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Psychoanalysis as a Weapon

October 13, 2006Murray N. Rothbard

Tags BiographiesOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

This article was a keynote address given at a conference entitled Asclepius At Syracuse: Thomas Szasz, Libertarian Humanist.

Thomas Szasz is justly honored for his gallant and courageous battle against the compulsory commitment of the innocent in the name of "therapy" and humanitarianism.

But I would like to focus tonight on a lesser-known though corollary struggle of Szasz: against the use of psychoanalysis as a weapon to dismiss and dehumanize people, ideas, and groups that the analyst doesn't happen to like. Rather than criticize or grapple with the ideas or actions of people on their own terms, as correct or incorrect, right or wrong, good or bad, they are explained away by the analyst as caused by some form of neurosis. They are the ideas or actions of neurotic, or "sick," people: so if the people themselves are not to be incarcerated in institutions as "mentally ill," then their ideas or attitudes may be treated in the same manner.

The unspoken assumption, of course, is that ideas or actions congenial to the analyst don't need "explaining" by psychoanalytic or other psychodynamic theories. Since they don't need "explaining," the implication is that they are normal, correct, and good, though of course no analyst, in his role as the embodiment of "value-free science," would ever be caught dead using such terms. For if he did so, he would have to take the ideas or actions of his opponents seriously, and set forth an explicit moral theory in doing so. He would not be able to dismiss them as "sick" or as people who are uniquely in need of being "explained."

In his excellent critique of the new discipline of "psycho-history," which specializes in this sort of methodology, the eminent historian Jacques Barzun uses the term "psychologizing," which he trenchantly defines as

the practice of taking an utterance or an action not at its face value as an expression of straightforward desire or purpose, but as an involuntary symptom which, when properly interpreted, discloses a meaning hidden from the agent and from common observers.1

It is no accident that the psychologizing of the psycho-historians has been used mainly against uncongenial people and groups. In the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler has been the most subject to this treatment, so much so that until recent years it was hard to find an American historian who did not dismiss him as a neurotic, psychopath, or psychotic. One of the problems with this analysis, of course, is that not only Hitler and his immediate followers, but also the entire German nation must then be treated as neurotic or psychotic. Not only does this strain the limits of credulity, but it must then be explained why the Germans suddenly became neurotic in 1933 and shucked off their alleged collective neurosis rather quickly twelve years later. Presumably their child rearing methods, or whatever, did not change radically before or after this time period. Three decades ago, there was a rash of psychoanalytic anthropological "explanations" of the allegedly totalitarian character of all Russians and Japanese, "explaining" such by their toilet training or their being swaddled in early childhood; but since then, the Japanese, at least, seem to have made a remarkable recovery from their toilet training.

As a sample of psychoanalytic techniques used in "explaining" Adolf Hitler, we have the distinguished psychoanalyst Walter Langer, brother of the leading champion of psycho-historians. Langer talks of

the fact that as a child he [Hitler] must have discovered his parents during intercourse. An examination of the data makes this conclusion almost inescapable [Here Barzun notes that the data "are some remarks not even hinting at such an event"], and from our knowledge of his father's character and past history, it is not at all improbable. It would seem that his feelings on this occasion were very mixed.2

It is safe to say that, without the cloak of the pseudo-science of psychoanalysis at his command, any such use of historical evidence would have been quickly laughed out of court.

In twentieth-century America, Richard Nixon has been treated most to the ministrations of the psycho-historians. Reviewing a psycho-historical book on Nixon, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt–no admirer of the President–wrote in The New York Times:

And as for the significance [read into the] fact that after the predawn chat with antiwar students at the Lincoln Memorial Mr. Nixon ate "corned beef hash with an egg on it" for the first time in five years ("After the catharsis, an acceptable short regression in orality")–such an insight is enough to give pause to even true believers in psycho-history.3

Freud's dissection of Woodrow Wilson was so savage that even devoted Freudians and psycho-historians blanch at it in great embarrassment.4  And currently, we can see the psychodynamic weapon at work in the press and media accounts of the Muslims in Iran and Afghanistan. Let us note that the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers are uniformly dismissed as crazy, extremist "fanatics"; yet very similar and neighboring Muslim "fanatics" in Afghanistan are treated as "heroic freedom fighters" who battle Soviet tanks with their bare hands. Clearly, it all depends on whether people are "our" fanatics of "theirs." "Our" fanatics are heroes; "theirs" are psychopaths.

