John R. Friedeberg Seeley, tragic hero of mental health

This is a guest post by Paul Roberts Bentley, author of Strange Journey: John R. Friedeberg Seeley and the Quest for Mental Health.

Jack Seeley was a tragic figure in North American history. His noble quest during WWII and the early postwar period to bring mental health to the masses straddled both sides of the border. He was the principal architect of the first major mental health programs in Canadian schools, a history that is now so relevant. He was also a scholar working in the fields of sociology and psychoanalysis whose collaboration was valued by important American thinkers like Erving Goffman, David Riesman and Bruno Bettleheim. His book, Crestwood Heights is a classic of the 1950s “pop sociology” genre.

However, he was fated to become another posthumous genius, not only because his ideas were ahead of their time, but also because of his own mental health issues. His principled stands as a member of University communities bordered on personal attacks, according to erstwhile friends like Murray Ross, first President of York University. Ross made his banishment of Seeley to the United States in 1963 stick (the destiny of many controversial Canadians like Louis Riel). He even engaged the Ontario Parliament in an intervention to overturn Seeley’s appointment at the University of Toronto in the 1970’s. The following passage from the Epilogue of Strange Journey hints at the “curious motivational history” (to use one of Seeley’s own phrases) at work in his career triumphs and disappointments:

From the time of his early childhood, there was a dark quality to Seeley’s “fate,” a theme which frequently recurred in his letters to Fischer. It must have been very cold and lonely to set off on your own as a young boy on a ship across the Atlantic. At that moment Seeley was unsure of everything. He no longer knew who his father was, whether he was Christian or Jewish, English or German. The teacher at Henfield to whom he had turned as a substitute father figure had sexually abused him. He even doubted whether the woman who had cruelly disowned him at the dock was really his mother. To his credit, he maneuvered the trials and errors of this first oceanic voyage to the new world with the skill of Odysseus. But his efforts foundered finally on the rocks and windswept fields of North York where his own issues played a part in his dismissal. 

The hidden hero in Seeley’s story, who may not have objected to playing a supporting role to his star patient in this book, as he did in life, was his psychiatrist Dr. Martin Fischer. Fischer survived the Nazi expulsion of Jewish medical students from the University of Vienna during the Anschluss, and internment in British and Canadian prison camps as a suspected fifth columnist, to pursue a pioneering career in psychiatry in Canada in the postwar era. Seeley and Fischer together tested the boundaries of the mental health world in the 1950s. They were amongst the first explorers of group psychotherapy modalities as way to broaden the reach of mental health treatment. They also explored Seeley’s alienation from his Jewish heritage, for “Fischer may have seen in Seeley an opportunity, so frustrated while he was interned during the Holocaust, to save a fellow Jew,” as we read in Strange Journey.

Paul Roberts Bentley holds an MSc. (Econ) in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and an Ed. D. in the History and Philosophy of Education from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a History Teacher and Head of Department in Ontario High Schools for over 25 years.

Strange Journey is now available wherever you buy your books.