the integrationist Southerners; the lookers-on and the last ditch standers for segregation. Among the Negroes, Dr. Coles found a remarkable resilience and an incredible capacity for survival (there appeared to be no noticeable correlation between adversity and mental illness); he found too how they prepared for life ("If you are black in Louisiana it is like cloudy weather; you just don't see the sun much."). Seeking the roots of prejudice, he admonishes against "the glee and pride of large-scale answers." Dr. Coles brings his discipline into the world of social interaction and is making a name and place for himself and his work. His book is not popular in tone, but it is reachable, readable. Read full book review >