US Memorial Service for John E. Mack

Elaine A. Steblecki
T.E. Notes: A T.E. Lawrence Newsletter
Volume XIV, No. 2, Autumn

John E. Mack (4 October 1929 – 28 September 2004), whose Pulitzer Prize-winning biography A Prince of Our Disorder, The Life of T. E. Lawrence was published in 1976, died tragically on the day after the recent T.E. Lawrence Society Symposium ended, being struck by a car in London. 4 October 2004 would have been his 75th birthday. A Memorial Service for Dr. Mack, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, was held at The Memorial Church at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 13 November 2004, 12:00-2:00 pm.

It was an event of remembrance. The Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, of the Memorial Church,gave the Welcome and Closure remarks. In between, ten speakers offered reminiscences, five of them family members. What I remember most about the service was all of its description, as speakers tried to capture, in mere words, the quicksilver that was John Mack. What follows is not a transcription but a sampling of their remarks, with occasional reflections of my own.

Danny Mack, John’s son, also gave a few welcoming remarks, mostly about his father’s spirituality, perhaps as a preface to the Buddhist chant that was next on the program. Led by Mu Soeng, it was a prayer and an exercise in group energy in which we all participated. Danny said that his father’s spirituality, especially later in life, was less about formal religion and more an open?ended, hands?on, nonjudgmental foray into such things as shamans, Buddhism, Native American, and aboriginal Australian spiritualities and what they had to offer. He ranged outside the inherited JudeoChristian worldview, exploring different modes of consciousness.

Small wonder. Here was a man whose professional practice had come to encompass patients who believed they had been abducted by, or had contact with, alien beings or intelligences. Karin Austin spoke emotionally at the service, appreciating Dr. Mack’s desire to listen when everyone else simply dismissed her perceived experience as impossible. Mack approached such stories with detached skepticism, but his willingness to keep an open mind offered these patients a compassionate haven. He would not turn them away. Richmond Mayo-Smith, of the John E. Mack Institute, called him a great humanitarian for wanting to help people in such distress regardless of the criticism and ridicule it brought him. Mack, as a scientist, felt the topic warranted clinical study. This took courage. Mayo-Smith said that Dr. Mack lived a large life, continually exploring what it means to be fully human, expressing a joy in entertaining new possibilities, always encountering the questions, ‘What do we believe is real?’ and ‘How do we know what we believe we know?’

Karin Austin, the only speaker who could testify directly about his methods and effectiveness with patients, praised Dr. Mack’s conduct in sessions his professionalism, pacing, intelligence, wit, and ability to be purely present. Though Austin was the sixth speaker and not the first, I mention Mack’s work on the subject of alien abduction first because the service was infused with everyone’s awareness of it whether speakers alluded to it or not. As a stumbling block, anyone encountering Mack needed to decide how to respond to it. One could embrace it, ignore it, continue a relationship despite it, or turn away. Mack’s involvement with this topic challenges the rest of us.

Dr. Mack’s final words to colleague Ed Khantzian were, “If anybody asks, tell them I am not crazy!” Khantzian opened his remarks this way and called Mack a visionary, caring, and deeply curious man. In the fall of 1965, Mack asked Khantzian to help him start a psychiatric program at Cambridge Hospital. During the course of this initiative in community psychiatry, Khantzian saw Mack as teacher, scholar, and clinician but also as someone who understood the workings of hospital/community politics and could manage the “town/gown” tensions between Harvard and the city of Cambridge. The two men remained friends since. Khantzian said that Mack sent along two of his “alien books” inscribed for his “continuing education.”

Jon Ingbar, Mack’s nephew, remembered from his childhood the warm and gentle disorder of John and Sally Mack’s household. Mack always seemed different from the other adults he knew: fun, more able to be on his level, more understanding. From his perspective as an adult, Jon offered another image that had stuck with him, that of his uncle in a rumpled raincoat carrying a battered suitcase ? not neat and settled but as a traveler, always going somewhere, ever searching, restless, eager. Jon said that Mack did not chart a careful path to success but was pulled by human connections into perilous areas and allowed himself to respond, not shielding himself from the consequences of his commitments. Jon said that there are places in our lives’ experiences where the walls are very thin, and his uncle was an explorer of those thin places, an admirable calling around which to build a life.

Since Jon did not live in Mack’s household, he saw his uncle only periodically and vividly felt the pattern of his being intensely there, then gone, intensely there, then gone. A noticeable difference existed between these striking visits and the rest of his normal life. Jon tried to describe this, saying his uncle could touch lives in an instant with the intensity of his presence, and somehow, he could make everything seem possible. Though Lawrence’s name did not surface here, Jon’s description of Mack reminded me of Henry William on’s description of T.E. Both Ingbar and Williamson were aware of the force of an unusual presence and personality, of a kind intensity, and they both experienced an enlargement of self from the encounter. David Ingbar, another nephew, said that Mack had such personal power and charisma that even people who met him only briefly are feeling some loss now. I could vouch for this, as I thought of those who attended the T.E. Lawrence Society’s Symposium in Oxford in September. We were an auditorium?full, most of whom did not know Dr. Mack personally, yet all were doubtless affected by his noteworthy presence, and felt sadness at the news of his sudden death.

