The Early Years

Lee’s Roots

I interviewed Lee over the course of four days. Both before and after that, we have had open and frank conversation about many of the events of his life, his work as a psychiatrist, his woodworking and art collection. This is my synopsis of our conversation.

Lee was born in 1938 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. His father’s side of the family came from Poland and his mother’s side from Hungary, humble beginnings for sure. On his mother’s side, her uncles were kosher butchers and some of those were needed in the small town of Mckeesport, near Pittsburgh, Pa. On the father’s side, Jewish teenagers were subject to the Russian military draft, which was a 25 year nightmare. Families often sent their teen age sons to America to avoid this.

So it was that Lee’s parents were born around the time of the outbreak of World War I, and met at Pittsburgh’s Peabody High. His paternal grandfather came to America in the 1880s and learned the plumbing trade. Later he acquired a gas station that eventually became a full-service repair facility with parking, and this is where his father learned his way around tools and cars.

Marrying soon after high school graduation, Lee’s parents didn’t stay together very long – divorcing when Lee was about 3 ½ years old and he and his older brother were taken by his mother to California where her parents had moved. Lee adds, ”having no real choice if my brother and I were to be part of his life, my father followed her to Los Angeles, and became a very devoted week- end dad. Anyone seeing the things Lee has done in his life will ponder what forces played a role in forming his character, so of course I asked him about each of his parents. He started with his father.

“My intensity and focus undoubtedly was strongly from my father. Once he decided to do something, he was capable of exceptional concentration and commitment. Here is an example: As a sophomore on the Occidental College baseball team, I was gathering a lot of splinters while guys outweighing me by fifty pounds were pounding the ball all over the field, and Occidental had its best team in decades, maybe its best ever. My coach, seeing that I never stopped running, from 3 to 5 pm every afternoon at practice, said, ‘Lee, you’re going to be my starting centerfielder next season and I want you to become a left-handed hitter. Not a switch hitter, just leftie. I want you to spray the ball to the left side, get on base a lot. Like Richie Ashburn of the Phillies.’”

Lee’s father responded with his usual intensity, and, when he heard about this, decided to invent a pitching machine. In those days, only professional teams, and few of those, had such things. He was not an engineer, or anything like that, just a high school graduate, but had grown up working in his father’s full service gas station and knew his way around cars. So, Lee’s father began studying how to make a baseball travel 60 ft. 6 inches at the same speed as a fastball from the pitcher’s Lee would face the next year.

“As I recall, about six months later,” Lee told Falcon, “we had a pitching machine, just outside the kitchen door, powered by a compressor that filled a specially constructed tank, leading to a valve that could release the right amount of air quickly enough to mimic a pitcher’s fast ball.

But where to take practice? No problem.

We drove to San Pedro harbor and found fishermen with netting that was ratty enough to give away. Back to Burbank, and out comes the post hole digger and the 4×4’s, and in a few weeks the back yard is completely enclosed by a batting cage. I’m ready by the summer before my junior year at Oxy to take hitting practice from the left side, every afternoon, for two hours. That’s a lot of swinging, and the results?

Admittedly, the SCIAC athletic conference (Occidental, Pomona, Whittier, etc.) did not include the likes of UCLA or USC–thank heaven—but I was voted all-league in centerfield, while leading the conference champion Oxy Tigers in hitting, on-base percentage, and runs scored.”

As impressive as this ‘turn around’ from right to left-handed hitter was, Lee is quick to put this into perspective. “The point is not to focus on my baseball accomplishments, for those are certainly modest, but the results that desire and focus can bring.”

And while Lee’s mother had a very different personality, without anything like the intense focus of his father, he credits her, in other ways, that he believes are equally important in shaping him. Lee told Falcon that, because she worked while he growing up, she was not about to raise a son who expected intense daily interaction. Instead,

“…my mother always made it clear that, not only was her love total, but that, of course, I could do WHATEVER I chose to do. Every time I brought home those A’s, or other signs of recognition for some achievement, her reaction was a quiet one of acknowledgment, with no need for special rewards or bells and whistles. She simply BELIEVED IN ME. I feel that this has made a real difference, especially during the many struggles with those who have tried to undermine my credibility on those many occasions when I have tried to bring greater understanding of the misuses of psychiatry.”

Early Memories

“My earliest memories,” Lee said during our interview, “are from this time living with my mother and brother.” Lee’s brother was older by 3 ½ years. “After the divorce, we lived at my mother’s parents’ home in east LA. My memories of that time are strongly influenced by the fact that my brother was very jealous of me and tried to make my life miserable whenever he could.” For those of us who have experienced a jealous sibling, it is easy to understand how this experience could have shaped Lee’s younger years. And even if we didn’t have that experience, it is easy to imagine how difficult it would be to know that someone who is supposed to love and care for you, doesn’t – at least not in a supportive, loving way.