I hasten to add that I too find none of these people congenial; I'm sure I would find neither Hitler, Wilson, Nixon, nor the Ayatollah charming dinner or cocktail party companions. But surely I am not to be permitted to transform these aesthetic judgments into a "value-free science" that dismisses them all as simply one or another species of neurotic or psychotic. Besides, why do I have to like everyone?

Psycho-history has most often been used as a weapon against radical groups in the past. Any radical group that challenged the status quo is assumed ipso facto to be crazy or neurotic, people whose ideas and behavior have to be "explained." The "explanation" of course is never that they had perceived what they considered to be a grave injustice in society and were trying to set it right. Whether their theory of justice is correct or not is really beside the point. The point is that the psycho-historian has always implicitly assumed that the status quo, whatever it is, is normal, so that opposition to it is neurotic and abnormal and needs "explanation."

The leading example of this smear of radicals through psychologizing has been the conventional historians' treatment of abolitionists, a treatment that has only been modified in recent years. In setting themselves squarely and openly against what they considered the monstrous injustice of slavery, the abolitionists, especially the militant Garrisonian wing, let themselves in for psycho-historical abuse as well as vilification during their lifetime. Thus, the popular textbook by Hofstadter, Miller, and Aaron refers to William Lloyd Garrison as "wayward" and "neurotic." Hazel C. Wolf, in her revealingly titled work, On Freedom's Altar, the Martyr Complex in the Abolition Movement, describes the abolitionist Theodore Weld as someone who "gloried in the persecution he suffered," and who "lovingly wore the martyr's crown of thorns." As for poor Garrison, "he had a mania for uniqueness and attention." Perhaps the basest rhetoric–to use Szasz's stirring term–was David Donald's outrageous and patently untrue assertion that the abolitionists were dismayed at the freeing of the slaves because it ended a crusade which had brought them "purpose and joy"; Lincoln as emancipator was for them "the killer of the dream." To wrap it up, Professor Donald manages to smear the abolitionist and laissez-faire Senator Charles Sumner as impotent and latently homosexual, and to conclude that "This holy blissful martyr thrived upon his torments."5

The base message in all this is clear. Radicals who see injustice in the status quo are neurotic; if they are persecuted, who cares, for after all that's what they really wanted; and whether or not they achieved their goals doesn't matter because they cared not about the goal but only about the trouble-making struggle itself.6

Blaming radicals for their own persecution is akin to another reversal tactic frequently practiced by Freud. Thus, in one of my favorite works of Tom Szasz–the unfortunately neglected Karl Kraus and the Soul Doctors–Szasz writes of Freud's response when one of his entourage, Fritz Wittels, delivered a psychoanalytic "character assassination" (as Szasz correctly calls it) of Freud's brilliant critic, Karl Kraus. Freud's reaction was that "we have reason to be grateful to Wittels for making so many sacrifices." On which Szasz comments:

This is one of Freud's characteristic verbal tricks, which he often applied to his own attacks on others as well; it is not Kraus who was sacrificed by Wittels, but Wittels who has sacrificed himself! It is a good tactic if one can get away with it, and, by and large, Freud got away with it.7

Of all the abolitionists, the most hated and denounced as neurotic or psychotic by psycho-historians was the most radical of the lot, John Brown. Brown not only denounced slavery, he took up arms against it; in doing so, he killed people. To denounce war or killing as neurotic or psychotic per se would condemn a large portion of the human race, past and present. Moreover, Brown was grim and had no sense of humor. He spoke of slavery as a sin, and of the necessity of "purging this land with blood." But then, all the evangelical pietists of the day spoke in similar terms. They–and this means the bulk of the Protestant sects in the Northern United States from 1830 or so onward–were deeply religious, and they believed it their bounded duty for their own salvation to do their best to "make society holy" and to "purge this land of sin."

