OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
MASTER OF STUDENT HOUSES: THE HARD PART
``...Two roads diverged in a wood, and Ió
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.''
from ``The Road Not Taken.'' by Robert Frost.
It was my privilege to serve as Master of Student Houses at Caltech during the period 1983 to 1987. Before I began my term, a former Master told me that I would learn as much about myself as I would about the Institute or the students. And as I sit down to write about this chapter in my life, that astute remark comes to mind first. I am still absorbing what I learned of myself and so will focus here on a recounting of the events and what I learned of the campus and the students. Throughout this and the chapter which follows I have changed some of the student names out of respect for their privacy and because it is not important to identify those individuals.
Let me say at the outset that I left the position with a great affection and respect for the students. They may think that they gave me nothing but their troubles. But those troubles were mostly quite ephemeral. The joy I took in seeing so many very fine young people mature, in being able to see them through temporary crises, in contributing to the humanizing of their lives at Caltech is a joy which will remain with me for the rest of my life. For that, it is I who am grateful to the students. Perhaps I may find another job as intimately rewarding; but I doubt it.
The price of that reward was a continuous demand not only on my physical energy but, more importantly, on my emotional resources. At that time the job of Master of Student Houses was a wholly consuming task which left little energy for other activities. By the end of each of the four academic years in which I served I was totally burnt out, to use the modern idiom. I was blessed with a wife who was willing to put up with the inconveniences, at least for a limited period of time. But I also paid a price for the rewards described above.
In constructing these reminisences I have concentrated mostly on major incidents or issues which occurred during my tenure. One of my predecessors, Robert Huttenback, produced the classic account when he wrote ``Confessions of a Genial Abbot''. I do not pretend to be able to match his eloquence or his ability to give a balanced report of his term in office. As I sat down to write, I began by rereading his ``Confessions'' which, incidentally, was reprinted by a group of students during my time in office. Those students reproduced it because they felt that Huttenback's criticisms and concerns about student life at Caltech were as valid in 1984 as they had been in 1958-68. And I share their opinion. Much of what I might say is already recorded in Huttenback's account. Any different shades of perspective I might have are contained in various parts of this journal.
So my excuse for these pages cannot be an attempt to produce an assessment of student life for Huttenback's remarks are as valid now as they were then and I can add little. Perhaps I have written for my own sake, seeking a review of my own experiences. Perhaps it is of value to supply an addenda to ``Confessions''. Perhaps there is a perverted sense of self-importance which one gains by revealing facts known only to one's self. Who knows. Here goes.
In early 1983 I was contacted by Professor Andy Ingersoll, the chairman of the faculty standing committee on student housing who inquired as to whether I might have any interest in becoming Master of Student Houses. Having known four of the previous Masters and having recognized the substantial commitment which the job entailed I did not respond except to say that I would like to give the matter considerable thought before being considered a candidate. Thus began several weeks of research and soul-searching. Professor Sunney Chan, the retiring Master, did his best to convey to me both the joy and tribulations associated with the task while at the same time trying quietly to recruit me. The Dean, Professor David Wales, recounted for me his perception of the role. I also talked with Professor David Smith, a previous Master during the turbulent early seventies. Looking back I believe that I accrued a fairly accurate picture of the job though none of this quiet conversation could possibly convey the emotions which accompany the occasional traumatic emergencies which I had to handle as Master. In addition I searched within myself in an attempt to determine my own ability and willingness to handle the kind of situations described to me. Even at that early stage I realized that, if I accepted the job, I would learn much about myself; and that some of those lessons might be painful. Other thoughts cascaded to the surface. It seemed to me that like so many other scientists and engineers my avocation suited me because of an inherent shyness. The practice of my profession was in part a refuge from the uncertainty and complexity of human relations. Perhaps it was high time that I emerged from this solitude and simplicity.
* * *
I cannot say that I ever resolved this set of questions. Nevertheless after several weeks I did indicate my willingness to be considered as a candidate for the position of Master of Student Houses. There followed an interview one evening when I sat down to talk not only with the Committee on Student Housing but also with about a dozen students, members of both the present and previous Interhouse Committees. It was a unique experience to be interviewed by about twenty people. The conversation consisted mostly of fairly benign generalities because it was the subliminal evaluation which mattered. Could they trust my judgement under emergency conditions? Would I be approachable by a student with embarrassing personal and emotional problems? Would I be sympathetic to the problems and needs of students at Caltech? I did not consciously prepare myself for this kind of subliminal examination but I now see with the benefit of hindsight that this was precisely what was appropriate.
Other candidates were interviewed that same evening. Shortly afterwards I received a phone call offerring me the position. Then the negotiations with the administration began. Professor Jim Morgan, the Vice-President for Student Affairs seemed to be agreeable to all of my modest requests so that after a brief interview with Murph Goldberger, the President of Caltech, I was officially offered the position of Master of Student Houses, an offer which I duly accepted.
In the summer of 1983 Professor Sunney Chan spent a substantial amount of time with me while I learnt not only the details of the running of the Master's office but also a great deal about the undergraduate community at Caltech and about individual student problems. I recognized a duality in the responsibilities of the Master. On the one hand he was charged with the fairly straightforward tasks of ensuring that student accommodation arrangements run smoothly, that each of the Student Houses have a responsible Resident Associate and that a limited amount of money for social activities is distributed usefully and equitably. On the other hand he had to serve as a father figure, a counsellor tending to the social, emotional and psycholgical problems of individual students and of groups of students. Sometimes these dual responsibilities would clash as when it became neccessary to discipline a student whose infractions resulted from emotional turmoil.
So I was initiated into a quite unique position at the Institute and only time would tell whether or not I was capable of handling the challenges and the pressures of the task.
