The Positive Disintegration of Robert F. Kennedy, Part I: The Overexcitable Attorney General

Jessie Mannisto / July 5, 2018

Years before I first heard the term “positive disintegration,” I was struck by the process as it played out in a biography of Robert F. Kennedy. Intense, quirky, and with a sense of the epic, RFK and his life journey reveal the human drama beneath Kazimierz Dabrowski’s academic jargon, showcasing overexcitability, dynamisms, and inner psychic transformation in all its dramatic glory.

It was by accident that I stumbled across the story of Bobby Kennedy.  My parents’ families hadn’t been fans of JFK back in the day, so I wasn’t raised with the mythic image of the Kennedy administration common among those on the Left.

Then I moved to Japan, where I jumped at any chance to read a good book in my native language.  One day, a coworker of mine—an eccentric Japanese fellow who loved American politics—kindly left a few of his English-language books on my desk.  One of these happened to be a dual biography of John and Robert Kennedy.  Though the book didn’t change my opinion of JFK, I was surprised to find that his little brother impressed me.  Here was a politician who was quirky in a way I related to—not at all the confident, highly integrated type common among those who rise to political stardom.  More impressively still, Bobby showed a true capacity for growth, in a way that was unusual not merely for politicians, but for human beings in general.  I decided I wanted to know more about him, so when I was next back in the States, I picked up Robert Kennedy: His Life, an excellent biography by Evan Thomas. (Ed. Note: When not otherwise indicated, citations in this piece are to Thomas’s book.)

Rereading the biography now that I’ve studied Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD), it strikes me that even though Evan Thomas probably has never heard of TPD, he couldn’t be illustrating it more explicitly if he tried.  In the life of Robert Francis Kennedy, we see all the highlights of the theory: a sensitive, imaginative, questioning young person grows up struggling under strong internal and external pressures, more or less managing his maladjustment until trauma strikes and he disintegrates utterly, eventually rebuilding himself, phoenix-like, by means of a white-hot inner flame.

It all starts when Thomas gives Bobby the usual label given to those with Dabrowskian developmental potential: “too intense” (23).

A Maladjusted Runt and the Second Factor

It’s reasonable to speculate that several members of the Kennedy family probably qualify as intellectually gifted. Certainly the eldest children, Joe Jr., Jack, and Kathleen, had the sort of superstar profiles we want to expect from gifted children, though we might also speculate that this is because they were so wealthy and privileged.

Bobby as a child

Bobby, however, didn’t seem to fit that elite mold. The Kennedys’ seventh child and third son showed signs of what some gifted education experts call asynchronous development—that is, of being out of step with the traits and behaviors expected at a given age.  Though this asynchronicity isn’t a core part of TPD, we can argue that Dabrowski made way for others to tie it in later when he wrote that “[p]ositive infantilism is a function of strong imaginational and emotional overexcitability usually combined with creative talent” (1996, p. 140).  Bobby remained asynchronous throughout his life.  According to Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who befriended him when he was in the Senate, Senator Robert F. Kennedy still sometimes resembled an awkward teenager; at other times, he was childlike in his wonder, in his curiosity, in his enthusiasms. He would make a face when he was put off by something, and he got excited about eating ice cream.  His personal favorite flavor was chocolate, as he told Coles in an animated conversation about the merits of various flavors (20-21).

But as you might imagine, the childhood manifestation of this asynchrony was not met with approval by a patriarch who was grooming his sons for high political office. Bobby’s siblings echoed their father’s harsh judgment: sister Eunice once told a friend that, unlike the rest of her siblings, Bobby was “hopeless” and would “never amount to anything.” Reflecting on his own childhood, Bobby remarked, “I was very awkward. […] I was pretty quiet most of the time. And I didn’t mind being alone” (31).

