by Carmine Grimaldi
The essay begins:
In 1967, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the panicked headline “HIPPIES WARN CITY—100,000 WILL INVADE HAIGHT ASHBURY THIS SUMMER.” With the specter of homelessness, disease, addiction, and moral depravity looming, the city scrambled for some response: that summer, the San Francisco Assembly Committee on Public Health held a series of hearings to determine who exactly these new residents were, and how the anticipated crisis could be stanched.
Sitting before the committee, Dr. Ernest Dernburg, the director of psychiatric services at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, offered his professional opinion on the moral character of the hippie. He was working on the front lines of the crisis and would have been considered far more sympathetic to the counterculture than those working in traditional hospitals. And yet the portrait he drew was damning. The new generation, he explained to the committee, was “passive, withdrawn, emotionally unresponsive, drug dependent. They suffer . . . from massive psychological poverty.” He then pointed to a potential culprit: “Keep in mind that this generation is the first to grow up in front of the television set. These children have been sitting passively before it, receiving stimulation from it, living mostly inside their heads, all during their period of development.” This sentiment was hardly new; the moral panic about television has run in tandem with the medium’s history. At the beginning of the decade, when many of Dernburg’s patients were “growing up in front of the television,” one widely read study warned that television “anesthetize[s] a person against pain and distress” and asked rhetorically, “In how many cases does television meet children’s needs in the same way as alcohol or drugs might do so?” If one wanted to assign blame for the legions of white, middle-class kids who were dropping school and acid, television was as good a candidate as any.
Following Dernburg’s rather alarmist evaluation, Dr. Harry Wilmer, then a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), spoke before the committee. Like Dernburg, he had founded a new psychiatric clinic for hippie drug users, just twenty blocks from the Haight, at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute. And like Dernburg, he agreed that television and mass media were largely responsible for the emergence of the counterculture. But unlike his colleague, who adhered to popular techniques of psychoanalysis and pharmacological remedies, Wilmer explained that he was developing a new approach that had only entered psychiatry in the last few years: it was a “pilot study” that sought to cure patients through the very medium that had originally harmed them—if used correctly, Wilmer explained, the television screen could be a potent medicine. In the next two years, he planned to use video feedback, made possible by videotape technology, to restructure the consciousness and sensorium of those who had fallen through the cracks of society. As he explained to the committee, “We are trying to reawaken the power to see and to interact.” This Janus-faced power of television clearly caught the imagination of the public—in what was the first of many newspaper articles about Wilmer’s project, the San Francisco Examiner’s headline read, “How TV Produces and Heals a Drug Generation.” Continue reading …
San Francisco’s “Hippie Drug Ward,” an experimental therapeutic clinic opened in 1967, sought to cure a wayward generation through an immersive multimedia environment. Examining archival records only recently made available, this paper explores the way the moving image—and in particular videotape—created a space in which style, affect, and psyche became commingled.
CARMINE GRIMALDI is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago and a fellow at Harvard’s Film Study Center. His writings have appeared in the Atlantic and Filmmaker Magazine, and his films have screened widely at festivals in the United States and abroad.