Of all the problems I faced in the ensuing four years, perhaps the most traumatic were those of the severely disturbed student. Sometimes the problem seemed intractable, sometimes I struggled in vain to avert an seemingly inevitable demise. This was the dark underside of the Institute, the inevitable obverse of the quest for excellence of which we are all so proud. It was, however, one of the arenas of reponsibility which fell upon me as Master. There existed no descriptions of this theater of operations. It certainly would not have made good press. Yet one must recognize that any school could tell a similar story and the problems are not solved by ignoring them. And so, I believe, it is important to present an account of the severe psychological and emotional problems suffered by a few of our students and a description of some of the difficulties I experienced in trying to cope with those problems. In doing so I must emphasize that I pretend no professional expertise in this realm of mental illness.
* * *
It is appropriate to begin with a few comments on the underlying causes of some of the psychological disorders with which I had to deal. I think I can truthfully state that all of the serious problems I encountered had their roots, whether biological or environmental, in the history of the individual before he or she came to the Institute. The academic pressures of Caltech may have amplified the problem but, in my judgment, were never the root cause. Furthermore the students who experienced these problems ranged over the entire spectrum of academic abilities. Indeed, when I review all the cases which came to my attention, there are no characteristics which were common to all of the cases. However, there were several characteristics which were notable by the frequency of their occurrence and these are worth elucidating in more detail.
First, as one might expect in any population of adolescents, a certain small fraction of the students develop that disorder of the thought processes known as schizophrenia. The most common of the psychoses, schizophrenia occurs in about 1% of the population. This would suggest that each freshman class would include about two schizophrenics. The number would be increased if one took into account the correlation between schizophrenia and intelligence indicated by some recent studies. It is decreased by the extent to which the admissions process selects out applicants with indications of mental illness. My own estimate is that the 1% of our student body suffer from this disorder. During my time in office I had to deal with about ten cases of serious schizophrenic psychosis.
Paranoid-schizophrenia is a disorder for which there exists no known cure. Added to the schizophrenia is a paranoid suspicion or fear which makes both behavior and treatment all the more difficult. It inexorably debilitates the victim to the point where, at best, he or she can, without help, barely survive on the fringes of modern society. Frequently the deterioration instead of being gradual, occurs in steps corresponding to crises. About all that modern medicine can achieve is to avoid such crises and thus slow or even arrest the deterioration. This requires that the victim faithfully follow a prescribed course of treatment and medication, a prescription which is made particularly difficult when the individual mistrusts anyone in a position of authority over him.
Schizophrenia has been shown to be predominantly a genetic disorder. However it is also recognized that a number of environmental factors can contribute to crises which can cause a marked deterioration in the victim. The most relevant of these factors in our student population are, first, the pressures placed on them by the social and academic conditions and, second, the abuse of drugs. It is well-established that amphetamines (speed) and hallucinogenic drugs (acid) can create psychoses which are clinically indistinguishable from acute schizophrenia. Given adequate treatment the otherwise normal person can recover from such an episode in a matter of weeks. However, an individual who is predisposed toward schizophrenia may never recover to their condition prior to the drug abuse. Both the stress-related and the drug-related environmental factors occurred in our student body.
Apart from the schizophrenics, our student body naturally includes a number who suffer from an affective disorder at some time during their time at the Institute. A major affective disorder is characterized by disordered feelings or emotions. Like schizophrenia, a tendency to develop an affective disorder appears to be heritable. Factors at the Institute which can exacerbate a latent affective disorder include, again, the academic pressures (particularly when reinforced by parental pressures and expectations) and social pressures. Among the latter one must rank first the fact that most of our students develop their sexuality during their residence at Caltech. The unnatural ratio of males to females is particularly unfortunate in this respect though this factor has diminished in more recent years as the percentage of women has increased. In summary, it was my experience that victims of major affective disorder are more easily and more constructively handled by our system than the victims of schizophrenia.
I have remarked on the heritability of both schizophrenia and the disposition toward major affective disorders. From an institutional perspective this can make the problem particularly difficult, often agonizingly so. In any student crises, the parents should represent the major emotional resource. We often suggest that the student take a leave for several terms in order to recover from the crises. But, in the case of a major psychological crisis, the chances are that the family has contributed to the crisis either genetically or enviromentally. So, in an ideal world, it would not be the optimal solution for the student to return home. Yet, this is frequently the only economically feasible option and one has to suppress one's feelings to pursue it. Sometimes the family alienation has progressed to such an extent that the student refuses to return home, citing either real or imagined reasons. The prognosis in such cases is not good; the chances are high that the individual will become a homeless itinerant. With considerable distress I watched a number of former students progress along that path.
While on the subject of parental relations, let me make an observation on a phenomenon which I believe occurs in some of our students though I know of no way in which it could be proved without improper intrusion into their private lives. It seems to me that some of our prospective students become over-achievers in high school because of excessive parental pressure and supervision. When these individuals arrive at Caltech they suffer in one of two ways. Either they consciously or unconsciously rebel against parental pressure and their academic performance correspondingly declines. Or they continue to be susceptible to that pressure and, when they can no longer satisfy themselves or their parents by straight-A grades, they suffer from substantial emotional problems. I believe that such achievement-related affective disorders are present in a significant fraction of our undergraduate student body.
Finally, let me shake the foundations of the common misconception that our undergraduates come from good homes. One of the things which surprised me most about the family backgrounds of our undergraduates was the number of cases in which I suspected that the student had suffered emotional, physical or even sexual abuse as a child. It is often said that such abuse is one of the greatest hidden problems in our modern society. We should not fool ourselves into believing that our undergraduate population has been immune from this societal disease.
