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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 December 2010
During the Second World War, the experimental psychologist John Thompson was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a specialist in aviation medicine. After the end of the war he was sent to Germany to investigate what work the Luftwaffe had done in this field. He was stationed in Celle, some 20 miles from Bergen-Belsen. A former Luftwaffe hospital in Celle was then being used to accommodate some of the survivors of Belsen; and his encounter with these deeply traumatized victims changed Thompson's life. In the first place, he collected an immense dossier on the horrific medical experiments the Nazis had carried out in the concentration camps; and the information he and others collected and the determination to bring the perpetrators to justice played a considerable role in the trial of 23 prominent Nazi doctors in one of the Nuremberg trials.

These 23 were of course only the tip of the iceberg, and Weindling documents in great and complex detail the many different bodies and interests - American, British and French - who were involved in these trials. Thompson was in touch with them all: by now he had an international reputation - but this did not mean that his views had international influence: many medical people and politicians, for various reasons, were opposed to further prosecutions and some were more interested in evaluating the results the Nazi experiments had obtained than they were in pursuing the ethical issues which were the driving force in Thompson's work.

In the second place his experience alerted Thompson to the dangers of merely experimental psychology, and turned him away from this to a more therapeutic approach. He had already during the war converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and a deep spirituality infused his psychiatric work. Freudian and Jungian analysis, though they had many insights, were not, in his opinion enough: you could only help by deep personal involvement on a one-to-one basis with damaged personalities, and perhaps the greatest influence on him was Martin Buber.

Thompson saw Nazism and anti-Semitism as a profound sickness, saw many symptoms of this sickness among the Allies, too; and thought nothing less than a re-education could heal it, focussing in the first place on youth, He managed to persuade UNESCO to create three institutes in Germany (a Youth Institute, an Education Institute and a Social Science Institute) whose coordinated work was to throw light on youth problems. The scheme never lived up to his expectations; there was constant politicking around them and around Thompson personally at UNESCO. In 1954, disillusioned, Thompson left UNESCO and henceforth worked on a smaller, more individualistic scale to heal damaged young people. The remaining part of his life is told in the last third of the book.

He first worked in a Catholic community at Eau Vive, some 30 kms south-east of Paris. Initially set up in 1945 for young people under stress and for Paris students who wanted to develop their spiritual education, it soon attracted students from some 40 countries as well as priests in training from several countries. It also was a home for some psychotic youths with whose care Thompson, for whom Eau Vive had been his home base since 1951 when he was still working for UNESCO, occupied himself. The book recounts several remarkable instances of the effect his patient attention had on severely sick youngsters, including on one bright young delinquent whom Thompson had picked up, lying in the street in Germany, for whom he became guardian and adoptive father anbd whom he saw through Oxford and Edinburgh.

Alas, Eau Vive would be as riven by faction as UNESCO had been. Its charismatic director, Père Thomas Philippe, was under the jurisdiction of a nearby Dominican monastery, and he fell out with his superiors. He was removed from his directorship in 1952. This split the community. Thompson threw himself into the effort to get Père Thomas' exile rescinded, but Eau Vive was dissolved in 1956. The collapse of this spiritual paradise was to haunt Thompson almost as much as Belsen did.

He then worked as director of a Child Guidance Clinic in Oxford (1952 to 1957) and finally at a psychiatric hospital in New York (1957 to his death, drowning while scuba-diving, in 1965).

The book is not easy going - it is immensely detailed and that sometimes makes it hard to see the wood for the trees; but there emerges the image of a remarkable and complex man. He made an enormous impact on many people who met him - not only on colleagues and patients but on a great range of famous people who were either friends (Auden, Spender and T.S.Eliot among them) or men he enlisted in support of his ideas; for he always went straight to the top, partly because he knew he was more effective in one-to-one encounters than in written submissions and also because he was hostile to all impersonal bureaucracy. They included, among others, Auden, Spender, and T.S.Eliot (all friends), Gilbert Murray, Karl Mannheim, Isaiah Berlin, Lionel Curtis, Sir William Beveridge, Jacques Maritain, Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII), Cardinal Griffin, Bishop George Bell, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arnold Toynbee and Julian Huxley, the Director-General of UNESCO.

Thompson emerges from this book as charismatic, visionary, spiritual, inspirational, giving of himself both psychologically and materially, often remarkably successful on a one-to-one basis, but often profoundly depressed and, I think, a little mad. A life well worth writing and reading about.
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