“In An Archive of Anxiety”: Working with the papers of Dr X, a twentieth-century psychiatrist

Cigarette Burn in Dr X's Papers

Cigarette Burn in Dr X’s Papers

Dr X’s secretaries appeared to have filed every mimeo … every Post-it® …  every photocopied, handmade “while you were out” note … every one of Dr X’s handwritten scribbles … and every version of Dr X’s marked-up drafts. It was, indeed, the specificity of the mid- to late-twentieth-century writing technologies that first imprinted me: the feel and noise of the carbon copies and the mimeographs; the awkward folding of the galley proofs; and the brittle, darkened Sellotape that attempted, even now, to keep together the photocopied sheets proudly featuring Dr X and his clinical innovations in a national newspaper from the 1970s. The sudden appearance of a cigarette burn that had passed through multiple sheets of paper seemed characteristic, too, of a time just gone.*

For the last ten days, I have spent all day sitting in the air-conditioned Special Collections Room in a library in California. I am making my way through the extensive … oh, so extensive … papers of Dr X, a psychiatrist who died in the 1990s. My research is on the histories and geographies of clinical research on anxiety after the Second World War, and Dr X is one of the – how should I put it? – Big Daddies. Outside, the sun is bold, and shorts-clad students show prospective students and their parents around the campus. Most of the prospective students’ eyes and hands are on their iPhones. Have they ever seen a carbon copy? I, meanwhile, in the cold of the Special Collections room, am also a gauche teenager who has just left school. As my hands turn the endless sheets, I am back at the Pitman secretarial college in London – learning how to take Pitman 2000 shorthand, how to prepare blind carbon copies with paper, and how best to make a neat correction to a misspelled word I have just typed on a heavy typewriter. The writing technologies in front of me are characteristic of such a small slice of time. They are more redolent of my mid- to late-adolescence than most music hits. By the time I became an undergraduate, in 1990, I had visited and been seduced by the technologically avant-garde, Blitzmailed, Apple Mac’ed world of Dartmouth College. I was done with carbon paper and writing texts out long hand. I made damned sure that I composed every one of my undergraduate essays on a second-hand 512K Macintosh Personal Computer that I lugged back across the Atlantic, and was a so-called ‘early adopter’ of email. Although neither Dr X nor I knew it, Dr X was, at that point, in his final decade. I doubt whether he personally made the transition to email.

What might it mean for a medical humanities scholar adequately to attend to writing technologies when tracing the contours of a life? Writing technologies of course fundamentally shape the scope and depth – nay, very existence – of what become, on The Death of the Notable Personage, the ‘remains’ that can be placed in an archive. But they also, in manifold ways, inflect how we, as researchers, affectively experience these remains, as well as orient ourselves in relation to what they foreground and occlude.  I have been thinking, for example, about how I might make visible the labours and travails of those secretaries – as well as of the many others who assisted Dr X in becoming the famous man he did become. I have noticed how I abruptly pull back from the archival boxes at some of what I read. There are, for example, multiple photocopies of a letter to Dr X from an editor. He apologizes to Dr X that Dr X’s article will be late going to press: the journal’s copy-editor has been rushed to hospital with some as-yet-mysterious-but-very-serious cardiac problem. He may not pull through, and if he does, Dr X should know his publication will be delayed. (I did not discover whether the copy-editor did ‘pull through’.) There are joyful whirls of Post-it® notes from one secretary to another – “We’ve made it!”, “It’s in!” – that have been stuck haphazardly on the front of photocopied manuscripts. Under whose temporal tyranny were they laboring? Dr X’s or that of the journal to which the manuscript was being sent?

I am there, hour after hour, with the voices and fragments of Dr X and his secretaries. I know – or think I know – a great deal about Dr X, a psychiatrist whose published work I started reading many years ago. I know very little about his secretaries, asides from the assiduousness and handwriting that characterized them a half century ago. This all gives me a headache. I do not know, in fact, whose head I am in.  There is too much, and it is too close. Many of Dr X’s scientific and clinical interlocutors – let alone his patients – are undoubtedly still alive. The death of Dr X feels so recent, and particularly so when I startle at a mis-typed date (careless secretary!) on a letter to Dr X from one of his collaborators that specifies the year after Dr X died. There are more than one hundred boxes, each of which contains on average twenty folders. There are too many sheets: sheets that confirm hotel bookings; sheets that register Dr X’s complaints at shoddy service, whether from airlines or from journal editors; sheets that invite ‘scientists’ wives’ to receptions; sheets that comprise multiple copies of seemingly everything. To turn each page without even attempting to read its contents will take me weeks. Whose desire for preservation am I witnessing? What kind of life, and what kind of clinical scientist, does this motoric desire for duplication and safekeeping help produce?

Every night, once the Special Collections room has closed, I return to the small room in which I am staying, re-open the lid of my laptop and try to keep my email inbox from overflowing. I have been at Durham University for one year and one month, and there are 5,000 emails in my sent folder. I wonder at the demands, conceptual and affective, that will face future medical humanities scholars wishing to give shape to lives lived with and through the writing technologies of today.

* This is the image that accompanies this blog post. I am required to request permission for the use of content from the Special Collections. I hope that the use of this blackened hole, and the words that surround it, does not contravene the library’s policy. 

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2 Responses to “In An Archive of Anxiety”: Working with the papers of Dr X, a twentieth-century psychiatrist

  1. Thanks for sharing this Felicity! It has made me both crave some time in the archive and worry about the demise of particular material traces being left by those who I may wish to work on in the future. Can’t wait to hear more about Dr X, sounds fascinating.

  2. Ditto. What an interesting project. Technologies of writing. Yes. An important point of focus also to understand practices of medicine, and in my area of interest, practices of diagnosis. Contrast for example, the difference between Dr. X’s narratives and a 21st century doctor’s drop down boxes. Our technologies shape not only what we can see, but also what we can say.

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