But what do all of these observations mean for the Institute and for the health of our undergraduate population. Let me try to summarize the conclusions from two different perspectives: first, that of the admissions procedure and, second, that of caring for the students once they are in residence.
The first perspective leads to some obvious lessons most of which have been expressed elsewhere but bear repeating. First the admissions process should make more effort to determine whether the applicant has the emotional and psychological stability to survive the pressures of the Institute. It is disservice to both the applicant and the Institute to admit an individual who lacks such attributes. At a less chronic level too much attention has been paid to the past academic accomplishments of the applicant and not enough attention to what motivated them. In my opinion it is the latter which will determine the degree of success which the student will achieve at Caltech.
The problem is to find ways of assessing both the stability and motivation of the applicant and here I can only offer some methods which I used during my experience interviewing applicants for the admissions committee. In order to try to assess the level of parental pressure I would use somewhat casual questions such as ``What do your folks think about Caltech?'' or ``What do your folks think about your interest in science?''. I was often surprised by how revealing the responses were. Few applicants would guess that one of the most satisfactory answers was ``My parents never heard of Caltech''. In addition I regularly asked teachers about the stability of the student (counselors were rarely of use since they were usually preprogrammed). Sometimes the teachers would provide revealing responses; at other times it was necessary to read between the lines. Extracurricular activities were also a guide to the motivation of the applicant. None of the deeply troubled students I encountered as Master had any extensive participation in group activities such as sports or music during their high school careers. Someone at the Institute once told me that the average GPA of students who participate in varsity sports is significantly higher than the mean. I would not be surprised if this were true.
Aside from these general observations, it is appropriate to recount several of the most traumatic problems which which I had to cope during my time as Master. Though these are but a tiny sample, their features exemplify most of the common characteristics of these individual problems. In these accounts I have changed the names to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
This first story is that of a young man, a paranaoid-schizophrenic whom I shall call ``Bill Brent''. Bill came from a broken home and had been raised by his mother with the help of two older brothers. Unknown to us, he had suffered several physcological episodes as a high school student, but had consistently avoided psychiatric care. In retrospect it is clear that his resistance to psychiatric treatment and his aversion to hospitalization had developed during his early teenage years when he was forced to attend therapy and, on one occasion, was hospitalized against his wishes by his family.
* * *
Nevertheless, Bill was a very intelligent young man and, after graduating from high school, he was admitted to Caltech and arrived as a freshman in the early 1980s. On his freshman interest form, Bill listed his hobbies as Dungeons and Dragons, table tennis and tennis and indicated an interest in the Bridge Club, the Chess Club, the Math Club and guitar classes. During Rotation he was selected by Dabney House but due to difficulties in housing all of the freshmen on campus that year he was assigned to an off-campus room. I have no first-hand knowledge of the events of his first two years at Caltech since they preceded my term as Master. However I do know that there was a suicide attempt during his freshman year which motivated his being moved from the off-campus room into a room in Dabney House where he could be more closely watched by his fellow students. Unfortunately he quickly became a part of the drug scene in that house and, in particular, developed the habit of taking amphetamines, or ``speed''. Either then or later he also smoked grass and indulged in ``acid'' and, occasionally, cocaine though the latter was too expensive to be frequently used. It was, however, the speed which was particularly destructive to Bill's mental health.
I should digress briefly to emphasize that speed has always been a special problem at Caltech. The academic pressures at the Institute can be severe and students are sometimes tempted to resort to speed to remain alert in order to complete assignments. I have been told that this usually works without obvious side-effects the first few times that the person uses the drug. Later it can become a habit and the insidious side-effects can be too easily ignored. First there is the psychological reliance on the drug, a lack of confidence that an assignment or exam can be completed without the drug. And so to more habitual use which begins to wreak havoc with the student's mental and physical well-being. The physical damage is caused not only by a lack of regular sleep but also by a much-reduced appetite. But the mental damage is much more serious for prolonged use of speed results in amphetamine-induced psychosis which is clinically indistinguishable from paranoid-schizophrenia. And if the individual is already predisposed toward schizophrenia the psychosis will occur more rapidly and be much more severe.
Returning to Bill's story, it seems clear that when healthy he had relatively little difficulty with the course work at Caltech. He did not however complete any work during the third term of his freshman year and took a leave of absence in May. His social well-being during his sophomore year was enhanced by a liason with a very pleasant female student whom I shall call Beth. I am fairly sure that Bill's relationship with Beth helped him temporarily avoid serious trouble during his sophomore year. Indeed the relationship was so close that they planned to room together at the beginning of his junior year, the time when I took over as Master. But Bill's mental health was already beginning to be seriously affected and the relationship became strained as 1983 came to an end.
My first direct contact with Bill occurred at the beginning of of 1984. He came to my office one day to seek my advice on his career plans. Bill had intended to major in Applied Physics but had begun to believe that the only major job opportunities for APh majors were in the defence industries. He expressed to me a moral objection to working for any company involved in the engineering of weapons. Though I cannot recall many of the details of this first conversation, I do recall that his nostrils seem to be inflamed but that he was quite lucid in his arguments. He told me that he was going to take a leave from the Institute in order to sort out his future in his own mind and this was granted by the Dean in January, 1984. Where he went during this leave I do not know. I did not see him again until about June, 1984, and, when I did, it was under difficult circumstances.
On an evening in June, 1984, security received a call from a student working in one of the laboratories. That student reported a suspicious person in the parking lot beside the building, suspicious because he seemed to be taking an unusual interest in one of the vehicles parked in the lot. Security arrived and confronted that person who turned out to be Bill. Bill seemed to be somewhat spaced out and only slowly responded to questions. Security then brought Bill to the Master's house where I confirmed his identity as a recent student. After talking with Bill for a short time I concluded that there was no reason to pursue any action against Bill and asked security to leave. A little later Bill left.