Most evangelical pietists were grim, humorless folk, and their definition of sin unfortunately went far beyond a libertarian hostility to slavery; Demon Rum, gambling, the breaking of the Sabbath, and membership in the Roman Catholic Church stood, in their eyes, as almost as sinful as slavery, and once slavery was out of the way, most of them determined to use force, if necessary, to purge the land of these activities too. So, as I said earlier, none of these people, not Garrison, and certainly not John Brown, would have made charming cocktail party companions. But this does not make them "neurotic" or "sick"; just passionate and determined men who found sin and injustice, some in areas where I would agree and other where I would emphatically disagree.

Neither does John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry qualify him as a nut because the raid manifestly failed. Brown's raid was based on cogent theories of guerrilla warfare, and particularly on a plan set forth a year earlier by the libertarian Lysander Spooner. The idea was to get arms in a dramatic and much-publicized raid, and then to go off into the hills to form what we would now call guerrilla foco in the South, which would attract runaway slaves, and which could be used as a base for guerrilla raids upon slaveholders, either freeing numbers of slaves or holding the masters as hostages and forcing them to set the slaves free.8

Generally, radicals are dismissed by psycho-historians as people with Oedipal problems, people who, in their unresolved hostility to "the father," are lashing out at the State, or at contemporary institutions. Fortunately, however, psychoanalysis also provides us with a tu quoque, or "you're another," weapon as a counter-punch. For radicals can always retort: "No. You, in defending the State and the current status quo, are neurotically attached to your father!" Both sets of nonsense, it seems to me, cancel each other out, and then we can all turn to substantive matters.

The availability of this counter-thrust is part of the methodological weakness that psychoanalysis shares with other determinist creeds. For all determinist beliefs implicitly assume that the determinist is magically exempt from the determined system and that he, at least, possesses free will and the ability to learn the truth.

As Jacques Barzun points out:

Psycho-historians see others moved by unconscious forces that distort vision and compel strange behavior, but they assume themselves to be clear transmitters of light and judgment. Why is their vision of persons and events not blurred and skewed as well, and their interpretations forced upon them by dark needs rather than evidential reasons?9

Or, as Kraus wistfully put it: "I would be satisfied if I could convince a person who asserts something about psychology that, in his own unconscious, he really means something quiet different from what he says."10

The reductive psychoanalytic smear has not only been used against particularly uncongenial individuals or against radical persons and groups. It has often been used as virtually a cosmic and systematic assault on art and creativity itself. Karl Kraus aptly terms this process calling and using urns as chamber pots.

Thus, Norman O. Brown has led the psychoanalytic pack in literally reducing Martin Luther's famous revelatory insight about the meaning of God's "righteousness" to instantaneous relief in the privy from life-long constipation. Among other things, this illustrates the fallacy of reducing the thoughts and actions of countless millions of unique individuals to the permutations and combinations of a small handful of alleged childhood neuroses. After all, there have been in human history many millions of constipated people; but there has been only one Martin Luther. Furthermore, it turns out that Luther in fact achieved this revelation not in the privy but while seated at his worktable in a tower-room while preparing his lecture notes.11 But I am sure that such a trivial detail as the actual fact will put no crimp in what we might, in a bit of black humor, call the "romantic" Freudian view of Luther's insight.

Similarly, there are Karl Kraus's strictures against the psychoanalytic dictum that Wagner's Flying Dutchman was created "out of his desire, as a little boy, for … being as big as his father, for doing what his father did…." Kraus comments that "the psychologists insist that these same desires lurk in the minds of all little boys," but that, "after all, of all the males in the world, only one, namely Wagner, has created this piece of work." Kraus goes on sardonically: "most of the others have become, out of their desires to be like their father, stockbrokers or lawyers, tram-conductors or music critics. Those, of course, who dreamt of becoming heroes became psychologists."12

Of all his own works, Freud felt the greatest fondness for his well-known essay on Leonardo da Vinci.13 As Barzun points out, Freud's dissection of Leonardo is "often cited … as a model of what psychoanalytic interpretation can bring out that nobody else had seen."

