Sean J. LaBat, Anton Boisen: Madness, Mysticism, and the Origins of Clinical Pastoral Education. London: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2021. 190 pp. $95, hardcover.
By John Gillman
Unanswered questions about the interplay of madness and mysticism within Anton Boisen continue to abound. Sean LaBat provides a penetrating analysis of this duality as well as other aspects of the life and work of Boisen, traditionally viewed as the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education. LaBat’s well-researched volume, with over 500 footnotes, relies heavily on primary source material from Chicago Theological Seminary (where Boisen taught); the University of St. Michael’s College (papers of Henri Nouwen, who interacted with Boisen); and Emory University (ACPE papers and special collections).
The author, a VA chaplain in Richmond, Virginia, makes the dubious claim that Boisen “died a forgotten man.” While LaBat refers to the omission of Boisen’s name in the ACPE program for 1975, ten years after his death, I would note that he figured prominently in ACPE News in January 1975, and is still known to many as one of the founders of CPE.
Throughout the book, LaBat uses the term “vilusion” (a neologism referring to the “delusion/vision” duality in Boisen). He takes the reader into Boisen’s mental breakdowns, which this pastoral care pioneer explored throughout his career. (That he reportedly put “insanity” on his résumé is astounding.) LaBat also explores Boisen’s long-term relationship with Alice Batchelder, whom he never married, his collaboration with Helen Dunbar, and the triangular relationship among them. Alice’s brother, Paul, once commented to Boisen, “with a normal married life you probably would have escaped your experience with mental illness,” adding, “and the world would have lost your unique contributions to science.” I wonder whether this was really an either/or alternative.
Boisen read his own life through the lens of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the topic of Dunbar’s Ph.D. thesis. Nouwen thought that Boisen’s infatuation with Batchelder resembled “what Beatrice was for Dante.” Boisen himself wrote, “It was necessary for me to pass through the purgatorial fires of a horrifying psychosis before I could set foot in the promised land of creative activity.” This reminded me of a student I had years ago whose mental illness sent her to the hospital but who went on to live a productive life, and wrote three unpublished volumes of poetry.
And indeed, Boisen’s illness often led to inspiration. His lifelong goal was to break through the wall dividing religion and medicine. As early as the 1920s, he worried that “the church has lost its hold” on many. How much greater might his concern be today with the decline in church affiliation and the growing ranks of the “Nones,” among whom are the self-identified “spiritual but not religious”?
Thankfully, Boisen was not alone in his struggles. LaBat chronicles how much he depended on his friends, whom he referred to as “the fellowship of the best,” to support him in transforming his bouts with madness into beneficial insights. The reader is also reminded of Boisen’s belief that “there is no better laboratory than the mental hospital and no better library than ‘living human documents.’” In retirement, Boisen continued to research and write across several disciplines, including his largely autobiographical book, Out of the Depths (1960). Referring to Boisen as “the exiled patriarch,” LaBat makes the questionable remark that “in many ways, [William] Reich, not Boisen, is CPE’s true father.” Reich was an MD and psychoanalyst whose CPE focus was getting in touch with one’s feelings, whereas Boisen’s approach was more patient-centered.
LaBat describes Boisen’s diagnostic categories used for case studies as vague and subjective. Besides questioning his science, LaBat also calls his writing style “often tedious and repetitive.”
As a reviewer, I am impressed with LaBat’s extensive research into unpublished primary documents. But as a reader, I find that LaBat’s critique of Boisen’s writing style could also be applied to his own. Other glitches, such as missing words, typos, and irregular syntax, suggest lax editorial oversight. Aside from these distractions, many will benefit, as I have, from LaBat’s insights into one of the leading figures in, if not the founder of, CPE.
John Gillman, Ph.D., BCC, is an ACPE Certified Educator in San Diego, CA. His most recent publication is What Does the Bible Say About Angels and Demons? (New City Press, 2021).