Allen Ginsberg: Unsafe at any Speed

Medical doctors and therapists surrounded Beat luminary Allen Ginsberg. But not until now has a single MD turned to the written word to describe a singular literary genius who shifted the course of American poetry. Dr. Stevan M. Weine does that in Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness, a new book from Fordham University Press that makes Ginsberg less of a risk-taker than he actually was. The title of Dr. Weine’s biographical study comes from the opening line toHowl, Ginsberg’s epic poem, that made him world famous: “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving/ hysterical naked.”

On a recent Monday evening in San Francisco—where Ginsberg was once an outpatient at Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital—Dr. Weine talked about madness before a hushed audience at the Mechanics’ Institute Library. City Lights, Ginsberg’s longtime publisher, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who founded City Lights with Peter Martin in 1953, published Howl in 1956. Ferlinghetti went on trial in San Francisco for obscenity and was not found guilty. He died at 101 in 2021. Ginsberg died in 1997 at the age of 70.

Dr. Weine was never Ginsberg’s physician. He was and still is a  big fan of his poetry and an advocate for a humane kind of psychotherapy in which doctors express empathy for their patients. A Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, Weine is also the Director of Global Medicine and the Director of the Center for Global Health.

Weine’s book isn’t as groundbreaking as he makes it seem. In 2008, Janet Hadda, a California-based psychoanalyst, published an article titled “Ginsberg in Hospital” in which she anticipates much of the ground that Weine covers. “He maintained a residual affinity to life as a patient on a psychiatric unit, even as he left that experience behind him,” Hadda wrote of Ginsberg..

In a recent article published in Psychiatric Times, Dr. Weine writes that his “hero,” as he calls Ginsberg, urged him to use LSD and also that he delayed for decades the writing of Best Minds. He didn’t want to rock the boat, he says, though he did that at the Mechanics’ Institute Library.

Weine’s most shocking remarks were about the poet’s mother Naomi Ginsberg—who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and who was institutionalized at Pilgrim State Hospital, which might accurately be called a horror show. The buildings looked like they were designed and constructed in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

“Pilgrim State was the largest psychiatric hospital in the world,” Dr. Weine said. “It housed 13,000 patients, many of whom disappeared.” En masse, the Mechanics’ Institute audience gasped audibly. Dr. Weine also said that he found medical records that showed that Naomi Ginsberg had been sexually molested as a child, a traumatic experience that might account for her mental illness as an adult.

In a letter to Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg argued that American psychiatry and American psychiatrists used mental illness as a diagnosis to lock up patients, mostly women, who didn’t fit into the neat roles as mothers and wives they were supposed to play in Cold War America. Naomi Ginsberg was one of them. She was also an émigré from Russia, and a member of the American Communist Party who took Allen to meetings when he was a boy and that made a lasting impression on him.

When he grew up he was afraid that he inherited her schizophrenia and indeed spent part of a year as a patient at New York State Psychiatric Institute. He also signed the legal papers authorizing a prefrontal lobotomy for his mother, a decision that haunted him for the rest of his life.

When Dr. Weine shifted his focus and talked about Howl and Kaddish— Ginsberg’s poem about his mother and her generation of immigrants— he was less illuminating than when he talked about mental illness. Indeed, he stood on firmer ground in the medical field than in the realm of creativity. Dr. Weine traced Ginsberg’s path to mental health, rather than his evolution as a poet who was influenced by Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot.

“Therapy deserves some credit,” he said. So did Ginsberg himself. After his experience at the New York State Psychiatric Institute he was never institutionalized again. Dr. Weine argued that from 1948—when Ginsberg apparently had a powerful vision (or hallucination)— to 1955, when he began to write Howl, Allen “took fewer risks, learned to be safer” and became more of a “witness” than a participant in the experience of madness.

Weine’s perspective omits the role that Ginsberg played in the 1960s as a defiant anti-war activist and as a protester in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It also omits Ginsberg’s ardent defense of his own sexual encounters with teenage boys, and his tortured sex life with Neal Cassady who joined Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their cross country journey.

Ginsberg never really enjoyed a safe life and never advocated for safety in his poetry, in public statements and in his persona. In Howl he writes about “angleheaded hipsters” “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,/ who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean/ love,/who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and /cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may.”

Writing those lines wasn’t playing it safe. Nor did he play it safe in “America” (1956) in which he wrote, “America when will we end the human war?/Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” In the last three-quarters-of-a-century, no American poet has written more defiant lines than those. Allen Ginsberg was unsafe at any speed. As readers of poetry we’re better off because of his risk taking.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.