‘Frontier Struggles’ Colonie author’s story about the underdog; psychologists fought to regulate their own professions

James Schlett has authored "Frontier Struggles: Rollo May and the Little Band of Psychologists Who Saved Humanism." (photos provided)
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James Schlett has authored "Frontier Struggles: Rollo May and the Little Band of Psychologists Who Saved Humanism." (photos provided)

Coming off the release of his first book, Colonie author James Schlett was looking for a break; for some light reading, when he came across a story he couldn’t ignore.

His first book “A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosopher’s Camp in the Adirondacks,” published in 2015, required years of research and editing.

“After five years of being dedicated to this one thing in Adirondack history, I had my first opportunity to do leisurely reading so, me being me, my first choice for leisurely reading was Rollo May’s ‘Psychology and the Human Dilemma,’” Schlett said.

The former Gazette reporter had read the book several times before and was a fan of the late existential psychologist’s writing. He found May particularly inspiring during his late teens when he needed encouragement.

“I had a brain tumor when I was 17 and . . . [May’s writing] really helped rouse a lot of courage in me when I needed it,” Schlett said. “It instilled the belief that you’re not helpless, that even in the face of circumstances that are bigger than you and that you have no control over, you still have some minute amount of freedom to choose how you approach those situations. You can either just be resigned to them or you can have courage and fight and accept responsibility for what and who you become.”

When he first read May’s “Man’s Search for Himself,” he was a sophomore at Siena College. It was about two years after he’d undergone surgery to remove the brain tumor and was on the long road to recovery.

“I read this book and it completely changed [me]. It shook me to the core,” Schlett said.

May’s messages of courage, strength and personal responsibility stuck with him.

Years later, when he picked up “Psychology and the Human Dilemma” in 2015, he discovered the author had a local connection.

“He mentions how back in the ‘50s he was leading this effort in New York State for psychologists to regulate their own professions and he had to fight against the American Medical Association,” Schlett said.

Most of the fight took place in Albany and was incredibly contentious, with espionage and political infighting. Psychologists hoped to regulate their field, keeping it separate from the organized medical community. However, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, among other groups, wanted to widen the legal definition of the “practice of medicine,” lumping in all mental conditions. From the humanistic perspective of psychologists like May, that would lead to patients being treated like nothing more than machines.

“The humanistic psychologists wanted to help people self-actualize and find that strength within themselves and that was not always something that you wanted to . . . resolve with a pill.

“It’s not to say that [that doesn’t have its] place but as Rollo May would say people are a lot stronger than we give them credit and sometimes you just have to remind them of that,” Schlett said.

“I knew then that that was going to be my second book,” Schlette said. “For a couple months, I tried resisting the urge to do it just because I knew it was a big undertaking.”

Yet, the story was too strong to pass up.

“I started just doing some passive research, which was interesting because . . . all the documents, all the original manuscripts were either at the University of Akron or the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Rollo May’s papers are,” Schlette said.

He requested and pored through hundreds of pages of documents, including meeting minutes and correspondence between May, other psychologists and the medical community.

“You’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you’re looking for one letter, you’re looking for one meeting note,” Schlett said. “It comes to hundreds of newspaper articles, hundreds of academic journals, and you just piece together the story.”

After a few years of researching and piecing the story together, “Frontier Struggles: Rollo May and the Little Band of Psychologists Who Saved Humanism,” was published earlier this year by The University of Akron Press.

It tracks the unlikely fight between a relatively small group of psychologists and a well-funded organized medical community.

“For years, the psychologists were very afraid of going up against the organized medicine, which was then one of the nation’s most powerful lobbies. It had more money than any other organization in terms of spending in Washington D.C. Then you had the poor psychologists but they had a good message and they formed the right alliances with social workers and the clergy and they won,” Schlett said.

The book also provides historical context and delves into the ripple effects that the New York psychologists’ victory had. After Gov. W. Averell Harriman signed the Van Wiggeren-Savarese bill, which regulated the field of psychology in 1956, California, Maryland and New Hampshire passed laws regulating the industry as well.

Perhaps most of all, the book is about victory in the face of almost-certain defeat.

“If you like stories about the underdog. . . then this is the book that you want to read,” Schlett said.

For more information visit blogs.uakron.edu/uapress.

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