In Bobby’s teenage years, we see glimmers of what Dabrowski called hierarchization, in which a person perceives higher and lower paths in life. As a high schooler, Bobby was a nonconformist. He made his first real friend in the eleventh grade, a younger kid named David Hackett who “was impressed with Kennedy’s unwillingness to compromise to gain acceptance,” such as refusing to join in dirty jokes or stepping in when upperclassmen tried to bully younger kids (39). Moreover, as Kennedy and Hackett came to recognize their immense privilege, they began to question it. Thomas cites Bobby’s questions to his father about the bleak tenements he saw out the window of a train. Couldn’t something be done? But Kennedy Sr. brushed off his son’s budding social conscience. This sort of hierarchization, especially in the face of external conflict, planted the seeds—though they would take time to blossom—for RFK’s multilevel disintegration, the process described in TPD in which a person’s internal struggles orient him toward the path that he’s now recognized as the higher.

In the meantime, however, family pressures were the central theme in young Bobby’s story, illustrating what in TPD is called the second factor. While the first factor is our physiological endowment—the stuff we often refer to as “nature”—the second factor is our “nurture” and all the environmental and social pressure it entails. Despite Bobby’s resistance to peer pressure, his father loomed large in his life, and generally not in an uplifting way. As Thomas reviews his subject’s youth, he speculates that in a later era, young Bobby would have been diagnosed with depression. He wanted to be recognized in the family the way that Joe and Jack were—to prove he wasn’t the runt that his father thought he was (54). And so the second factor was the rudder that steered Robert Kennedy’s early adulthood.

Emotional Overexcitability in the President’s Cabinet

Of course, the nuclei of the instinct of self-perfection already appear in the first symptoms of the developmental potential in psychic overexcitability, especially emotional, in the nuclei of the inner psychic milieu, in the nuclei of transgression of one’s psychological type and in the dynamism of inner psychic transformation.

—Dabrowski, 1973, p. 28

But let’s return to the first factor for a moment. It’s here that we find one of TPD’s most well-known concepts: overexcitability (OE), which Dabrowski defined as a response to stimuli that markedly exceeds the average (1996, p. 71). If you search the Internet for people talking about OE, you’ll find a lot of parents who are trying to handle the intensity of their young children.

If you pick up Robert Kennedy: His Life, you’ll see the adult manifestation of OE in spades.

At its most basic level, overexcitability is physiological—it’s something a person is born with. The experience of absorbing more stimuli and processing it more deeply than most can manifest as being “tightly wound” (77) with “natural agitation” (173)—descriptions that Thomas uses repeatedly to describe Bobby.

But Dabrowskian overexcitability means more than just being high strung. It also shows itself in behaviors that reveal the five domains of overexcitability that Dabrowski identified—sensual, psychomotor, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional. There are glimmers of all of them in Bobby’s life: his sensual OE is evident, for instance, in that love of ice cream and in his being drawn to the beauty of brilliant sunshine and the sea (286), while his psychomotor OE is obvious from the number of times we see him dive on a whim into the ocean. In keeping with Dabrowski’s prediction, however, it’s Bobby’s copious imaginational, intellectual, and especially emotional OE that are at the heart of his disintegration and reintegration. According to Dabrowski’s colleague Michael Piechowski, the experience of being emotionally overexcitable includes heightened, intense feelings, extremes of complex emotions, identification with others’ feelings, and strong affective expression (Piechowski, 1991). We see these patterns early in Bobby Kennedy’s life.

When we left our young subject, the second factor was still the major theme of his story.  As we rejoin him, his desire to prove himself through service to his family has landed him the role of big brother Jack’s campaign manager. It was here that he first gained a reputation as “ruthless”—a label that he would grow to hate, questioning his friends as to whether he really deserved it. Early on, at least, perhaps he did: he showed at that stage a black and white approach to moral questions (65), dividing the world dogmatically into good and evil (76).  This suggests immature cognition, representing what we might label unilevel in the language of TPD: despite the glimmers of hierarchization we saw earlier, Bobby’s emotional overexcitability was strong, but it hadn’t yet produced the powerful multilevel dynamisms through which a person recognizes a higher path and reintegrates at a higher level. As a moody, frustrated youth, ruthlessly defending his clan, Bobby was not above picking physical fights with people who slandered his family (44). According to Thomas,

