Sunday, October 4, 2015

To Mark The 65th Anniversary Of 'Peanuts' The Lancet Looks At Psychology

On Oct. 2, 1950, the Peanuts comic debuted in nine newspapers nationwide. 
From The Lancet: 
The madness of Charlie Brown
Sigmund Freud has his promoters; but the best-known psychiatrist of the 20th century was probably Lucy van Pelt. From her first clinical session in 1959 (Charlie Brown: “I have deep feelings of depression…What can I do about this?” Lucy: “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.”), this little girl ministered to the children of her neighbourhood from a lemonade stand emblazoned with “PSYCHIATRIC HELP 5¢. THE DOCTOR IS IN.” (Asked by a bewildered visitor, “Are you a real doctor?” Lucy replied, “Was the lemonade ever any good?”) Her adventures were documented by the artist Charles Schulz in Peanuts, a comic strip that was syndicated in more than 2600 newspapers, in 75 countries, and is still reprinted today. The first Peanuts cartoon was published on Oct 2, 1950, and the last on Feb 13, 2000—the morning after Schulz died.

Lucy is very much the modern doctor. Early on, she worked in general medicine, persuading the neighbourhood children to lie down on the sidewalk and cough, in an attempt to literally “stamp out” the common cold: “No germ has ever been able to build up a defence against being stepped on!” She will “treat any patient who has a problem and a nickel”, and once charged Charlie Brown US$143 for an unsolicited slide-show of his faults. She did research on her own younger brother, Linus, by withdrawing his security blanket from him and documenting the consequences: she won first prize in a science fair, leaving Linus, as the exhibit, on the laboratory bench overnight; asked by Charlie Brown about her medical ethics, she replied, “I won, didn't I?”

Like most psychiatrists—indeed, most people—Lucy is a broken person. Early childhood promise as an athlete disintegrates, as she becomes possibly the worst baseball player ever. She pines for Schroeder, a musician who would not marry her “for all the beagles in Beagleland”, and will kiss her only if “the kiss will be supplied by my representative”. She is ferociously aggressive to Linus, and to anyone who stands in her way; every year, trusted by Charlie Brown to hold a football for him to kick, she pulls it away at the last moment. But she lacks self-doubt: Lucy, in her blinkered determination, is (almost) always right.

In her years of practice, Lucy treats several neighbourhood children, a dog, and the occasional bird, but her most frequent patient is Charlie Brown. Charlie comes from a loving home, and is decent, considerate, and reflective: but his life is a mess. Despite obvious intelligence, he is a mediocre student. He invests much emotional energy in managing and playing for his baseball team, which habitually loses by ridiculous scores. He yearns for the Little Red-Haired Girl, but never has the courage to approach her; when her family moves away, he stands in the street, paralysed and silent, as his life collapses around him; days later, woken by a scream, his sister Sally muses, “Before she moved away, he never cried out during the night.” The neighbourhood girls casually despise him.
Asked, at around 7 years of age, how long “this period of depression has lasted”, Charlie Brown replies, “Six years!” One summer, he develops a psychosomatic rash and has to spend weeks with his head in a sack. Another time, haunted by the meaninglessness of his losses, he decides to spend the rest of his life lying in a dark room, only to emerge, stooped and shattered, when he realises he has to feed the dog.

Charlie Brown's dog, Snoopy, is ostensibly a success. He is appointed Head Beagle; excels at baseball and figure skating; and is often so happy he can't help but dance. He is an art lover who, on losing his van Gogh in a house fire, replaces it with an Andrew Wyeth; despite being unable to talk, he studies a college course in anthropology, and reads widely, favouring Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, and Miss Helen Sweetstory, author of the Bunny-Wunny books. Yet his life also features tragedy. He is removed from his post as Head Beagle after taking a stress-related break; cannot skate in competition because of stage fright; and, through nerves and Charlie Brown's ineptitude, misses his opportunity to break Babe Ruth's all-time record for home runs before Hank Aaron gets there. He spends some nights paralysed with fear at his own vulnerability. He retreats into fantasy, pretending to be, for instance, a World War 1 flying ace, or Joe Cool, a student who rarely attends classes because they “can ruin your grade average”. His personal life is a disaster: his first girlfriend is forbidden to marry him because he is an obedience school dropout, prompting him to try to forget her by eating: “You try for a little happiness, and what do you get? A few memories and a fat stomach.” A subsequent girlfriend elopes on the morning of their wedding with his brother, before running off with a coyote....