Now, it transpired that Dabney House was closed during the summer of 1984 in order to make some repairs and upgrade some of the facilities in the House. After several weeks a number of people realized that Bill was hanging around the empty house particularly at night. It seemed that he was ``ghosting'' which, in the student idiom, refers to someone who is sleeping in the house without an assigned room. One evening I decided to investigate and entered the unlit house about midnight. It was eerie to come across Bill standing in an almost pitch black corner apparently talking to himself. As unthreateningly as I could I suggested that he and I should talk. Bill immediately turned and began to run out of the House. I decided that, rather than chase him, I would try to find him during the day when others might be around to help. It was from that time that my wife and I began to refer to Bill as ``the ghost''.
It was clear to me from that encounter and from my other brief glimpses of Bill that his mental and physical condition had deteriorated substantially since his return to campus. I suspected that he was abusing himself, not only by neglecting to eat but also by taking drugs. Andy Dowsett, the Dabney House R.A., and I made tentative plans to try to corral Bill and get him to help. In the meantime, Nancy Carlton, the director of housing, was inspecting the maintenance work in Dabney House one morning when she came upon Bill standing on one of the toilets talking to himself. When she called me to report the incident the shock was still reverberating in her voice. Security had been called by Nancy and they brought Bill to my office; shortly thereafter Andy Dowsett joined me with Bill. It was clear that we had to get Bill to the Institute psychiatrist. Initially Bill seemed to agree to allow Andy to accompany him to an appointment which we had arranged for that afternoon. And so they left to walk to the Health Center. But when Bill saw the psychiatrist he immediately ran out of the building and across campus to an off-campus house on Holliston Street where he thought he would find refuge with a group of friends living in that house. Those friends were sufficiently disturbed by Bill's appearance and demeanor that they had no hesitation in consulting with Andy and I about how to get Bill to help. We then converged on Bill at that off-campus house. I began the process of trying to talk him into willingly going with us to the local Huntington Hospital. Bill was in such a poor state that he was almost incapable of communication. If he responded to any of my questions, the answer was preceded by a substantial pause. And his speech was slow, almost mechanical, and usually incomprehensible. But each time we tried to get him to move it was clear that he was about to panic. Finally he seemed to agree to accompany us but did express a desire to collect some things from Dabney House. We then proceeded in a group to Dabney where, again, Bill baulked at going anywhere. Andy Dowsett drew his van up as close to the house as he could and there followed another long period of trying to persuade Bill to move from the House to the van. By this time I was becoming doubtful whether we would ever be successful without resorting to force which I knew would be viewed very negatively by the other students. So I withdrew to a little distance away while several other students tried their best. Finally they succeeded in getting Bill to join them in the van. They then proceeded to the Huntington Hospital who had been forewarned by the Institute psychiatrist at my request. The Los Angeles County Psychiatric Evaluation Team (PET team) were then called and decided to involuntarily hospitalize Bill in the nearby Ingleside psychiatric hospital.
During previous crises, I had experienced difficulties while attempting to have a disturbed student hospitalized when they were in no fit state to look after themselves. In this case the state system worked, at least initially. I discussed the situation with Bill's mother and we were fortunate that she had medical insurance coverage for the hospital bill. And Bill was in such a psychotic state that he was clearly a danger to himself since he could not look after himself. So the PET team placed him first on an involuntary 72 hour hold which was later extended to a 14 day hold. By that time Bill had ``dried out'' sufficiently that he was lucid and able with some effort to present a reasonable argument for his release. Now, a patient who has been involuntarily hospitalized in California for 14 days has the right, if he or she so wishes, to plead his case for release in front of a judge. Much has been written elsewhere about the viscitudes of this system and the difficulties inherent in mixing psychiatric medicine with the legal system. And, in retrospect, I believe the system must be held responsible for Bill's ultimate fate. By the time he had dried out sufficiently to exercise his natural intelligence he was able, with some effort of willpower, to persuade the judge during his brief hearing that he should be released. He lied to the court, saying that he was currently a student at Caltech and that he had a student room to live in. He also had some modest funds with which to feed himself. The court made no attempt to check on the veracity of these statements. To keep him in hospital it would have been neccessary for someone to make a special effort to detect these court proceedings and to be present to make a case for continuation of the hospitalization. Since no such effort was made Bill was released after 14 days. Perhaps this was in accord with Bill's constitutional rights. But subsequent events demonstrated that it was certainly not in the best interests of Bill's mental health. I do not deny that he was vastly improved both mentally and physically when he was released; only that the underlying psychiatric problems were hardly addressed.
So Bill registered as a student for the 1984 fall term and moved into a room in Dabney House. He enjoyed participating in Rotation and I remember that he was quite prominent socially when my wife and I went to dinner in Dabney House one evening. Later in the term it was clear that Bill was back on the same downhill slide, the runners greased with speed. He did manage to complete the term but the decline in both his physical and mental health were obvious. Moreover, there were several slightly bizarre confrontations with his former girlfriend, Beth.
Then one evening I received a call from Andy Dowsett informing me that Bill had begun to behave very strangely and had gone running off the campus along one of the nearby residential streets. There he had run through the gardens of the houses and had even stopped to dig in the dirt of several frontyards. There was a general concern about what he might do to himself so, in addition to organizing a search of the local streets by students, I called the Pasadena police and asked them to be on the alert for Bill. As it transpired one patrolman had already observed Bill talking to a fire-hydrant on Del Mar boulevard. Thus both Andy and I as well as the police caught up with Bill on Del Mar. It was clear that Bill was in a semi-psychotic state. I recall that the police handled the situation very smoothly and got Bill into the squad car with the minimum of force. At the station the PET team was called and Bill was again hospitalized involuntarily. I do not recall the extent of this, his second incarceration. But I do remember that Dabney House, Andy Dowsett and I arranged a special reception for Bill when he was released. The student who collected him from the hospital brought him directly to the Master's Office where Andy, about ten students and I were waiting to talk with him. It was a very frank conversation in which we all tried to point out to Bill that he was in danger of destroying himself by abusing drugs and that he had to commit himself to a real program of psychiatric care at the Health Center. I think this peer pressure had more effect upon Bill than I could have had alone. Unfortunately its effects were short lived.
