From Psychology to Psychiatry

After my first year of seminary, I married my best friend from college.  Paul was a seminary student as well.  He planned to be a church pastor.  But with his “radical” beliefs (consistent with mine), we knew that securing a pastorate was a long shot.

Paul and I both had to work to make ends meet.  My first jobs were at a health food restaurant, a book store and a clothing store.  Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at the State psychiatric hospital just outside of Louisville, Ky.   He worked with significantly impaired patients and with significantly abusive co-workers.  I admired his courage.

I hoped for more meaningful work that was also more lucrative, i.e. paid more than minimum wage.  During one of my daily reads of the want-ads, I ran across a position for a part-time psychiatric aide at a local private hospital.  It was very tempting, but I was fearful.  Could I deal with unpredictable, perhaps violent, individuals?  Paul encouraged me to give it a try.

Becoming a psychiatric aid was my first foray into the professional world, and I found it fascinating.  I assisted patients with illnesses that ranged from personality disorders to major depression to schizophrenia.  I took every opportunity to learn from doctors and nurses about psychiatric symptoms, causes and treatments.

A couple of experiences stand out as instructive for my future work.  One evening, a young woman was brought to the ward by the police.  She was so out of her head that she had to be physically restrained.  The woman had reported thoughts of putting her new born baby in the oven.  Her preliminary diagnosis was post-partum depression, with psychotic features.  The doctor called the staff into the lock-down room for assistance.  “Watch this,” one of the nurses said to me.  The doctor gave the woman tied down on the bed an injection of sodium pentothal.  In just a few minutes, the woman was sitting there having a cogent conversation with the doctor.  Wow!  I imagined her brain before drugs and after drugs.  Sometimes your brain on drugs is a good thing.  The woman was able to return to her baby in just a few weeks.

The second experience was my observation of an electroshock therapy session.  The patient was, like me, a seminary student.  He was deeply depressed and had grandiose religious delusions.  We had had some conversations on the ward about his religious views.  Sometimes mental illness draws upon what you believe to be true and amplifies it.  Now the student/patient lay unconscious, strapped down with electrodes connected to various parts of his body.  As the electricity was turned on, the nurse pointed to the man’s ankle.  His flesh was vibrating.  The room suddenly seemed very hot.  For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to faint.  I excused myself.


In college, I majored in religion and in psychology. I found the subjects equally fascinating. With psychology, I was particularly intrigued by abnormal psychology — the study of why some of us, either occasionally or consistently, act outside the bounds of socially accepted behavior. As with any typical psych major, my family was the primary group on whom I applied my new found education.

Mama was in a fragile state for much of my college years. Her life fell apart when my stepfather disappeared with their 5 year old son, my half-brother. He picked David up from daycare and kept going.  Mama also lost her job at a local hotel. She moved in with her parents (Grandmama and Granddaddy to me) in their double-wide trailer.  Grandmama was very sick from decades of cigarette smoking and was not expected to live much longer. Granddaddy was a disabled WWII veteran.  These were, needless to say, very dark days.

Psychology was useful for me in understanding my dysfunctional family, but Mama did not take well to any psychological analysis. Nonetheless, to her credit, Mama pulled herself through the nightmare, relying in large part on the strength she found in her conservative religious beliefs.

Mama was determined to find my brother and to bring him home. She became a sleuth, sometimes wearing disguises to get the information she needed. Mama finally found David in Pensacola, Florida, where she and my stepfather had met. She brought David home, just in time to see Grandmama before she died. Mama soon found a new job and a new man, whom she later married.

I remember talking to Mama on the phone one night. I told her that none of my friends in college had parents who were divorced. “None?” she asked in disbelief. “None,” I confirmed. I was abnormal.

Choices of the Heart

I always wanted to be brave, but I lacked the confidence.  Mama and I moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I was often the new kid on the block.  I was shy and awkward, almost always the tallest girl in the class and the one with the thickest glasses.   If that were not enough to make me a target of class bullies, my hair was “stringy,” as Grandmama called it, and my unstylish hair went well with my unstylish outfits made by her.

