For the Lives of Children


DR. LEON EISENBERG, professor of Psychiatry at the Medical School, doesn't immediately stand out as the sort of person who gives impassioned speeches at rallies in solidarity with Greek demonstrators. Fiftyish, distinguished in his profession, chief of the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital, he seems perfectly comfortable in his book-lined office. But there he was last November, talking to 150 students gathered in the Science Center to denounce what Greek police--with American tanks--were doing to anti-government demonstrators, telling about the defendant in a political trial in Athens:

"Said the judge--he was a lovely man: 'Just don't forget that your life lies in our hands.' And Minis said--and this is not a play, this is not me talking to my friends, this is a man in the power of the people who had tortured him before and could torture him again--he said: 'If this court found me innocent, I would die of shame.'"

Eisenberg is a child psychiatrist, and he says he thinks that child psychiatry often heightens its practitioners' political feelings just by making them aware of children. "As I saw kids raised in ghettos, kids raised in slums, it made me think about trying to do something to change the conditions that cripple children," Eisenberg explained one day last month. "I'm interested in reading proficiency and reading retardation, for example, and social class is the best single indicator of how well children are going to read...Now it is not as though if we had a utopian society there still wouldn't be reading problems, or uneven rates of development. But if you have the combination of biological insult and developmental pressures...And families may serve as the immediate transmitter of culture to the child. So that even apart from the effects of malnutrition and so on, if you ask mothers from a lower social class what they would like their children to become, they give you the same answers as middle-class mothers, but if you ask them whether they think their children will actually do those things, they say they won't. And it's that sort of pessimism that gets transmitted to the child and offsets the 'real' goals."

Eisenberg himself came from a middle-class Philadelphia family, and entered the University of Pennsylvania convinced he wanted to be a doctor but with "a very vague and idealized notion of what the physician's role was going to be." He went on to Penn's medical school, where he graduated first in his class. "I had a lot of trouble getting in because those were the days when there was a numerus clausus on Jews," he recalls now. "It left a strong impression on me which I don't intend to forget and hope I never forget, because that's why I feel I owe it to blacks and Puerto Ricans and Chicanos to support them." He specialized in learning disabilities and psychotic disorders in children, went to Johns Hopkins, where he became a professor of Child Psychiatry, and acquired an impressive number of professional honors--president of the Maryland Psychiatrists Association, president of the Psychiatric Research Society, nomination to the Surgeon-General's Committee on Television and Violence. Eisenberg says he'd like to spend less time on administration and more doing his own work, especially a textbook on child development. Nevertheless, he's chaired Mass General's psychiatry department since he came to Harvard in 1967.

A couple of years later, Eisenberg met a Greek pediatrician named Stefanos Pandelakis. "A first-rate human being," Eisenberg says now, "caring, working on behalf of human beings, working on a project of caring for abandoned and orphaned children in Athens, but I really had no idea at the time he'd have the courage to do what he did." With Anastassios P. Minis, a retired air force colonel who'd been wounded and decorated several times in the Greek Resistance during World War II and then flying air raids against communist insurgents afterwards, Pandelakis planted about 20 home-made bombs around Athens and Piraeus, in protest against the military dictatorship which took power in Greece in 1967. No one was hurt in any of the explosions.


Excerpts from Minis's prison diary were smuggled out of Greece and eventually published in The New York Times Magazine; they told of beatings and torture. ("We have all the time in the world and every possible means of forcing you to tell us everything," he was told by Dimitrios Ioannides, then the head of the military police and since last month's palace revolution, evidently Greece's strongest man. "Do you know where our strength lies? In the fact that we give only second or third priority to the human element." "Yes," said Minis, who'd just been kept standing at attention for eight days while being intermittently clubbed, "I have realized that.")

When Pandelakis and Minis were brought up for trial, Pandelakis called Eisenberg as a character witness. "I thought what they wanted was a statement about what a fine chap he was," Eisenberg says, "but I found they wanted me to help get their case into the newspapers and before the people--they'd had no other way to do it. Newspapers are censored, there are no political meetings, there is no free speech. That was why they'd had to set off the explosions to begin with, because there was no other possible form of protest. But what impressed me was the courage not only of the defendants but the friends of the defendants who walked into the lions' jaws...and then the students who brought down Papadopoulos. The students were incredible. And while it's hard to imagine moral force overcoming American Sherman tanks, what the hell? It happened in Thailand, it happened in Turkey, it happened in Korea, although of course they just got another fascist instead..."

"If I learned anything from the trial," Eisenberg continues, "I learned that it's important to make distinctions between degrees of repression, that it's important to fight for every ounce of liberty. I'm under no illusions about the American government, but nevertheless defending free trials, defending the press--it makes a hell of a lot of difference. There's a big difference between this government and the Greek government and while I'm not suggesting that we all go home and celebrate, it is important."

"Looking at the world as I see it," he says, "I have come to believe that the cliche is right, that freedom and liberty are indivisible, that there is an intimate connection between U.S. support for dictatorships abroad and screwing people at home...I ask you, do we really need more research on the effect of malnutrition on learning abilities before we start to feed children who are hungry? Isn't it right to feed hungry children just because it's right, whether or not malnutrition creates brain damage? But everything for people is done in such a chintzy way...It's a society that places very little value on the lives of children."

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