The next incident occurred in January, 1985, when Bill attacked the telephone in the Dabney lounge with a pipe-wrench, and was overheard remarking that he wished the telephone was ``Joe Stevens'' head. ``Joe'' was a Dabney student who may have tried to intervene with Bill's supply of drugs. Bill was warned about his behaviour and was billed for the cost of the telephone. But as the term wore on his behaviour became increasingly bizarre. It was not that he really threatened the other students but rather that his increasingly irrational acts frightened them. One one occasion he walked straight into a female student's room without knocking and simply stood there staring at her. On another occasion he climbed to the bars outside Beth's window and shook them until Beth had to cry out for help. When confronted about his behaviour he would also react strangely and at various times appeared to be listening to voices. All of this finally became too much for the residents of Dabney House and we jointly agreed that Bill would have to be declared personna non grata in the house. This I did in a letter to him in March, 1985. I did offer to provide him with a temporary off-campus room for the brief period that he would still be in residence.
The Dean, Gary Lorden, and I had also decided that Bill should be placed on an involuntary medical leave of absence effective immediately. This would mean that he would require the approval of both the Institute psychiatrist and the Dean before he could again become a student. So, the next day, Bill was summonned to the Dean's Office in order to present him with this decision and to try to persuade him to seek immediate psychiatric treatment. I cannot recall the exact ruse which we employed in order to get him to show up. Whatever it was he behaved quite strangely, picking up papers from the secretary's desk and reading them and wandering rather arbitrarily around the office. I arrived shortly after Bill, accompanied by campus security. I then followed Bill when he left the office and accompanied him back to Dabney, collecting Andy Dowsett on the way. When we believed that we had Bill under control we then asked security to call the Pasadena police. Unfortunately Bill detected the arrival of the police before they reached us and took off running as fast as he could. The chase proceeded up Holliston street before the police picked him up. Harold Ginder, the security chief, and I went to the police station along with Bill and waited while the PET team consulted with the Institute psychiatrist. The result was that Bill was again placed on an involuntary hold and hospitalized.
Bill was again taken to Ingleside Psychiatric Hospital and placed first on a 72 hour hold and then on a 14 day hold. After the 14 days had elapsed, Bill's psychiatrist, his mother and I were all better prepared for the impending court hearing which Bill requested in order to aquire his release. Several other students accompanied me to the hearing. I was called to testify to the fact that Bill was no longer a student and that he could not stay in Institute housing. Bill, who was not in very good shape, also fouled his own case by admitting that he had taked acid a short time before his apprehension. The psychiatrist testified that Bill was a paranoid-schizophrenic and also told me privately that they had detected speed and marijuana in Bill's blood. The judge denied Bill's appeal for release and he remained in hospital for several more weeks.
We did not see Bill again until the beginning of the summer break of that year, 1985. When I encountered him outside the Dean's office he seemed vastly improved (as he always did after release). He assured me that he was determined not to return to his abuse of drugs and that he intended to follow his prescribed course of medicine and therapy. I hoped very much that this would happen. In his recovered state Bill managed to arrange a summer job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With such a job he was entitled to housing and we placed him in a quiet off-campus house on Wilson Street. For a few weeks Bill seemed to be progressing quite well and was making plans to return to school in the fall. For a while I lost track of his activities and it seems that toward the end of the summer he had a relapse and returned to his drug abuse while at the same time failing to follow his prescribed regimen of treatment. Since he did not register as a student for the fall term I had to ask him to vacate his room. He briefly took unauthorized refuge at another off-campus house on Holliston before his increasingly bizarre behavior there caused the residents to ask him to leave. I believe his next stop was with some drug-related friends in the Pasadena area.
Then matters rapidly got worse. In October, I received a telephone call from the Highway Patrol in Newhall to the effect that they had apprehended Bill in Newhall after a 100mph car chase on the Golden State freeway. The car Bill was driving had been leased from the Institute and the Highway Patrol wanted to know whether or not they should release the car to Bill after he was bailed out. I told them not to release the vehicle and immediately tried to find out how Bill could have managed to rent the car. The answer was that Bill still appeared on the list of students used by the Institute's carpool personel. As a result the procedure for renting cars to students was changed to ensure that there would be no repeat of this incident. I am not sure how Bill managed to post bail. However he did return to the Pasadena area.
About a week later two students in Blacker House observed a young man whom they did not know behaving strangely. When this young man (Bill) picked up and started to walk off with a backpack which they knew belonged to another Blacker resident, they called security and then tried to apprehend the young man. Bill then turned on the students and began to punch one of them with his fists. When security arrived they handcuffed Bill and called the Pasadena Police. Bill was then charged with theft, battery and resisting arrest. As a result of the last two incidents, the Dean wrote to Bill declaring him personna non grata on the entire campus and warning him that he would be arrested for trespassing should he be found on Institute property.
A few nights later, security observed Bill on the west side of campus and warned him several times that he was trespassing. On the third occasion they chased him and he went into an Institute house on Wilson Street where security caught up with him. The Pasadena Police were called and Bill was arrested for trespassing. Two nights later, security found Bill sleeping in one of the steam tunnels under Fleming House. Bill told them that he was scheduled to appear in court at 10.30am the next morning as a result of earlier charges. Again the police were called and took Bill into custody on a charge of trespassing. At the police station Bill was found to be in possession of sufficient drugs to book him on an additional charge of possession with intent to sell.
