On Combat Fatigue Irritability: Kerry Kelly Novick Part III

Last fall, Circulating Now featured a unique film in the NLM’s vast historical audiovisual collection, the World War II U.S. Navy training film Combat Fatigue Irritability (1945), directed by and starring Gene Kelly, who was then a rising Hollywood star. This is the third and final part of a three-part interview with Kerry Kelly Novick, a practicing psychoanalyst and the daughter of Gene Kelly and actress Betsy Blair. This series is an edited transcript of our longer conversation with Mrs. Novick, in which she discusses Combat Fatigue Irritability, Gene Kelly, and her own life and career as a psychoanalyst specializing in the treatment of children.

A formal portrait of Kerry Kelly Novick.

Kerry Kelly Novick
Courtesy Kerry Kelly Novick

Circulating Now: Let’s turn to your work and career as a psychotherapist. Can you tell us about your training with Anna Freud? What was that like and how did you come to work with her?

Kerry Kelly Novick: Well I was going to go visit my mother who lived in London, right after college,… when I was 21…. And at that point I was still uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life. I’d always had being a psychoanalyst on my list, but in those days, which was the early ‘60s, the only way to become a psychoanalyst in this country was if you were a medical doctor. And I had an undergraduate degree in comparative literature. So there was no way that I was going to get psychoanalytic training in this country. But, of course, the tradition was completely different in Europe. In Europe, from the very beginning of psychoanalysis, women were trained just as much as men, and non-medical people were trained just as much as medical people. And so I was kind of casting about in my mind about how I was going to go about getting training…. And so at some point in the course of the first few months there, I decided yes, indeed, I did want to be a psychoanalyst. I considered going to medical school but, as they said to me in England, I was a woman, I was a foreigner, and I had an arts background. So medical school was not going to happen.  So I started exploring other avenues and I’d always wanted to work with children. So I investigated the three places in London at the time that one could train as a child analyst.…

Anna Freud smiles from a podium.

Anna Freud
NLM #b0123441

So, I read Anna Freud’s book and Melanie Klein’s book and Margaret Lowenfeld’s book and I visited the three training places and decided that the best fit for me was Anna Freud’s approach, her training place, her book, and presented myself. And they looked at me like I was crazy because here was this 21-year-old American comp-lit person and they said well, you’re too young and you don’t have a psychology degree and you’ve never worked in the field. So, I went off and got a psychology degree the next year and came back and said, “I have the degree.” And they said, but you’ve never worked and you’re still pretty young, because now you’re 22. And so I went off and got a job with the Medical Research Council and volunteered in a psychiatric hospital and then came back to them and presented myself and said, “Okay guys, take it or leave it…. I’ve done what you wanted.” So they said yes, okay, you will be our experiment in youth. We’ll admit you to psychoanalytic training. So, I’m kind of an odd bird in the field because I don’t have a prior professional identity. I am only a psychoanalyst and most people in my field have an alternative professional identity that they had first as a psychiatrist or a social worker or a psychologist. And so I trained as a child analyst, and at that point Anna Freud was in her 70s, and at the peak of her productivity and…her pre-eminence in the field. She was the most important psychoanalyst in the world…. There was some survey done at that time of psychiatrists and psychologists. And she was the top ranked person in the field. So it was an extraordinary experience to train there. I was there for four years as a trainee and then on staff at the Hampstead Clinic until we left England in ‘77. She was the most brilliant person I’ve ever met; funny, shy, slyly witty once she felt comfortable. Completely fluent at formulating, could take detail and put it together in a way that I’ve seen no one do ever since. When she would give a talk, a scientific presentation or a talk at a university,… or get an honorary degree or whatever, she’d have a yellow pad with four sentences written on it and deliver a publication-ready talk. She was formidable and amazing. Also very clear in her ideas, a combination of decisive in her thinking but extremely open-minded. If you were intelligent and you could back up what you said, she’d listen to anything. So, being a rather feisty American young person. I’ve never been one to not speak my mind. I was brought up in a liberal household where the idea of saying what you think, and your right to speak up, was very fostered. It was a very interesting experience to be in the presence of somebody like Anna Freud.

