Robert Coles is famous for his listening. Reading any of his books of psychiatric research, one is amazed at the harvest of voices Coles takes from people on the edge, in one sense or another. Children in slums, Eskimos, migrant workers, the aged, wealthy but troubled children—what they say, Coles has always found to be revealing and important. As a psychiatrist, Coles’s presence, as projected in his books, is that of empathizer, seeker, and, in its comprehensive spiritual sense, lover. He is rich in respect for the people he comes to visit. He approaches them as a learner and as someone always ready to admit ignorance and receive instruction. His trademark as a psychiatrist is the constant reminder that theories about why people do what they do are never conclusive. Life evades theory.
In his work, Coles is ever conscious of the fact that he is a stranger to those he meets and questions. From the privileged world of intellectual culture, he descends into one place after another where intellect is present but not institutionalized. This intellect, and Coles would say, soul, is directed toward survival. The books which result from these visitations speak admiringly of the power distressed people have to live their lives, and Coles’s success as a witness to this power rests on his ability to retain, in his writings, the actual voices he has heard.
Dorothy Day, cofounder of The Catholic Worker daily newspaper and hospitality houses, was an acquaintance of and inspiration for Robert Coles while he was attending medical school in New York early in the 1950’s. He worked as a volunteer in her hospices during that time and developed a friendship with Day which remained close until her death in 1980. Over those more than thirty-five years he recorded fifty hours of their conversations and filled notebooks with more. Dorothy Day is another product of his listening. His subject is someone more like himself intellectually and culturally than those he usually interviews, a journalist and thinker who, for Coles, had still to be reached through a descent of the kind earlier noted. The young Robert Coles appeared for his first visit at a hospitality house and observed Dorothy Day sitting at a table speaking to a drunk, one of the hopeless her ministry was designed to serve. The impatient young man was noticed at last and Day asked if he wanted to speak “with one of us?” Day’s proposing her equality with the drunk made an impression: “One of us: with those three words she had cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride: ’Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’” In Day, Coles met a woman for whom the descent was a permanent fact—everyday contact with the oppressed from the early days of the Depression until her death fifty years later.
Written for the Radcliffe Biography Series, Dorothy Day is not a conventional biography but rather, as Coles says in the preface, something to give “readers the benefit of her distinct, compelling point of view.” The major share of the text is long quotations from Day responding to a line of questions about her life—her early pre-Catholic days as a journalist and activist in 1920’s New York, her common-law marriage and the birth of her daughter, her conversion, and her part in the formation of the Catholic Workers movement. The book is a dialogue. Coles preserves the nuances of their shared company over those thirty years—the incessant tea drinking, Day’s occasional silences, and his own feelings as a young psychiatrist attending to an older person for whom he feels admiration as well as no small share of psychiatric curiosity. While sharing her temperamental inclinations and understanding her vision for the poor, Coles presses for clarification when he cannot understand the radicalness of her position, such as her lifelong celibacy since the conversion, and especially the turn to celibacy while still a young and attractive woman. The pleasure of the book is in Coles’s admitting fear at bringing up the topic. He is no Barbara Walters, out to savage another interviewee, and his sensitivity is rewarded by searching answers: “I wanted to die in order to live,” and “I loved [God], in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love.”
Coles’s first chapter dispenses necessary biographical data. Though a young and beautiful intellectual involved in the social scene and with aspirations for a career as a novelist, Day felt a demand to...
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