The afternoon’s most direct reference to Lawrence came from the first speaker, Mack’s friend and colleague, Robert Lifton. He and Mack sat in front of the television together as the documentary T.E. Lawrence and the Battle for the Arab World first aired in 2003, because Mack appeared as one of the experts or “talking heads” in the program. Mack had returned to the subject of T.E. Lawrence after a long time away, and Lifton said that Mack got back into it with great excitement. According to Lifton, psychiatrists get tired of listening and often get drawn to some kind of adventurous quest, as a counterbalance. Lifton felt that Mack’s original work on Lawrence had served to satisfy this need. Several speakers mentioned what might be called Mack’s adventurous nature, but only Lifton discussed it and Lawrence in the same breath. I was glad that at least one speaker made reference to Mack’s current resurgence of interest in Lawrence.

Mack’s son, Ken, indirectly alluded to his father’s work on Lawrence when he distinctly remembered the dramatic contrast of his flunking out of high school in the 1970s at the same time his father was winning the Pulitzer Prize (for his biography of T.E., though Ken didn’t specifically say so). Ken related how his father then invited him on a trip to Eastern Europe which concerned his work in support of nuclear arms control. Mack figured out how to include his son in his professional work, giving Ken a memorable chance to go into battle, as it were, alongside his father, a great warrior, who empowered him and enabled him to find a sense of purpose. Ken is a lawyer now. Dr. Mack wrote a chapter in his Lawrence biography called “Lawrence the Enabler.” It seems that Mack was an enabler too.

Dr. Mack, according to his son, Daniel, once said that his family has been in this country since 1850 and he still feels like an outsider. Perhaps Mack used this term because he was good friends with Colin Wilson, whose book, The Outsider, considered this topic and, in fact, discussed Lawrence. Mack could identify with Lawrence as outsider and, like Lawrence, was not uncomfortable thinking “outside the box.” Being an outsider gives one a certain freedom. Dr. Mack mentioned this during the T.E.L. Society Symposium when discussing T.E.’s illegitimacy and its impact on how he approached the world. David Ingbar also made me think of Lawrence when he said that Mack felt drawn, in his academic pursuits, to study people who were martyrs for their causes. Mack had a picture of John F. Kennedy hanging in his home. David said that his uncle wanted to change the world. He had incredible focus for things he was interested in, which was both wonderful and difficult for the people around him. Sports and children could deflect him, however, and he rooted enthusiastically for his favorite teams.

Writers about Lawrence often call him compassionate and sensitive, and so did many of the speakers about Mack. His sons, Ken and Tony, called him a great crier. Ken said that he even cried at B movies and simple events. Ken had gone with his father to see Saturday Night Fever when it was in the movie theatres and almost felt embarrassed to leave at the end because his must have been the only parent moved to tears by it. (This drew affectionate laughter from those at the Memorial Service.) Tony said that his father had represented to him both strength and vulnerability. He had an exceptionally sensitive nature, with nerve endings more raw than those of most people. Could one apply the word ‘courage’ to this thin-skinned anxious man? Yes. Courage is not lack of fear, it’s the capacity to act in the face of fear. And act he did, approaching his personal relationships, his work, and everything else with joy and passion. Tony said it was too bad his father didn’t live to see the Red Sox finally win the World Series, then wondered whether he would have survived the stress of it?!

Michael Blumenthal, friend of John Mack, talked about the quality of woundedness in him, calling it a source of strength and compassion, creating openness to the world and its mysteries. Mack was able to remain open to feeling and to the wounded, even when mocked and persecuted for it. He was not perfect but a the more profoundly was a truly good man, a man of simplicity, humility, purity, piety, lack of affectation, kindliness, graciousness, and more. And these weren’t abstractions for him. No person or situation could alter the integrity and wholeness of his central being. Status meant nothing. He didn’t care if you were a Nobel Laureate or a janitor. He respected the right of every soul. He had an Augustinian sense of humanity. Love means “I want you to be,” and John wanted us all to be. He will always be here because he was so vividly present to all who knew him. (Again, I could not help but recognize Lawrence in this description).

A quartet of oboe, cello, piano and violin performed at the beginning and end of the service. In the middle, pianist Randy Nickerson performed Chopin’s Opus Posthumous in C# Minor as well as “Composition for John” that he’d written just after Mack’s death.

Reverend Gomes, in his closing remarks, said that of the transition from this life to the next we know nothing, and John Mack now knows everything. In the face of the greatest of all mysteries, we stand silent. Recalling John Mack’s spirit and life, we rejoice in what we remember.

I left the service with a stronger impression of Mack the maverick, who shot through life like a comet, bright, responsive, fluid, daring. His death was truly a loss for the Lawrence community and for everyone who knew him or his work.

Elaine A. Steblecki is co-editor of T. E. Notes, a newsletter about British officer T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”).