Many of the details of what happened to Bill over the next six months are not known to me. I do know that there was a court case on the assault charge at which the Blacker student who had been attacked testified and Bill was found guilty. I also heard third or fourth hand that Bill entered a gun shop and, while attempting to purchase a revolver, said some things which indicated to the salesman that he intended to commit suicide. As a result of these incidents, and perhaps other court proceedings, Bill was incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Metropolitan psychiatric facility until June of 1986. It seemed singularly ironic to me that Bill, who was otherwise a very gentle person, should have had to attack someone in order to get the kind of extended care that he needed from the beginning. Knowing Bill's gentleness and his lack of size, strength and coordination I doubt that the attack was very serious; and I know that it was not in any way malicious but rather an act of frustration, confusion and desperation. When Bill was released on probation from the Metropolitan Hospital in June 1985, one of his first acts was to return to campus to see me. He asked whether it would be possible to lift the personna non grata status. I told him that since he had only just been released I could not change his status. However if he came back to me in six months with a record that showed that he could conduct himself in society in an appropriate way then I would consider the possibility of changing his status. Three months later I received a phone call from Bill's brother with whom I had spoken on previous occasions. He called to tell me that Bill had taken his own life. Apparently Bill had gone to Nebraska in order to try to start anew. However one day he went to a shooting range, turned the gun around and shot himself through the head. I wept at the passing of a gentle soul who had never been able to control his own thoughts. Bill was buried in October, 1986, a victim of the cruel side of the great American dream. For me his ghost will always drift through Dabney House, a reminder of the awful price to be paid when one tampers with the mind.
The single most alarming and difficult individual problem with which I had to contend during my term as Master concerned a young man whom I shall call Peter Stillwell. Though it was not clear at the outset, this student had a very disturbed family history that was responsible for his paranoid-schizophrenia. As in so many other cases with which I had to deal, Caltech was not the direct cause of the mental illness. However the pressures to which a student at the Institute is subjected either by himself or by the academic demands may have aggravated the illness.
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I first met Peter Stillwell in July 1984. During that month I received a security report on a confrontation in the courtyard of one of the student houses between Peter and a female student whom I shall call Judy. Security had been called when Peter and Judy began shouting at one another. Reports were taken from both antagonists and the incident ended with the officer advising Peter to stay away from the house in which Judy was living. The incident was not in and of itself alarming. What did concern me was the statement by Peter that Judy had ``cut his hand at the end of May'' and the statement by Judy that ``Stillwell had physically assaulted her and broken into her room twice''. The Dean, David Wales, and I agreed that we had to investigate these previous incidents and so I asked both students to come and see me.
From these discussions it became clear that Peter and Judy had been close friends but that Judy had decided to terminate the relationship. Upon recognizing this Stillwell demanded to talk to her. On one occasion he forced his way into her room in the student houses. She picked up a hunting knife and he retired when she threatened him with it. However, sometime later, he forced his way into her room for a second time. On this occasion when she picked up the hunting knife Stillwell refused to leave and they got into a struggle during which Stillwell's hand was cut. Subsequently he confronted her several times with demands to talk to her; the incident in July 1984 finally brought the whole matter to my attention.
During my discussions with Peter and Judy in July, the antagonists appeared to agree on the basic facts described above. It was clear that Stillwell's actions in forcing his way into Judy's room on two separate occasions warranted some disciplinary action. Therefore the Dean and I talked to him together and informed him that such behaviour was unacceptable and that any further acts of this kind would result in stern disciplinary action being taken against him. We also encouraged him to get away from the campus for the remainder of the summer vacation.
I had no further dealings with Peter Stillwell until the fall of 1984. He registered as a student and lived in one of the student houses. Along with a number of other students he became involved with an EST-like program called Lifespring and spent some time attending their courses in Santa Monica. It was the opinion of the Institute psychologist that, while such courses might be relatively harmless for the mentally stable, they can have disastrous effects on those with certain types of emotional problems. Indeed this mini-fad for Lifespring caused a number of individual problems among our students and resulted in my concluding that such involvements should be actively discouraged when they are first discovered. Fortunately none of the students who became involved suffered any permanent damage with the possible exception of Peter.
One morning in October or early November I received a telephone call from the resident associates in the student house in which Peter was living (let me call them John and Sarah Brown) who told me that Stillwell had come to them the previous evening in a very disturbed emotional state. He still seemed very distressed over Judy and, added to this, were his fears over a more recent relationship with another female student. He spent the night in the R.A.'s appartment. I was there when he awoke about noon. I brought with me another student who had also attended the Lifespring courses and as a result had become quite concerned about Peter's well-being. Let me call him Jack. Jack was one of those who was stable enough to, perhaps, even benefit from that program. Jack and I persuaded Peter to go and see one of the counselors at the Health Center; indeed I believe Jack may even have accompanied Peter to make sure that he kept the appointment. Apparently the counselor and Peter agreed that he, Peter, should voluntarily check into a local psychiatric hospital. I had offered to drive Peter there; however when the time came I was tied up and I arranged for someone else to take him. Later that evening I visited Peter at the hospital. He had been drugged and was quite relaxed but lethargic. I was quite sympathetic to him and in retrospect this may have been a mistake. Indeed my intuition dates his antagonism toward me to this visit. Peter was released from the hospital the next day and I spoke with him outside his room in the student houses in the company of Jack and another Lifespring friend whom I shall call Sam. Peter seemed somewhat resentful at the time, claiming that I had been ``too sympathetic''.
