Leston Havens began writing essays seriously during the post-war years.
He decided that he wanted to spend a third of his time in practice, a third in teaching and a third in writing.
This is the arrangement that he eventually made with Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Mental Health Center, and The Cambridge Hospital.
Early in his seventy-year writing career, he wrote a great deal about “existentialism and the soul”, not a common subject within The Department of Mental Health.
Later he systematically deconstructed, reconstructed and re-interpreted schools of medical and psychological thought. He often invented new and workable ways of approaching those individuals who were in need of understanding while also leading his students down new avenues of thought and practice.
He said about the writing process,
“You must experience just being there, having nothing said but just go into yourself. It is the way you learn to write and find out what you want to say. You cannot push it, only wait until it appears”
Most mornings Havens read every section of the New York Times, often tearing out a variety of pieces that he kept in a large drawer to think about later. There were news clips on murders political thought, but also on poetry, book reviews, chemical experiments, and the like.
Next to his writing chair was a stack of journals and books to be read anew, reviewed or re-visited.
These included journals of medicine, neurology or science and new books written by former students or colleagues. Books by and about Conrad, Dickinson, Harbermas, Cezanne and Hadrian all resided in that stack.
Havens knew writers and artists needed uninterrupted periods of time order to let their ideas emerge.
For him, it was four to five mornings a week. In order to focus his energy on the goals central to his work, he avoided both the seeking of notoriety and attendance at most meetings.
All of Havens’s books, papers, lectures, and poems were written with a narrow tip roller ballpoint pen on yellow legal pads. He did not dictate nor use a computer.
Truly one of his greatest pleasures was putting his pen to paper.
“The first book I wrote, which was my effort to teach myself about the field, was called Approaches To The Mind in which I tried to compare the schools. One of the things which puzzled me about psychiatry was that there didn’t seem to be such a thing-there was organic psychiatry, analytic psychiatry, behavioral psychiatry, and two things that were coming along, social and interpersonal psychiatry, and existential psychiatry. Then I realized that very little of what psychiatry was had been taught to me. I was helped by reading Jaspers General Psychopathology. So I decided I would teach myself psychiatry. And so I undertook to review the whole history or psychiatry and try to figure out not people’s ideas, but what they had observed. The first book was my attempt to re-tell the story in terms of facts and methods. And what I got through I thought I had come upon something that I had no idea about when I stared… and that was that the methods of the work, the psychological perspective from which you did your work, was fundamental, like a microscope. And so I set about and tried to understand how you work, how you talk, exactly, if you talk. It was obvious that this was a problem, because psychiatry had a tradition of oscillating back and forth between giving orders and asking questions on one side, or doing nothing as in psychoanalysis, on the other. And yet it was obvious that there were things you could do which would be interesting.”
Unpublished interview 1995
“I figured out what Sullivan did and I wrote a book about it called Participant Observation, and it was exciting and also scary because after I had written the book another book came out at The White Institute in New York New explaining and giving detail of Sullivan’s supervision of schizophrenics and I had never seen that material. I had seen parts of it, but not the whole thing. So here was the test of whether my ideas about what he actually did were correct. It was the raw material. So it was very anxiety provoking really. It was a marvelous demonstration of what I was talking about. I had that independent confirmation. So that whole project of how we position ourselves psychologically, which at first I took up, I think in too technical and schematic a way, was helpful in terms of figuring out what was and was not useful in some circumstances.”
Excerpt from 1990’s interview
“One of the recent books I wrote is called Coming to Life and I thought that’s what the idea is, that people should come to life. The two tests that I trust most in judging whether I have been useful is: one, whether a person’s appearance changes. They just seem more alive. I think I can tell when people are dying. I have been very prophetic. I think a lot of people die when they get psychologically stuck, so I think the idea is to break out of that.
The other test is they change their friends. Most human friendship I see is not good for people. It makes them stuck in some way. Women have too many friends, but men in America don’t have many friends. So the men suffer from the lack of friends, the women suffer from too many because some of their friends are feeding off them. So if you have people who both respect you and enjoy you that’s friendship. That isn’t very common. So if a person’s appearance changes and their friends change then I think maybe we are getting somewhere.”