But, as Barzun comments, it seems doubtful

(1) that Leonardo was a homosexual because his father abandoned him to his mother and thus fostered a one-sided relationship (but the father's abandonment has been disputed and one diagnostic incident has been show false, owing to a mistranslation of a key Italian word); And (2) that Leonardo's habits as an artist–e.g. not finishing work begun–derive from this now disputed sexual development. Here determinism breaks down at the first contrary instance, say, Goethe, who also found finishing difficult, though he grew up with two parents and was an energetic heterosexual.14

Speaking of Goethe, we have Freud's dismissal of the collected works of this great man as merely a "means of self-concealment" of his drive toward masturbation. Denouncing a Freudian who had dismissed Goethe's Sorcerer's Apprentice as evidence of a masturbatory drive, Kraus trenchantly attacked the "moral baseness" of this statement, and then continued "that one realizes, with a sense of desperation, that even if everyone masturbated, still no Sorcerer's Apprentice would necessarily be created."

Kraus caustically applauds this psychoanalytic tactic for supplying "spiritual tranquilization" to the "weakling" who "can continue to masturbate, but with greatly improved prospects; for now he knows that this is the cure for Goethe's Sorcerer's Apprentice."15

Kraus's point about "spiritual tranquilization" reminds me of a point on which I have long ruminated. Psychoanalysts assure all of us that people who are insufferably boastful and arrogant only seem to be brash and self-confident: down deep, we are soothingly informed, this arrogance is only a mask for profound feelings of timidity and inferiority. Similarly, thin and unhappy people, or people suffering on diets, are reassured by the analysts that fat people only seem jolly and happy; that this jollity is only a cloak for misery and despair.

But, why can't this principle of reversal, this switch between appearance and reality, work both ways? That is, why can't we just as well say that the seeming timidity of supposedly fearful and hesitant people is only a cloak for their bold self-confidence? Or even, that the seeming misery and unhappiness of many skinny people is only a cloak masking their joy and well-being?

The eminent philosopher Donald Williams makes a similar point in the course of his brilliant and blistering critique of an attempt by the psychoanalytically-oriented philosopher Morris Lazerowitz to reduce to rubble all the philosophies and philosophers which he dislikes or does not comprehend. Lazerowitz had claimed that the philosophers of absolute idealism were merely people who felt inadequate and were trying to "both conceal and to express a wish" that they were dead.

Williams comments:

The last quality that a historian would attribute to the age of Victorian neo-Hegelianism would be suicidal self-distrust; and absolute idealists in general, including Eleatics, Stoics, Vedantists, Spinozists, Hegelians, Transcendentalists, and Christian Scientists, have always seemed an almost offensively complacent and magisterial crew who regard being dead as much less an advantage than a disadvantage. It is open to Mr. Lazerowitz's partisan to say that a magisterial look may cloak a feeling of inferiority, but the nemesis of all such methodology of dissimulation is that it equally permits our party to insist that the inner state of the absolute idealists is in fact a thousand times more complacent than their outer mien.16

Lazerowitz's tactics are instructive. Thus, in his demolition of Spinoza, he places great stress on Spinoza's view that the concept that every event has a cause is a necessary truth. Conveniently ignoring the fact that Spinoza was in a great philosophic and scientific tradition from Aristotle onward, Lazerowitz confidently attributes this belief to Spinoza's alleged anxiety–an anxiety inferred from no independent historical evidence whatever–over the suspected role of his father in his own procreation. But, as Williams points out, Spinoza had previously adopted a different metaphysic, and only chosen this view on reading a particular philosopher, one H. Crescas.

As Williams states, "One thing certain about the facts of Spinoza's childhood is that they did not alter when he changed his metaphysics."17 Or, as Sidney Hook points out, philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey "have profoundly changed their philosophical views in the course of their lifetime…. [But] since they had only one childhood and since there is no evidence that their patterns of personality changed, psychology, and particularly psychoanalysis, seems as irrelevant to explaining any philosophical doctrine they hold as the milk they imbibed as infants."18

To return to Spinoza, Williams makes a charming point in comparing Spinoza with the contrasting arch-skeptic David Hume:

