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^Shadowing Binx Robert Coles In late 1956 I was a psychiatric resident at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston—and wondering why, not to mention whither. I had stumbled into psychiatry out of frustration, innocence, inadequacy. Indeed, I'd stumbled into medical school for somewhat confused if not inappropriate reasons. As an undergraduate I'd become much taken with the poems and short stories and novels of William Carlos Williams, had been encouraged by Perry Miller, my advisor (and hero) at Harvard, to write my thesis on the first book of Peterson, and thereby had come to correspond with, then get to know, Dr. Williams, who was at the time in good health but who would soon enough be struggling with several illnesses. His writing life was my intellectual concern, but I became interested in the uncanny and (I thought then, and still do) exemplary intensity of his personal commitment to his medical practiœ—to his working-class patients, actually— for all the headaches involved. Such passionate attentiveness to hurt and ailing men, women, children struck me as an edifying contiast to—well, my own late adolescent self-centeredness. Moreover, I was beginning to wonder what the devil I'd be doing with this uncertain stretch of time given each of us, called a life to live. In that regard, I seemed by my junior year badly adrift. Others I knew were headed in one or another direction—and their determination was often in those years after the Second World War a reasonable response to their past experiences as veterans. But I was younger, and my battles were, it seemed, taking place in my head. Once, while seeing Dr. Williams work with his patients (he was an old-fashioned doc who regularly visited the tenements of northern New Jersey, and made no fortune doing so), I told him I was at loose ends and wished there were a doctor like him to attend my dreary ills. He laughed, even as I was half-joking. We then got a bit serious, and when he asked me my "interests," I answered theology and moral philosophy and American literature, all of which, in a way, I was studying with the brilliant and inspiring Perry Miller. Perhaps I could 152 SHADOWING BINX pursue that line of study, connect literature and history with theology in some fashion; but to do so meant going to graduate school, and I had no real inclination in that direction. Instead, I talked of finding a job, any job, and in my spare time reading and thinking about what gets called one's "future." Dr. Williams's response was characteristically quick, sharp, concrete , specific, and yes, impatient: "Try medicine, why don't you! Lots to keep you busy, and lots to make you think. The great thing is— you get to forget yourself a lot of the time." I was properly reprimanded, and prompted to get going—somehow , down some road. And I did. I took the chemistry, the biology, the physics, applied to some schools, and with the help of one very patient, kindly (and I now realize, properly puzzled) interviewer at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, the biochemist Philip Miller, I got into medical school. Once there I continued to flounder badly. I had trouble working in the labs; I had trouble dissecting the cadaver. I would go visit old Doc Williams and tell him I was wasting my time. He said no; he said "stick it out"; he said in the long run I'd be glad I ended up knowing how to use a stethoscope and a neurological hammer and an ophthalmoscope . I argued with him, but was convinced. I got by—but I read lots of novels, and took courses at Union Theological Seminary, and got myself signed up to work in a small hospital in rural India. I was searching for ascetic indulgence, an obligation nurtured in my head by my idealistic mother, who would always tell me how I must "give unto others," and so on and so on—until, at times, as a child hearing that talk, I would want to run and buy a Cadillac or a gold watch...


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pp. 151-160
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