As far as why he was jealous, Lee explained, “I did many things well and he didn’t. It wasn’t because I was any smarter, but because, firstly, he had certain physical problems that I didn’t – for example crossed eyes that required glasses.” To make matters worse, he would regularly lose his glasses. “I remember,” Lee said, “the many times he received a lecture on the fact that ‘money doesn’t grow on trees.’ He needed braces on his teeth, and I had neither crossed eyes nor protruding teeth.” “Eventually,” Lee added with a smile, “he was better looking.”

There were other reasons for his brother’s jealousy as well. Lee did well in school – not a particularly difficult thing, if one simply pays attention. “That was easy for me. It was simply my nature, but he didn’t. It wasn’t who he was.” Unfortunately, the relationship between the two brothers was complicated by the fact that Lee excelled athletically. Unlike his brother, an indifferent athlete, Lee was better than most, and made up for his small stature, whether in playground activities like pingpong, dodgeball, or touch football on the street. How it must have rankled his brother to see his peers take notice that the little guy, Lee, was “pretty good,” even able to compete with the bigger boys who were his brother’s age. So, along with the other limitations challenging him, Lee’s brother was faced with a younger brother who was far better athletically and academically. This goes a long way toward explaining the cruel things done to Lee by his brother. Some were so cruel that, to this day, Lee won’t discuss them.

Lessons Learned

“So, because of my brother’s jealousy,” Lee said during our interview, “and the fact that I was doing so well and he wasn’t, perhaps he tried to do whatever he could make my life unhappy. As a child, he couldn’t be expected to see that I was just being who I was. I wasn’t the enemy, but I was just different than he was. I never set out to make him feel badly about himself.”

Said Falcon to Lee during one of the interview sessions, “So, focus, intensity, driven, intelligent…. combined with the experience of intense jealousy shaped the work you would do later in life.”

“I do believe,” Lee said, “that some of my experiences on the wrong side of injustice, with my brother aiding and abetting the cause whenever possible, and small though they may seem now, left their mark, and may partly explain how and why justice came to play such an important part in my work.”

Lee noted that his relationship to his brother wasn’t the only experience that shaped his life and his passion. One experience proved especially important. “Growing up,” Lee told Falcon, “there was an informal touch football league at the local playground. Our street had the best team that won every game by large margins. I really wanted to be on that team even though I was so little and so much younger than the others. When I told the other players that I thought I could play well enough to be on the team, they responded, ‘Not as long as that gypsy kid we see you with is your friend. One or the other.’

I was miserable and didn’t know what to do. Either option seemed terrible, and I knew they had no right to make such a demand. Finally, the next day my ‘friends’ told me it was all a big joke. I don’t know if my brother was the instigator of this plan, but he certainly did nothing to put a stop to it.”

The College Years

Meeting Lone. Her role in the Collection, My Life, My Woodworking

I met Lone in early June 1963. I was finishing a four-month adventure in Europe, travelling all over the Continent, between my junior and senior years of medical school. She was sitting on a bench at the end of a bridge over a canal in Copenhagen, wearing shorts and a nice little top, looking fine and reading a book in the sun. I was on my way from Tivoli Gardens to Christiansborg Palace, formerly the King’s residence, but now the Parliament Building as well as the facilities to house the Royal horses and staff.

She sat at that location because her mother’s husband was the Riding Master of the Royal House of Denmark, a job he ultimately held for 45 years, training horses for official ceremonies and training the children of the royal family to be equestrians that would be a credit to the Nation.

Lone, I found, was living for a short while with her mother and stepfather on the Royal Grounds because she was getting ready to temporarily work in London with a friend. Both girls were fully trained but new physical therapists, had applied to work at Guys Hospital in London, been accepted, and would be going to London in just a few weeks.

Things were going well, I assumed, because she asked me after only a few moments of conversation, if I would like to see where the horses and the carriages were kept. I immediately had images of haystacks and all the rest. That didn’t happen, sadly, but she did follow up by asking if I would like to stay and have lunch with her mother. It was just a short walk to the apartment her mother shared with her husband, a part of the royal apartments at Christiansborg Palace. I met her mother, had lunch, and, as I left, I was in possession of a phone number, and a date to meet Lone at Tivoli the next day.

That happened, and we planned something else for the next day. I was to pick her up at her front door, and, we were going to see something else in Copenhagen before I had to leave to continue my European peregrinations. But now something happened that could have led to one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

As I walked up to the door for that last date, I spied a note on the door. It said, “Lee, I’m sorry but my grandmother is sick and I have to visit her.” I didn’t believe it, crumpled the note, threw it down, and left.

That might have been it, but I decided later that, since I couldn’t be sure, I would follow up on an earlier agreement we had made that, when I arrived in London a few weeks later (I also was going to England to start a three month elective psychiatry class), I could look her up at Guys Hospital. When I did that, it was obvious that whether or not she had lied about her Grandmother (she had), she was glad to see me. We saw each other regularly, every weekend, that Summer of 1963, alternating between London and Ipswich, where I was living. By September, I had to return to Chicago to finish med school. I asked Lone if she was interested in visiting the US, and she agreed, so the plan was for her to meet me in June as I was graduating, then we would drive to wherever my internship would be. So, in June 1964 we drove to Seattle, where I interned in Pediatrics, and, she worked as a physical therapist at a local hospital. We married in May 1965.

