The author of this remarkable passage was the Romanian-born psychiatrist and sociologist Jacob Moreno, pioneer of sociometry, the visual mapping of human groups and relationships. In 1932, following a pandemic of fourteen runaways at the Training School, Fannie French Morse hired Moreno to be the Research Director of the Institute; and to produce a sociometric study of the School. Moreno and his assistant Helen H. Jennings examined 500 girls, their intelligence, social activities, and above all, their feelings toward each other.
Moreno published his observations and sociograms in his seminal book of 1934, Who Shall Survive? A New Approach to the Problem of Human Interrelations, based on his intense work with the residents of the Training School during several months. As a conclusion Moreno discerned that behind social phenomena there is an inexplicable driving force fomented by the very structure of the relationships between individuals. It was true for the girls from Hudson: their impulse to run away was not conscious, but rather an instinctive response to the location or status forced upon them in the social network.
Moreno’s dedication of Who Shall Survive? to Fannie French Morse reads “Educator and Liberator of Youth,” a startling tribute for a prison superintendent to receive; Moreno was honoring the empathy Morse showed her charges. And indeed, Morse viewed the girls not as “incorrigibles” but as captives of “a tangle of circumstances,” which it was her task to painstakingly unwind; above all, through education, as well as attention to physical health and an obligatory dose of religion.
As noted by Moreno in the passage above, the Training School was a complete world unto itself, centralizing in minute detail a variety of functions which in society at large would operate as separate institutions--housing, workplaces, schools, sports, hospitals, churches--each with distinct philosophies, rules, and practices. Every element of the Training School, in contrast, was suffused by the “invisible government” of “aesthetic principles,” a description by Moreno I find fascinating, but which unfortunately he does not elaborate upon. It is but a clue to the values, preoccupations, and methods Fannie French Morse exerted at the School; we can only guess at how aesthetics figured in issues of order and conduct.
I speculate that Morse was likely a throwback to the American Arts & Crafts Movement of the 1890s, when poor urban girls were elevated from the dismal lot of factory work through training in handicraft, seen as a natural extension of more mundane household skills. (It is noteworthy that Chicago’s Arts and Crafts Society began at Jane Addams’ Hull House, in October 1897, underscoring the alliance between social reform and handicraft begun by William Morris in the 1860s in England.) Although the Training School girls were being prepared for domestic service, the early 20th century understanding of that occupation involved a degree of art and craft, particularly that of fine needlework and embroidery, no longer expected of maids or housekeepers today.
Who Shall Survive? reads, even today, as a radically optimistic approach to emotional healing and potential. In the first chapter, Moreno makes short work of Freud, characterizing sublimation--the goal of Freudian analysis--as a negation of the natural self; at best a dour truce between instinct and the imperatives of organized human life. Moreno calls the Freudian project “negative sublimation...a reversal of the active form of Christian sublimation,” that, far from overcoming Christian doctrine, adopts its strategy, minus its faith, and therefore its hope. If the Christian’s sublimation of instinct is a journey heavenward, the Freudian analysand travels ever backward towards the discouraging cul-de-sac of childhood trauma. “Christianity can be looked at as the greatest and most ingenious psycho-therapeutic procedure man has ever invented compared with which medical psycho-therapy has been of practically negligible effect.” Hail Mary.
Moreno had graduated in medicine in 1917 from Freud’s alma mater, the University of Vienna, and was a practicing psychiatrist near Vienna between 1918 and 1925. He was therefore within the ambit, though decidedly not the circle--or ideology--of Freud. During this time, Moreno founded the improvisational Stegreiftheater, or Theatre of Spontaneity, origin of the therapeutic psychodrama he would develop throughout the next three decades. Where Freud’s highest therapeutic hope for neurotics was “ordinary unhappiness” Moreno was more sanguine; certain from the start that human life could be pleasurable as well as meaningful.
In his autobiography, Moreno recalled an actual encounter with Sigmund Freud in 1912 in which Moreno, all of 23, boldly, even eloquently, differed with the master:
‘"I attended one of Freud’s lectures. He had just finished an analysis of a telepathic dream. As the students filed out, he singled me out from the crowd and asked me what I was doing. I responded, 'Well, Dr. Freud, I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.”’