A four story brick building.

The Anna Freud Centre today
Courtesy of the Anna Freud Centre

The other thing that was very interesting about the Hampstead Clinic was that it was a non-profit institution and therefore had independent funding. So it could offer clinical services and various kinds of community services at little or no cost. So the 80 or 90 children or adolescents who were in treatment there at any given time… donated what they could to subsidize their treatments, and those of us who were studying there did not pay any tuition. We were also not paid any stipend, but there were various foundation grants that many of the students were able to have. But the clinic ran a well-baby clinic, a blind babies nursery, a nursery school for the community, all kinds of research departments. So, there was a tradition, that came from Vienna, of free clinics run by psychoanalysts in the community and work with disadvantaged groups like the group of concentration camp children that Anna Freud and her colleagues took care of through and after the war. So all of us who trained there also identified with that tradition of what we called altruistic analysis. And so anybody who trained with Anna Freud, all the people who came to this country as child analysts either as émigrés at the end of the war or subsequently because they trained with Anna Freud in London, we’ve all been active in community efforts…. It’s a very strong and powerful identificatory influence on all of us and a very identity-forming experience to train with her.

CN: Let’s get back to Combat Fatigue Irritability. What was the political atmosphere like when it was made?

KKN: My father was always what one would call a Jeffersonian Democrat, very liberal, very open minded, very invested and steeped in American history. And very clear in his own ideas about what was right, you know, ready to die for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights particularly, very upstanding and loyal to his friends, most of whom were much further left than he, including my mother. Certainly during the war everybody was on the Soviet American Friendship Committee, because they were our allies. And my mother was never a member of the Communist Party, but certainly went to a few meetings and we certainly had many friends in my parent’s circle who were members of the party and certainly many who were later called fellow travelers. …I did grow up in an intensely involved political household… and can’t remember ever not hearing about what was going on politically at every level, from local politics to state politics to national politics to international politics. So, it was in a sense a very sophisticated political upbringing and it continued to be in the atmosphere all my life. But, certainly during the war and right after the war, things were very lively, and again I can’t remember dinner table conversations that weren’t all about all that stuff all the time. And because I was an only child in a household of adults who was included in everything, I was listening all the time to everybody debating and talking and thinking about strategies. …I can remember the 1948 presidential campaign. That’s the first one I have any real memories of, and then I remember working in the next few elections, working very hard for Stevenson… All of that was pretty par for the course around our house. My mother was blacklisted and that coincided pretty much with the time that my family moved to Europe for 18 months in 1952, ‘53. …There was a tax thing where if artists went abroad for 18 months they could save on their income taxes. So that was the structure of our sojourn abroad, but it did also coincide with my mother’s being blacklisted. And then she was kind of reinstated when Hecht Lancaster made Marty and they employed blacklisted writers, directors and actors under their own names. But, certainly the whole circle of friends growing up right after the war and into the ‘50s,… many of our friends went to jail, many of our friends were in the Hollywood Ten. My father went with a group of people from Hollywood to Washington to support the Hollywood Ten at the hearings. The first television we had in our house was bought for the Army-McCarthy hearings and I was kept home from school to watch that on television. So, the political climate was pretty distinct.

CN: Let’s talk now about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how the treatment of patients is depicted in Combat Fatigue Irritability, compared to current treatments of PTSD (which now includes all sorts of traumatic experiences, including criminal assault, sexual assault, accidents, bullying, etc.).