The next incident occurred late one night in November when I was awakened by a telephone call from Security requesting my presence on campus as a result of a confrontation between two students, Peter and Sam, and three security guards. Apparently the two students had been spotted returning to campus with various street signs, a pair of bolt cutters and other miscellaneous tools. The three security guards had stopped the students, confiscated the signs and tools and demanded their student I.D.s. Peter then became very agitated saying that he could sue Caltech and have the guards fired to which the officer replied that Security was there to protect students as well as Caltech property. At this point Peter ``went into a fit'' saying that he had been stabbed and that Security and Caltech personel had done nothing about it and that he had been informed not to call the police. Apparently Sam had the presence of mind to physically restrain Peter by getting behind him and pinning his arms to his waist. Thus he managed to avert a direct physical confrontation between Peter and Security. Furthermore Sam pulled Peter away toward the student houses so that by the time I arrived on the scene Peter and Sam were ensconced in the lounge of one of the houses while the security guards were waiting outside. I entered the lounge alone and spoke with Sam. Peter was on the telephone talking with his psychologist who seemed to have calmed him. Sam asked me to leave, assuring me that he could handle Peter. I told him I would have to speak with both of them on Monday. I then left the house advising the security guards to go about their business since I would deal with the matter the next weekday.
On Monday, Peter arrived in my office first. As soon as he was seated he began a tirade of accusations against me claiming, amongst other things that I had prevented him from seeking justice after he had been ``stabbed'' by Judy. I never really understood this accusation or what might have led to it. After all I did not even hear of the incident until about four months after it had happened. Nevertheless Peter was very angry. I then informed him that I could not tolerate his violent behaviour. I reminded him that he had previously been warned about this violent tendencies and, as a result, I would have to consider asking him to leave the student houses. At this point he became even more enraged and abusive, storming out of my office giving me ``the finger''.
At this point I did consider asking Peter to vacate his room in the student houses. He had informed the new Dean, Gary Lorden, of his intention to withdraw and, perhaps wrongly, we decided to wait and hope that he departed without further incident or confrontation. On drop day at the end of November, Peter completed the paperwork associated with withdrawal and thus ceased to be a student. However he remained living in the student houses.
About two weeks later a more serious incident occurred. About midnight I received a telephone call from the R.A. John Brown. He told me that Peter had entered their apartment in a very disturbed state. He was calling me from the lounge; his wife Sarah was with Peter in the apartment and he was very concerned about Peter's behaviour. I told him to give me a couple of minutes to wake up and dress. Within about two minutes Sarah called me from the lounge. John was now with Peter in their apartment and she was concerned for John's safety. I told her to call Security immediately while I called the Institute psychiatrist to seek his advice and cooperation in handling the problem. I then went down to the student houses where I found John and three security guards standing outside the R.A.'s apartment waiting for me. John informed me that Peter had assaulted him and was now lying on the floor of the apartment curled up in a ball. I then entered the apartment. Upon seeing me Peter lept to his feet, screamed at me (``Get the f--- out of here you bastard, Brennen'') and then rushed at me with the clear intent of assaulting me. Fortunately John Brown stepped between Peter and I thus deflecting the assault. Peter did manage to throw several objects at me before the security guards rushed in and pinned him to the wall. There followed a most unpleasant scene while the three guards attempted to subdue Peter who was fighting, screaming, spitting and kicking. They eventually handcuffed Peter though he continued his violent resistance as they escorted him out of the apartment and down the hallway. During this time I asked one of the security guards to call the Pasadena Police. Helped by the intervention of several students, Peter calmed down prior to the arrival of the police. Also during the wait I again called the Institute psychiatrist and arranged for him to talk to the police once they arrived. Thus upon their arrival I asked one of the police officers to call the Institute psychiatrist and I understand that he recommended that the police call the County Psychiatric Evaluation Team (PET team) to examine Peter once they got to the police station and that they arrange for him to be placed on an involuntary 72 hour hold. The police then proceeded to take Peter to the station. The deputy master, Bernie Santarsiero, also went there separately in the company of John Brown and a student. Due to Proposition 13 cutbacks only a skeleton PET service operated during weekends so the PET psychologist only talked with Peter over the phone. Furthermore Peter had recovered himself sufficiently by this time that he was able to persuade the PET psychologist over the phone that he was not a danger either to himself or to others. Meanwhile the Institute psychiatrist and I were busy trying to make the necessary arrangements so that Peter could voluntarily hospitalize himself. This was made difficult by the fact that Peter was no longer a student and therefore no longer covered by the Institute health plan. I therefore called Peter's father and after giving him the barest account of the events, sought his willingness to pay for voluntary psychiatric hospitalization. This was forthcoming and the Institute psychiatrist arranged for a bed at the same local hospital where Peter had previously stayed. Having made these arrangements the Institute psychiatrist and I both telephoned Peter while he was still at the police station in order to try to persuade him to go along with voluntary hospitalization. Peter refused all these offers. The Pasadena Police then released him. He returned to campus and the events of the night drew to an exhausted end.
I spent the next day, a Sunday, trying to decide what action to take. I also had to tend to the welfare of the R.A.s who had gone through a most harrowing experience. I sent them to a motel for the rest of the day and the following night. I also had an extended telephone conversation with the Dean who was on vacation as well as further discussions with the Institute psychiatrist. On Monday I talked with the Vice-President for Student Affairs and with the Institute Associate General Counsel about the steps which I now intended to take and received their approval. I had learned that Peter intended to leave for Christmas vacation at his parent's home within a day or so. However it appeared that he did not intend to vacate his room. I decided to allow this to happen before taking action in order to avoid yet another violent confrontation within the student houses. Peter did indeed leave on Tuesday. I then mailed a registered letter to his home declaring him personna non grata in the student houses and telling him that I would have his belongings packed and stored in Central Receiving where he could either arrange to have them transported elsewhere or collect them himself.