For Moreno, the word “spontaneity” was both battle-cry and strong medicine. Spontaneity—the positive and natural exercise of volition—was his key to the mental health, indeed, to the happiness of individuals and communities alike, encompassing enterprises and institutions of every kind. Moreno’s experiences at the New York Training School led him not only to ever more nuanced and intricate sociograms of groups--geometric ciphers of peculiar beauty which he published in Who Shall Survive?—but there, in a place of imprisonment, to a psychotherapy dedicated to liberty. And, unlike more orthodox psychotherapists’ concentration on the individual patient as a wretched island of dysfunction, Moreno discerned a fount of psychic well-being and empowerment in finding “elective affinities”: in belonging to a group of one’s own choosing:
“We began to speculate over the possibility of a therapeutic procedure which does not center primarily in the idea of sublimation but which leaves man in the state in which he is spontaneously inclined to be and to join groups he is spontaneously inclined to join, which does not appeal to man either through suggestion or through confessional analysis but which encourages him to stay on the level towards which he naturally tends, which does not forcibly transgress the development of individuals and groups beyond their spontaneous striving as has often been attempted by sublimating agencies. We were developing a therapeutic procedure which leaves the individuals on an unsublimated level, that is on a level which is as near as possible to the level of their natural growth and as free as possible from indoctrination.”
Moreno’s insight into the healing power of relationships and groups entered into freely and by inclination was accurate. Unusual unions, strange for the time, formed in the Training School’s desolate environment: wedding ceremonies, “adoptions” of one girl by another; the bonds of love and belonging he so emphasized as the most potent medicine for human suffering; the elixir of life that eluded Freud. The proverb, “Physician, heal thyself,” comes to mind, but at the Training School it was the “patients” themselves who brought about whatever true healing happened there. In the midst of catastrophe and control, the girls found unlikely loopholes of caring that had been missing from their “homes” of origin.
I have framed at some length the contradictory social, penal and psychological ideologies which underpinned the New York Training School for Girls. Frankly, they fascinate me as examples of how social “change,” “emancipation,” and “help” for the helpless are invariably commandeered and exploited by elites to expand their power rather than part with even a small portion of it. Rebels among reformers are rare; Jacob Moreno was one. Moreno and Morse appear, in my limited research, to have been benevolent, even oppositional figures who likely did their best to bring healing to lives misshapen by abuse and misdirected punishment.
But no voices, not even that of Dr. Moreno crying in the walled wilderness of normative psychology, are as powerful and damning as those of living women who survived the School, their spoken accounts recorded by Alison Cornyn. These residents remember episodes of physical, emotional and sexual abuse so regularly repeated they were in essence systemic. Forced labor, violence, and long stretches in solitary confinement were not sporadic aberrations but methods of “training” integral to the School.
Each spoken vignette also tells of suffering leavened by the nearness of others, both peers and staff, who could, of course, be thorny as well as comforting. Many of the cottage housemothers, known as “Ma” prefixing their surnames, are remembered fondly, kind surrogates who recreated maternal care that in the lives of some residents was the first they had ever received.
The residents themselves invented small pleasures from scant allotments. Much to my admiration, writing appears to have been primary, prim letters home the least of it. The yellowed, polymorphous papers that continue to be unearthed comprise coded communications between residents—love letters among them—and private diaries and calendars.
I especially liked the harsh, pungent words of Liz’s narrative, delivered in a knowing, throaty voice. Liz entered the Training School in 1971 at the age of twelve and ran away four times. She describes her clique, and why they were there:
“We had to be hip, so I was slick -- ’Slick, Sly, Wicked, and Wide’ -- that was the name of our group. Some of the girls were there because of unwanted pregnancies. Some of them were there because they were being sexually molested at home. We were there because nobody wanted us. So, our common bond was that we felt rejected. “
Years later, Liz wrote the following poem, a rhyme of triumph from the trenches. Her walk on the wild side and intact defiance made me rethink this essay:
High heels and pantyhose,
what does it matter? I’m twelve years old.
What does it matter? The things I’ve seen
—More than most at seventeen.
What does it matter that my eyes are black?
Obviously, I deserved that slap
--or was it a kiss?
I can’t remember the cause of this.
Perhaps I stood, and then I fell
and winded up in a grown-up hell.
For sex and drugs, that’s what we did.
Twenty years later it matters, you see,
to the child within me who is finally free.