Although RFK was emotional as a young man, his anger so close to the surface that it showed as clench-fisted rage, he did not show many signs of self-awareness. He felt strongly, but it is doubtful that he understood his own passions. He would, in later years, seek to understand human nature, including his own, by reading and thinking. But as a thirty-year-old, he was more reactive than reflective. Without quite realizing why, he seemed to be searching, with a kind of grim determination, for an outlet for his anger—for an enemy he could attack. (70)

I expect this passage will resonate with many who are drawn to TPD—those who have begun to see a higher and lower course where before there was only ambivalence, and who have therefore rejected elements of their previous integration. Here we find cause for those going through disintegration—even the turmoil and confusion of unilevel disintegration (Dabrowski’s Level II)—to take heart, for this story suggests that growth from the most painful and disorienting of levels is possible.

The Attorney General has not yet spoken, but I can feel the cold wind of his disapproval on the back of my neck.

President John F. Kennedy

If you want to know more about this stage of RFK’s story, I’ll direct you to Thomas’s book.  (Spoiler alert: JFK gets elected senator and then president, and appoints little brother Bobby as Attorney General.)  Suffice it for our purposes to say that as Bobby found an outlet for his energies—one that was his own, independent from his family’s—his frustration dissipated (83). But the president of the United States still had to grapple with Bobby’s overexcitability: many family members (or coworkers!) of emotionally overexcitable people at Level II or III will surely relate when JFK remarks at a cabinet meeting, “The Attorney General has not yet spoken, but I can feel the cold wind of his disapproval on the back of my neck” (140).

President Kennedy confers with the Attorney General, October 1, 1962

And though the central tragedy of RFK’s life had not yet struck, we see the multilevel disintegration (Level III) that began in his adolescence strengthening during his time as attorney general. In TPD, guilt, responsibility, and empathy are identified as dynamisms, which means that these internal experiences have the power to break down and rebuild a person’s personality structure. (Remember hierarchization? That’s a dynamism, too.) It’s as though the control center of a person’s character, which used to operate only based on the first and second factors, gets upgraded to include input from the third factor—that force that brings the power of freely chosen conscience on line. Hiearchization and guilt are dynamisms that occur at Level III, early in the process of remodeling that control center; responsibility and empathy take the lead at Level IV, when the subject actively steps back to the controls to try out his new and improved character.

I don’t care if we lose every election until Kingdom come. We put those guys in there and we are going to get them out.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy

Thomas reveals to us how heavily events like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the civil rights movement weighed on RFK’s conscience. The fate of the killed and abandoned Cuban exiles who attempted to overthrow Castro at the direction of the US government would fuel dynamic guilt, responsibility, and empathy. Other government officials brushed off the exiles who managed to make their way to Washington to plead for help, but Bobby’s response was different: “Anytime you have something to tell me, anytime you need me, you can come see me,” he told one of them (125). This was not mere lip service.  RFK was determined to rescue the soldiers who languished in Castro’s jails regardless of the political consequences. When warned by his advisors that paying a ransom would have political consequences, Kennedy responded, “I don’t care if we lose every election until Kingdom come. We put those guys in there and we are going to get them out.” Then, for excitable measure, he then threw his pencil across the table and walked out of the meeting (236).  Bobby’s deeply-felt responsibility and empathy emerges from his emotional overexcitability and points to his developmental potential.  And it made impression on the Cubans:

San Román could not get over Kennedy’s warmth and sensitivity, his lack of pretense and obvious feelings of moral obligation. Thirty-five years later, his feelings toward RFK bordered on reverence. “He suffered for me,” said San Román (177).

Intellectual Overexcitability and the Missile Crisis

Throughout the course of life of those who mature to a rich and creative personality their primitive instincts and impulses with which they entered life undergo a transformation. For instance, when the instinct of self-preservation changes, its primitive expression disintegrates, and it is instead transformed into the behavior of a human being with moral values.