It was my sense of mission that gave me courage, or at least the courage to hope that I would be courageous if the need arose.  A transformative moment was when I watched a TV movie in 1983 called “Choices of the Heart.”   The movie was about Jean Donovan, an American lay missionary who at the age of 27 was raped and murdered, with three nuns, by a Salvadoran death squad.   Jean had traveled to El Salvador in 1977 to serve the poor.  She stayed for three years despite the increased danger that drove others out of the war-torn country.

I was greatly affected by the dedication and courage of Jean Donovan to stand by the poor in the face of torture and death.  I wondered if I would have stayed.  Would I have even gone?

In seminary, my favorite classes were those about social justice, race and religion, and liberation theology.  I dreamed of having the opportunity to serve the poor in Central America or in some inner city.  I wondered if all the great social movements were over, and I had missed them.

On to Seminary and the Study of Theology

At the small Southern Baptist college I attended, it was common and natural for students upon graduation to make a bee-line to a Southern Baptist seminary.  All were tuition free, so it made economical and professional sense to seek out a Masters degree.  There were several seminaries from which to choose.  Their key distinctions were location, size and theological views of the faculty.

I chose the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.  The school’s faculty had an outstanding reputation and registered — for the most part — on the liberal end of the theological meter.

Most people have never seen a liberal Southern Baptist.  They are now an extinct species, but I can confirm from personal experience that they did exist.  Of course, all things are relative and the label “liberal” is no exception.

I attended Southern in the b.f. era – before the fundamentalists.  There had always been plenty of fundamentalist students at Southern, but during the 1980s, fundamentalist religious leaders launched a strategic plan to take over the assets of the Southern Baptist Convention, particularly the education centers – the seminaries.   Their biggest criticism of the seminaries was that some professors did not adhere to, and certainly did not teach from, a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

Southern Seminary had several schools, each of which offered several degrees.  I decided to pursue a Masters of Divinity and signed up for the “theology” track, a track taken by students preparing to be church pastors and by others wanting to focus their studies on theology (as opposed to music, social work or church education).  I fell into the second category.  I had no desire to be a preacher.  I hated public speaking.   But I loved the study of theology, church history, Greek, Hebrew and public policy.

The fundamentalists had just turned their attention to Southern when I arrived in 1983.  To fundamentalists, a literal interpretation of the Bible means that women cannot be pastors.  Accordingly, I was not welcomed by all on the theology track.  When I co-chaired the Women in Ministry group on campus, one student went so far as to write an editorial in the school paper about the group.  In it, he proclaimed that I was going to hell.  Somehow, I found his proclamation to be validating.

Changing the Fundamentals

I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.

I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists.  Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.

My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world.  I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others.   I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.

In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology.  I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions.   And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.

By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.

Setting Off on My Own

Neither of my parents, who divorced when I was five, went to college.  I was a good student and was determined to go.  Rome had two colleges and a junior college, and there were many colleges and universities in the region.   Most of my classmates headed to those or to the big state universities.  I headed to a small private Baptist college in the mountains, Carson Newman College.

I worked three of my four summers in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, two dipping ice cream at a Baptist conference center and another working at a glass shop at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tn.  I never would have imagined that I would return to those mountains years later as a lawyer.

Strong Mountain Women

I love the Appalachian mountains.  I was born and, for the most part, raised in Rome, Georgia, a small town nestled in the foothills of Appalachia.  My Mama, her parents and I would “go riding,” at least once a year, deep into North Georgia mountains, sometimes in the fall to see the leaves and buy apples and sometimes to see Bertie,  wife of Granddaddy’s first cousin, in Clarksville.  Bertie, as Mama describes her, was “a good ole mountain woman.”  There was a lot of gossip, laughter and just hanging out on these trips.

Mama was very close to Bertie’s daughter, Linda.  As a teenager, I really admired Linda.  As far as I could tell, she could do most anything.  She made — among other things — dolls and ceramics.  Her and her husband even built a house by hand deep in the woods.   Linda also took care of her daughter, B.J.

B.J. and I were born about the same time.  There is a cute picture of her and me on a blanket, just a few months old.   But while I developed mentally and physically at a “normal” pace, she did not.  BJ was a constant reminder to me of how fortunate I was.  In 1980, BJ had a stroke and had to be taken care of around the clock.  Linda took on this responsibility, and like many a strong mountain woman, Linda found a way to survive in the dark times.  As she sat day in and day out by her daughter’s side, Linda discovered a talent for art.   A video of Linda and her folk art can be found at