Zelda’s teeth

Most of the information about psychoanalysis in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night is pinchbeck, but I noticed something unexpectedly genuine when re-reading it yesterday. After Nicole Diver grabs the steering wheel from her husband Dick and nearly gets the whole family killed, Dick decides to take a vacation of sorts from the psychiatric clinic where he works and his wife resides. His excuse is a psychiatrists’ conference.

He had no intention of attending so much as a single session of the congress—he could imagine it well enough, new pamphlets by Bleuler and the elder Forel that he could much better digest at home, the paper by the American who cured dementia praecox by pulling out his patient’s teeth or cauterizing their tonsils, the half-derisive respect with which this idea would be greeted, for no more reason than that America was such a rich and powerful country.

The American psychiatrist who pulled teeth to cure schizophrenia was a real person: Henry Cotton, profiled by historian Andrew Scull last year in Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine, a book I’ve been meaning to read. Cotton believed that schizophrenia occurred when brains were poisoned by toxins produced by infection. To cure the psychopathology, he thought, you had to treat the infection. He therefore pulled out his patients’ teeth, tonsils, and long sections of their colons, killing many of them in the process. Cotton’s mentor, and to some extent enabler, was Adolf Meyer, and as it happens, Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, upon whom the character of Nicole Diver was not very loosely based, was in Meyer’s care at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in the early 1930s. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Meyer long letters protesting that he wasn’t really an alcoholic.

As near as I can suss out the chronology by skimming, by the time Zelda was in Meyer’s care, Cotton was in the process of being exposed as a fraud. But Cotton held to his scientific theories until he dropped dead in 1933, the year before Tender Is the Night was published. Fitzgerald probably resented Meyer’s authority, and he certainly envied it, so perhaps there was an intentional jab at Meyer in Dick Diver’s scorn for Meyer’s protégé. Or perhaps the novelist simply sensed what was bogus before the expert did.