Adventures in Human Understanding: Stories for Exploring the Self (Book Review)

Author:  Watkins, John G.
Publisher:  Crown House Publishing Limited, 2002
Reviewed By:  Alma H. Bond, Summer 2003, p. 70

Adventures in Human Understanding, by John G. Watkins is an interesting, insightful book, which takes the reader on a life journey from "startin' time," through exuberant, often painful adolescence and the trials of mid-life crises, into the autumn of existence to "quittin' time." Some of the stories in the book are derived from real life incidents from the lives of colleagues, friends, students and patients. Some are partly true and partly fictional, while others are a product of the author's vivid imagination. The major criterion for inclusion in the book is that each story in some way "offers an adventure in human understanding."

The book is full of the kind of wisdom one might expect to find in old people who are rocking away on their porches in rural America. Unfortunately, it is not a book for the seasoned psychologist who would learn very little from it, but would no doubt be interesting to laymen and useful to students who have little formal knowledge of psychoanalysis. What Dr Watkins does well is to explain complicated psychoanalytic concepts in terms simple enough for the man in the street to understand. For example, in "The Nerd" (pp. 41-74), Goob Wilkins is a fat, isolated teenager who is contemplating suicide. One night, an image of his long dead mother comes to him, and in a poignant passage, says: "Those people (who are standing outside the window) are your descendants. The three little ones in front are my grandchildren to be - your children. And those behind, begging for their lives, are their children and their children's children. “...They will live if that person in the mirror, you, does not kill them off" (p. 52). What Dr.Watkins says in a much more moving way than psychobabble possibly could, is that Goob has a good introject of his mother, which saves him from the hateful introjects he has also incorporated. A similar instance of Watkins' skill at simplification is seen when Goob's father explains to him why a youthful abuser beats his dog. "Now you know why he beats his little dog. He was beaten by his father. His father's hatred was transferred to him. He took out on that puppy the same anger that his father took on him"(p. 63). What a nice way to teach about the defense mechanism of "identification with the aggressor!"

In the opinion of the reviewer, one of the best, most original parts of the book concern Dr. Watkins's views on a certain type of suicide. He speaks of Gary Gilmore, who was convicted in Utah in 1976 of the senseless murder of two young men, and was sentenced to death by firing squad. Many of his friends and relatives appealed his sentence. But to everyone's surprise, he opposed these efforts and demanded to be executed as sentenced. According to Dr. Watkins, society was indignant that Gilmore wanted to take the time of his death into his own hands, and that our need for revenge insists on the screaming criminal being dragged to the site of his execution. Watkins writes,

Many people validate their own existence through suicide...because of the realization that the elimination of the badness within one's self can be accomplished only by a termination of one's entire being...When a person has come to recognize that his behavior is so loaded with badness that he is only a menace to his fellow men, and that his continued existence lacks any meaning, then let us permit him to dignify his exit and validate his membership in the human race....For in so doing, we once more affirm our belief in the dignity, the integrity of life and the possibility of redemption for all humans, good or bad (pp. 192-193).

Another interesting section of the book is the chapter on the unconscious mind. Dr. Watson was hired to evaluate Walden, a 14-year-old boy who killed his mother. The author believes that the mother's murder wasn't provoked by violent rage, but was a good deed the boy picked up from the unconscious wishes of his parents. His mother suffered terrible pain from cancer, and fed the boy a litany that she wanted to die. "I suffer. I want to die. Please help me," was her unspoken message to him. The father, on the other hand, undoubtedly hated his wife, and communicated to his son, "I want her dead. Kill her!" (p. 38). By doing away with his mother, the boy became the instrument for carrying out the suicidal wishes of his mother and the death wishes of his father, and was "committing an act of mercy" for both parents. Unfortunately, the judge did not agree with Dr. Watkin's philosophy. Walden was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison, while the parents were exonerated of any responsibility or guilt.

While Dr. Watkins is an expert "cracker barrel" psychologist, his psychology is better than his writing. His poetry, which is more like doggerel, is particularly bad. For example,
"Now Mother said your homework do
Come in at ten each night
"Uncool" that was and often did
Provoke a family fight"(p.13).

I confess that I simply wasn't able to get through the 13 pages of "The Ballad of Billy Brown." Dr. Watkins is Professor Emeritus of the University of Montana, a world-renowned psychology in the field of hypnosis, and the founder and past president of ISCEH, an international society for hypnosis. He has been the president of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH), of the American Board of Psychological Hypnosis, and of Division 30 (Hypnosis) of the American Psychological association. He has also served as clinical editor of the "International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis," and has lectured all over the world. He is the author of many groundbreaking books and articles on hypnosis and psychotherapy. In a private communication to the reviewer, Dr. Watkins stated that he has consistently sought to promote the benefits of psychoanalytic understanding through hypnosis and ego-state therapy. Interesting enough, Watkins is a fourth generation Freudian analyst, for he was analyzed 50 years ago by Edoardo Weiss, who was analyzed by Paul Federn, who was analyzed by Freud himself.

Adventures in Human Understanding is easy reading and "a good read." The book is recommended for beginning psychology students and to all those people who enjoy learning that requires a minimum of effort. Incidentally, Dr. Watkins seems like a very nice man.

Reviewer Note

Alma Halbert Bond retired to Key West from a practice as a psychologist and psychoanalyst in 1991 to write full time. She is the author of Tales of Psychology: Short Stories to Make You Wise among other books. More information can be found at her Website.

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