I heard nothing more of Peter until one evening early in January. My wife and I returned from an evening out and were walking from the car to our front door when Peter approached us in a quite threatening way. He immediately launched into another tirade against me, shouting that he was going to sue me for wrongful eviction and stating that I would lose my job and everything I owned. His manner was abusive and threatening. My wife was very upset by this confrontation with its aura of impending violence. However I simply said ``Yes Peter'' and escorted my wife to the door and into the house. By that time Peter had disappeared. Later, concerned over the possibility that Peter might not have received my letter, I called Peter's father who confirmed that he had indeed received my letter while at home.
To further emphasize my resolution I wrote a reiterative letter to Peter along with a copy of the earlier letter and a copy of the student house rules which state that the Master has the right at any time to expel a student from the houses for conduct he considers detrimental to the houses. However it appears that Peter decided to defy my order and he was seen in the house by a number of students. He even came to the door of the R.A.'s apartment but they refused to talk with him. Shortly thereafter Peter filed a grievance against me with the Vice-president of Student Affairs. After several interviews with Peter, the Vice-president ruled that Peter had no basis for a grievance and advised him to abide by my order. Shortly thereafter, Peter left the Pasadena area and we heard nothing from him for several months.
However, unbeknownst to any of us in student affairs, Peter managed to obtain a summer job with an off-campus Institute laboratory. And early in the summer the Dean received a telephone call from Peter telling him about his summer job and that he was setting off for campus to ``pour some water on the wicked witch of the west''. I suspected that he visualized me as the witch and was therefore somewhat apprehensive about what to expect though not at all prepared for what did happen. At about 9.00pm that evening I was at home with my wife, my elder daughter, Dana, and my young son, Patrick. The doorbell rang and I advised my wife that I would answer it. She was nearby, Dana was in the kitchen and Patrick was upstairs with a friend. Suspecting the worst I left the security chain in place as I opened the door. It was Peter and he began screaming the moment he saw me. Seconds later he crashed into the door, breaking the security chain (whose screws came out with dismaying ease). Before I knew what was happening I was forced to the back of the hall with Peter's arms around my neck. He continued screaming that he had come to arrest me and that he would make sure I was thrown in jail. Fortunately I managed to remain on my feet. Though the shock of the assault had temporarily weakened me, I had managed to achieve a brief stalemate while admittedly pinned in the corner in a partial neck hold. Peter continued to scream at me. Doreen had had the presence of mind to run in to the kitchen and call security demanding their immediate presence. She followed that with a call to the police. My elder daughter had escaped through the back door at the beginning of the assault and, despite injuries to her leg while climbing the fence to enter the neighboring student house was also calling the police from that location. Patrick had the sense to lock himself in one of the bedrooms. Doreen then approached the confrontation itself during the stalemate phase but I yelled at her to leave. Upon seeing her Peter screamed at her to call the police, adding that if she called security I would be a ``dead man''. Finally I had recovered my strength and when Peter made a particularly vicious but awkward move to scratch my face, I lifted him off the ground using my leg and, once he was off balance, got my arm around his neck from behind and threw him to the floor in a classic strangle-hold. For a brief second I tightened the hold quite angrily and he quickly ceased all resistance when he realized that he was powerless. I then loosened my hold to avoid injuring him and yelled at Doreen to go out into the street and shout for help. This she did while dressed in her nightclothes.
Help arrived almost immediately thereafter. A student from a house across the street came running over. Several students from campus who had heard of Peter's intent to come to my house showed up. And two security guards came running up Holliston and placed Peter in handcuffs. I was too shaken to recall accurately what happened later that evening. I do know that I called the Dean and he drove to campus as fast as he could. The police arrived and there was some discussion of the options before Peter was arrested and taken to the police station where he was charged with several misdemeanors. I found out the next day that Peter had attempted to flood the jail by deliberately blocking up the toilets. This sufficiently angered the police that he was also charged with a felony count of attempting to flood the jail. It seemed singularly inappropriate to me that breaking into a person's home and attacking him warranted only misdemeanor charges while attempting to flood the jail was a felony. Several days later in the presence of his father, Peter was ordered by the court to be hospitalized for at least two weeks. At the time we were unsure of when he would be released and so spent a number of very restless nights not knowing what might happen. I believe he was released after about two weeks and spent an additional two weeks in the Pasadena area. He then left for his home and as far as I know has not returned to the campus since.
As a result of his assault on me Peter was expelled from the Institute, a punishment which requires the action of the President and is very rarely handed out. I hoped that this was the end of the story and that somewhere, sometime Peter would find peace within himself.
With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that I handled the problem with excessive leniency. Peter should have been asked to leave immediately after the incident in the R.A.'s apartment if not before. Furthermore I believe that the job of being an R.A. is sufficiently difficult that the Institute should take a very firm and rigid position on any violence or threats direct at an R.A. (or indeed any other member of the staff). It should be established that any such threat or act will lead to immediate expulsion. I have become increasingly convinced that such a policy would not only be in the best interests of the Caltech community but also of the young person involved.
Another hard lesson to be learned from this and other experiences with mentally ill students is the inadequacy of our state system for dealing with these afflictions and the dangers they can present. The present policy prevents hospitalization except when the person is either a danger to themselves or to others. Yet in order to prove this it seems to be necessary for the sick person to have attacked either themselves or others. In the present case, even after the assault on the R.A., it proved impossible to get any response other than a fruitless phone call from the local PET team. And Peter was undoubtedly released while still a threat to myself and others on campus.
Last updated 10/1/2011.
Christopher E. Brennen