Lauren Gilbert, who plays amilitary psychiatrist, gives medicine to Gene Kelly playing Seaman Bob Lucas.KKN: Yes. I found it fascinating that in the film we see those two treatment methods [abreactive talking therapy and medication], as well as the corpsman’s practical methods. And I thought it was very interesting that there is still this same duality in our treatment approaches, and a continuing ambiguity and tension and confusion… about how to gauge the relative effectiveness of those different approaches and how to combine them for the maximum effectiveness. And we’re in a period of time of ferment in psychology and psychiatry, at the moment where we had a biological psychopharmacologic revolution, starting in the early ‘80s, and that really swept the board. And now we getting the pendulum swinging back a little bit, for two reasons. One, because the psychopharmacologies did not fulfill their early promise. They turn out not to help as much as people wished they would. And two, because the data that they were supposedly based on is increasingly found to be suspect at best and fraudulent at worst. So. we’re really struggling with “oh wait a minute,” we have to go back to more humanistic, more whole person, more psychological methods…, and reexamine all the talk therapies and really look at what can we glean from the various traditions and the new methodologies in that realm. So, I think the direction of research and clinical research now is a promising one from my point of view. Because… we’re beginning to look again at stuff that I’m pretty convinced is relevant, which has to do with relating to people as people and not as conglomerates of chemicals. …We just don’t know enough to think that we can fine-tune things neurologically, chemically yet. Maybe we will someday, but in the meantime, I want to communicate with people’s minds.

CN: Could you say something about the use of history as a resource for us to understand and appreciate where we’ve come from and how we grapple with issues today concerning the care of service members with post-traumatic stress?

KKN: …Harold Bloom said only barbarians are not interested in history and talked about the importance of knowing our history. And there are many ways in which, as a psychoanalyst, I am deeply invested in history, and as a developmentalist I’m deeply invested in history, personal history, because I deal with individuals and individuals within families. But individuals and their families are part of a community. So we are by definition embedded in our cultural and social history as well. What’s fascinating about this film is the way it crystallizes so many of those dimensions….  I think of it as a Russian doll, that… encapsulates all those layers in extraordinarily condensed economical form. …This particular film could be very useful in a number of ways. It’s a lovely slice of what people looked like and seemed like then. The homefront scenes, when Seaman Lucas goes home on leave, are charming. The wardrobe, the costumes, the setting of the household, the way the staircase and the doorways are made—the whole thing is wonderful as a bit of cultural history.

In terms of the medical history: the treatment methodology…There’s a detail that fascinated me. On the blackboard behind the doctor, the psychiatrist, there’s written up in chalk a list of symptoms and those are the same symptoms that are the constellation that we talk about now. On the blackboard it said “insomnia, vomiting, tremor” and that’s what we deal with now. That’s what state-of-the-art current PTSD literature talks about. At a professional conference in New York just this past January 2014, at a discussion of PTSD in veterans, the predominance of insomnia as the first symptom to address, because without addressing sleep disturbances almost nothing else can be dealt with. These things are right there in this movie. So I see this film as a very useful, also because it’s short, a very useful discussion starter. A discussion starter about, how does society think about soldiers? How do we think about mental illness? How do we think about masculinity? How do we think about adult development and the changes that experiences bring in our identities? How do we think about relationships and their evolution? Because there is an emblematic picture of a relationship that was frozen in time. They were engaged right out of high school and then he went away to the war and he comes back two years later. Are they the same people? Can they pick up where they left off? No. Their relationship has to evolve, etc. So, I think there are all kinds of groups that could use this film to start very interesting discussions and those could be medical groups, sociocultural historians, film historians, all kinds of people could find this film fascinating. And I am now terribly intrigued by the rest of your collection of films. So, the other thing that seems very important is to publicize what you guys have here, because… I’m kind of an informed consumer and certainly an informed citizen. And I didn’t know about the National Library of Medicine. I didn’t know it existed. Everybody needs to know about this. This is our National Library of Medicine. We own this. So, I want us all to have access to what you have. I think different professional groups need to know, not just doctors, even though it’s the National Library of Medicine, but all kinds of professional groups need to know what you have here. So… roll on history into the present and the future, because history is about how we got here. It created the present and we are now creating the future. So, let’s make some history more accessible.

Watch the complete interview now.

Preceding Mrs. Novick’s interview in the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, she offered a presentation to the NLM’s Board of Regents and Friends of the NLM, entitled Unique Perspectives on Gene Kelly’s 1945 Film Combat Fatigue Irritability.