A general consideration of the differences between the house-holds of Spanish-Dutch Jews and of small Scottish lairds yields no clear assurance that Hume, who vigorously denied the necessity of the causal law, had fewer unsatisfied curiosities about the principles and practice of human procreation than Spinoza…. But if we must impose some Freudian interpretation on Spinoza's doctrine of linear causation, we should observe that his Proposition XXXVI, immediately preceding Mr. Lazerowitz's main citation, declares, not that events must have causes, but that they must have effects, so that it is much less likely that Spinoza was wondering whether he had had a father than whether he was going to have a baby.19

Sidney Hook points out further, in a point applicable to psycho-histories of radical groups as well as of philosophers, that "All attempts to correlate or explain philosophical beliefs by psychological temperament and/or childhood experience" are defeated by the fact that "every system of philosophy has been fervently believed by individuals of the most diverse temperaments and psychological histories." But perhaps Donald Williams says it all when, after his detailed dissection of Lazerowitz, he concludes that

psychoanalysis … will, so far as the reader can tell, provide a rule of analogy or a rule of contraries as suits the ulterior purpose; it will accept any bit of biography as witness to any sort of neurosis, and any sort of neurosis as source of any sort of philosophy, permitting different neuroses to be matched with the same philosophy, and conversely, not merely on different occasions but on the same occasion; and as if this were not scope enough, it allows the advocate to invent the symptoms, the neuroses, or the philosophies at need.20

And we can conclude our discussion of psycho-history with Jacques Barzun's account of the statement made by The History of Childhood Quarterly–the leading journal of psycho-history–that its article, "'Childhood and the Bible' … argues why the Bible is a coherent story of the intra-family struggle and asks if the history of the West may not more usefully be described as a part of the history of childhood rather than the other way around." Barzun retorts that such a summation of Western civilization "eliminates the meaning of childhood (by eliminating that of adult) and destroys both the religious and the historical significance of the Bible (by reducing its contents to side effects of the bed and the bassinet)." As Barzun concludes, the efforts of the psycho-historians "are evidently to dispose of history and civilization, of human error and achievement, rather than contemplate them."21

On art and literature, Karl Kraus is hardly wide of the mark when he concludes that "The ultimate aim of psychoanalysis is to attribute art to mental weakness, and then trace the weakness back to the point where, according to analytic dogma, it originated–namely, the lavatory."22 And there is Kraus's more general and rather stirring remedy for the plague of psychoanalyzers: "Nerve doctors who pathologize genius should have their heads bashed in with the collected works of the genius."23

I conclude by noting that, as an economist, I am trained to look to economic influences, which in their own way are often fully as masked as the alleged messages from the Freudian unconscious. To me the most insightful moment in the famous Watergate scandal came when Woodward, confused and dispirited, all of his clues and leads barren, went to his mentor "Deep Throat" for what seemed the last time and pleaded for help. "Keep your eye on the money," was the magisterial reply that unlocked the hidden door. In our sometimes confusing world where patient and therapist seem to be all mixed in and mixed up in one giant heap, it is often helpful to keep our eye on the "from whom–to whom" question, that is: "from whose pocket and to whose pocket is the money flowing?"

Psychoanalysis as a weapon can often be used to acquire much of the long green. The late Eugene Burdick once wrote about how he made good use of his enchantment with psychoanalysis in college. He would ask his roommate to lend him money, the roommate would refuse, and then Burdick would pull out his psychoanalytic armamentarium, "explaining" his roommate's refusal in the usual scurrilous manner.

When the roommate hotly denied these psychoanalytic allegations, Burdick then pounced with the famous Freudian weapon of "resistance."

"Aha! The very intensity of your denial demonstrates that I am right!"

This is what we might call the "heads-I-win-tails-you-lose" tactic. And when his hapless friend thought to counter by denying the psychoanalytic smear calmly instead of heatedly, Burdick triumphantly rebutted: "Ahh, this is what we call 'control,' that's even worse than resistance."

Needless to say, the roommate always came up with the dough.