—Dabrowski, 1970, p. 28

Though emotional overexcitability arguably sets the tone of RFK’s story, intellectual overexcitability played a crucial role in its course of events.  Bobby was not a star student in his day, but intellectual OE isn’t about good grades; it’s about the compulsion to take in as much information as possible and then to analyze it, to hoard knowledge and make wisdom from it. A young woman he had a crush on in his early 20s recalled him as “interested in everything” (52)—a hallmark of intellectual overexcitability. (She also said he was “a ten-year-old in a grown-up’s suit,” giving us more evidence of the positive infantilism we sometimes see in these types.)

He was also a questioner. Robert Kennedy became known as a “gadfly” (210)—a label that strongly suggests intellectual overexcitability. Wikipedia describes a gadfly as “a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potently upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities.”  The term was originally associated with Socrates. On trial for his life after saying politically unpalatable things, the ancient Greek philosopher argued that dissent, like the gadfly, is easy to swat, but that it’s needed “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”

Socrates gave his life for his refusal to stop asking questions. In Robert Kennedy’s case, we might ask whether that same trait helped save the world.

RFK at an Executive Committee meeting during the missile crisis

RFK’s tendency to lead with his anger meant he started off in the hawks’ camp. He felt betrayed by his Soviet contact, who had told him that there were no offensive missiles in Cuba. But according to Thomas, Bobby

did not hesitate to reverse field or rethink an answer, in part to simulate discussion, but also because he was working his own way through an extraordinarily complex set of problems. At other times, especially when his brother was not in the room, he became a consensus-maker, finding the middle ground between hawks and doves. Despite some unwise and intemperate remarks on the first day, one can always sense him trying to think a few steps ahead, working to calculate the unintended consequences, and then trying to head them off. (211)

Women Strike for Peace

According to Solicitor General Archibald Cox, RFK’s “initial reaction was often off the mark, but if you said ‘Listen a few minutes, Bob,’ he really did listen and think” (112). John Nolan, a former marine and US Supreme Court clerk who served as RFK’s administrative assistant, noted that “[o]nce he realized that something was significant, he became the most deliberate, most thoughtful, most intense man” (112). He shunned yes-men, preferring instead “to hire thinkers who would challenge and stir him” (304).

According to Thomas, “One of [Robert Kennedy’s] greatest gifts was the capacity to see things from the other side” (245).  Complementing Robert Kennedy’s pursuit of the facts were the imaginational and emotional OE that enabled him to envision what the Russians must be thinking and feeling.  It was when all three of these OEs came together that we see RFK at his finest, as captured by the State Department note-taker:

He thought it would be very, very difficult indeed for the President if the decision was for an air strike, with all the memory of Pearl Harbor and with all the implications this would have for us in whatever world there would be afterward. For 175 years we had not been that kind of country. A sneak attack was not in our traditions. Thousands of Cubans would be killed without warning, and a lot of Russians too. He favored action, to make known unmistakably the seriousness of the United States determination to get the missiles out of Cuba, but he thought the action should allow the Soviets some room for maneuver to pull back from their over-extended position in Cuba. (218)

Robert Kennedy’s speech carried the day for a blockade.  That wasn’t the end of the matter; before the thirteen days of the crisis had passed, RFK would tell the Soviet ambassador (who told Khrushchev he had never seen RFK so upset) that “the generals are itching for a fight” and that he didn’t know how much longer he and his brother could control the hawks (228).  There were indeed men in the room who saw nothing wrong with launching nuclear weapons, who had not a whit of empathy for anyone in Moscow who might be nuked (nor, by extension, for those in Washington who would be in exchange).

But the doves would prevail, in part because the gadfly had joined them.  When it was all over, JFK said, “Thank God for Bobby.”  All of us living today are surely fortunate that there was this high form of intellectual, imaginational, and emotional overexcitability in the Oval Office during those thirteen days.

What we’ve seen so far, however, is just the setup to the real drama of positive disintegration in Robert Kennedy’s life. Living with overexcitability predisposes a person to disintegration, but the overexcitability isn’t the same thing as the disintegration. And unfortunately, tragically, Bobby is about to discover this for himself.

Now Available! The Positive Disintegration of Robert F. Kennedy, Part II: The Courage to Reintegrate

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