It was that same year, 1965, at the Denver Art Museum, that we bought our first Native American object, a 4’x6’ Navajo rug. Our tastes were always very similar, I was the one who was quicker to spend the money because the object moved me. Lone the more frugal and careful one. This pattern has continued to this day, but grown to the extent that, years ago, she started regularly telling me to “STOP!, we don’t need any more.” So, I say it is “my” collection simply because it would not be a significant collection if I did not have the desire, the recklessness, the emotional and spiritual connections that are at the heart of what the collection means, we would simply just have a few items of the sort you see in the house.

But it is just as true is that, if it were not for Lone, the collection would not exist. 99 out of 100 wives would have simply put their foot down, and I would have had to choose between their wishes and my own. Even I am not so foolish as to give up Lone for a few lousy “knick-knacks,” as my mother used to call them. So, without Lone’s love and devotion to my wishes, I would just be another “sad sack” doctor in Berkeley.

The same is true of the woodworking. She is, of course, proud of the nice things I have made, but, in fact, she is uncomfortable with having such a house filled with such outstanding things, either made or purchased by me. It is “showing off,” something rather frowned upon in Danish culture, or at least some part of it that Lone has absorbed. When friends come over, I hope to show them around, and I know most are curious. I wait until they ask, which most people will not do, and so most often they act as though they are uninterested. This is not a happy experience for me.

So, you ask what is her role in my life? I joke around and say, “Without her I would be found in the gutter some day, with flies buzzing around.” Is that a joke, a gross exaggeration? Well, maybe, but on the other hand….”

The Early Professional Years

How I Became A Psychiatrist

“I ‘decided’ to become a doctor when I was about twelve years old. Of course, I understood nothing about what that meant, only that my Jewish family and relatives never tired of saying, whether to me or others, ‘Be a professional, best is a doctor.’ So, as a quick little kid who liked to please, I ‘decided’ to be a doctor.”

Lee attended Occidental College in Pasadena, where he was a pre-med major. “0f course, I left all the other pre-meds in the dust, on my way to graduating phi beta kappa and magna cum laude.” By graduation Lee realized that physical medicine, from internal medicine to pediatrics, etc., was not what he wanted. By then Lee was captivated by biochemistry, the new molecular biology, etc., and Lee knew that MD’s could elect to have a career in medical research. “So off to medical school I went, the University of Chicago, 1960, armed with the same text books I would use for the next two years, already underlined because I had used them at Occidental. The first quarter I got A’s in every class, and received a scholarship for ‘anticipated academic excellence.'”

By the end of the first year, Lee’s enthusiasm for the new biology and a career as a medical researcher had also waned. That had an unexpected impact on Lee’s life. “I had finally developed in ways other than getting A’s in school,” Lee said rather irreverently to Falcon, “I could now get laid, because I had discovered late at Occidental that the primary sex organ, the mouth – the organ of the soul – had become rather well developed in this formerly all to eager little Jewish boy.”

This was a time when Lee discovered he had interests other than medicine. “I also began to be interested in history, literature, politics, psychology, the world. The question was, ‘What am I going to do now? Do I have to drop out of medical school and start over again?’ That prospect didn’t appeal to me at all, so, during my sophomore year, I mentally began to look around to see if I could find something in medicine that would fit with my interest in the world, and take advantage of what I now realized fully — I had a talent for talking about things that would capture someone’s attention.”

That would prove to be a realization that would change Lee’s life. “May be,” he thought, “I could help people — isn’t that what doctors do? — by talking with them. Psychiatry, I guess.”

From that point on, Lee’s direction has never wavered, and he pursued a career in psychiatry with all the passion and intensity he had pursued everything in his life. But Psychiatry, Lee would soon discover, was anything but a science. “Psychiatry always had hidden flaws based on its place as a branch of medicine – something that goes back to the fact that medical doctors were put in charge of asylums in the 19th century. Psychiatry has deteriorated to the point that it is little more than a vehicle to use drugs for someone’s convenience, whether the patient’s or society’s.”

And that realization would shape Lee’s life-work, and, ultimately, it would take Lee in a completely unexpected direction – to art, woodworking, and mingei.

The Skeptical Psychiatrist

For those of us who know Lee, he is a passionate, thoughtful person who is singularly caring and compassionate. His role as “skeptical psychiatrist” is a case in point. It isn’t about disrupting the system for the sake of disruption. Not at all. Lee’s concerns about the validity and viability of psychiatry are grounded in his experience as a psychiatrist and in his professional practice. This video speaks to Lee’s concerns and insight.