Lest this be considered an isolated instance, I rest my case with a recent news story:

Psychoanalyst William Sulzer relieved his patients' guilt–by relieving them of their money. He allegedly borrowed $275,000 from at least 15 patients in chunks as large as $91,000 … Sulzer put out his shingle in 1970 but started to have money problems within three years, according to the complaint…. "He lived very high," said Asst. Attorney General Melvyn Leventhal. "He had an elaborate and exciting life-style." The $50-an-hour therapist apparently decided the solution to his money headaches kept walking through his office door.

How did he persuade patients to lend thousands, at times interest free?

"That was one of the great mysteries," 24Leventhal said. "One or two had problems handling money and he convinced them that lending it to him would be good therapy." Clients often spent their entire therapy sessions haggling over the loans and trying to get their money back, the complaint alleged. Some patients needed treatment elsewhere to ease "the resulting anxiety and stress over the loan transactions … " Leventhal said the problem, while not common, is "persistent." Although Sulzer denied wrongdoing, he can be cited for contempt, and possibly jailed, if he tries it again, Leventhal said. But can he still be a therapist? Sure, the prosecutor said.


  • 1. Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-history, Quanto-History, and History, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 7n.
  • 2. Walter C. Langer, The Mind of Adolf Hitler (New York, 1972), p. 151.
  • 3. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times, May 11, 1972; quoted in Barzun, Clio, p. 84n.
  • 4. Thus, see Paul Rozen, "Freud and Woodrow Wilson," in P. Rozen, ed. Sigmund Freud, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973), pp. 168ff.
  • 5. Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron, The American Republic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1959), I, 463; Hazel C. Wolf, On Freedom's Altar, the Martyr Complex in the Abolition Movement (Madison, Wisc., 1952), pp. 3-4; David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered (New York, 1956), pp. 36,61; David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, 1961), pp. 176, 290, 295, 336. In particular, see the discussion in Fawn M. Brodie, "Who Defends the Abolitionist?" in M. Duberman, ed., The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 63-67; and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "William Lloyd Garrison and Antislavery Unity: A Reappraisal," in R. Swierenga, ed., Beyond the Civil War Synthesis: Political Essays of the Civil War Era (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975), pp. 309-310.
  • 6. In trying to defend the abolitionists from the smear of psycho-historians, Professor Duberman, himself a radical but psychoanalytically-oriented historian, gets entangled in reductive psychologizing of his own against the abolitionists. Thus, see Martin Duberman, "The Northern Response to Slavery," in Duberman, Anti-Slavery Vanguard, pp. 407ff.
  • 7. Thomas Szasz, Karl Kraus and the Soul-Doctors: A Pioneer Critic and His Criticism of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Baton Rouge, la.: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), p. 35. Freud's response is recorded in H. Nunberg and E. Federn, eds. Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (New York: International Universities Press, 1967), II, 391.
  • 8. Thus, see Wyatt-Brown, "William Lloyd Garrison," pp. 321-322.
  • 9. Barzun, Clio, p. 48.
  • 10. Szasz, Karl Kraus, p. 114.
  • 11. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), II, 7.
  • 12. In Szasz, Karl Kraus, pp. 112-13.
  • 13. Ibid., p. 45.
  • 14. Barzun, Clio, p. 51.
  • 15. Ibid., pp. 113-14.
  • 16. Donald C. Williams, "Philosophy and Psychoanalysis," in S. Hood, ed., Psychoanalysis, Scientific Method, and Philosophy (New York: Grove Press, 1959), pp. 175-76. For an excellent critique of Lazerowitz in part using the tu quoque, see K. Daya, "Some Considerations on Morris Lazerowitz's The Structure of Metaphysics" Mind, XXVII (1958), pp. 236-243.
  • 17. Williams, "Psychoanalysis," pp. 176-77.
  • 18. Sidney Hook, "Science and Mythology in Psychoanalysis," in Hook, Psychoanalysis, p. 223.
  • 19. Williams, "Psychoanalysis," p. 177.
  • 20. Ibid., pp. 177-178.
  • 21. Barzun, Clio, p. 84.
  • 22. Szasz, Karl Kraus, p. 114.
  • 23. Ibid., p. 113.
  • 24. Hal Davis, "The Shrink Who Left His Patients Short," The New York Post, (April 2, 1980), p. 8.

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