Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research.
by Wardell B. Pomeroy.
Harper & Row. 479 pp. $10.00.
Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research is probably the fullest, the most intimate portrait that we are ever going to get of the man whom the author calls “the greatest figure in sex research since Freud.” Wardell Pomeroy, therapist, marriage counselor, author of a pair of teen-age advice books (chastely separated into Boys and Sex and Girls and Sex), was Kinsey’s closest associate for thirteen years. Of the 18,000 personal histories on file in the Indiana Institute which formed the basis for the two monumental volumes on American sexual behavior, Pomeroy and Kinsey together conducted 85 per cent of the interviews. In addition, every two years up to Kinsey’s death in 1956 they exchanged their own personal histories in order to keep their files up to date—Pomeroy possibly knew more about Kinsey than any other living person, including Kinsey’s wife. And Kinsey, it seems, was a remarkable man. Pomeroy’s book, bordering at times on the worshipful, is testimony to his personal magnetism, his ability to inspire trust, generate intense loyalty, and dominate those around him by the force of his personality—in this, comparisons with Freud are certainly not misplaced. One colleague explained: “Somehow nothing defeated him. He was able to look through the ugliness to something lovely beyond. I often thought about him as an athlete of the spirit.” What glimpse, then, does Pomeroy offer us of this amazing man?
Pomeroy’s Kinsey is a collecting machine, and a cataloguing zealot. As a youth it was stamps, and as an Eagle Scout, merit badges, though perhaps one reads too much into Kinsey’s life to see his adult patterns reflected all the way back to childhood. But at Harvard the boy blossomed into the man, and Alfred Kinsey, or at least Pomeroy’s Kinsey, took off. Somehow his compulsive collecting energies got focused on gall wasps, with the result that Kinsey divided his time between cross-country hikes collecting bugs and long hours in the laboratory, classifying them according to twenty-eight different measurements. The gall wasp lived in oak trees, and so strenuously did Kinsey labor that “in time,” says Pomeroy, “he became the leading authority in the world not only on these insects, but on oak trees as well.” When Kinsey finally donated his wasp collection to the American Museum of Natural History, it had become the largest gift of its kind the museum was ever to receive, numbering over four million different specimens.
Along the way Kinsey collected a wife, the first girl he ever dated, but truly it was a marriage made in heaven: “After ignoring, or being ignored by, girls all his life, Kinsey had found the one in a million who was as fascinated by insects as he was,” and, adds Pomeroy, “it was not surprising that she joined enthusiastically in the hunt for gall wasps.” When the children, three of them, arrived and were old enough, they too went trekking through the woods looking for oak trees and collecting gall wasps.
The four million gall wasps might have grown to eight million but for the intervention of fate: in 1938 Indiana University decided to offer a marriage (that is, a sex) course, taught jointly by a law professor, an economics professor, a sociology professor, a philosophy professor, a biology professor, and a professor of medicine. And chosen to coordinate this rather touchy and bulky project was the world’s leading authority on gall wasps. Kinsey, the collecting machine, had found his life’s vocation and purpose, a dream to work toward: the goal of 100,000 personal histories. As he himself explained: “[The project] has given us a wealth of material by which . . . I hope to prove to the world someday that any subject may be a profitable field for scientific research if zealously pursued and handled with objective scholarship.”
If Pomeroy’s account is to be believed, it all happened automatically. Kinsey began by collecting wasps and then, simply because of an accident, turned to the sexual histories which were to make his name a household word. In Pomeroy’s view, you could have wound up Dr. Kinsey, set him down in the streets of New York, and he would have happily spent the remainder of his life cataloguing every variety of garbage to be found on the city sidewalks. And if we add to this Pomeroy’s personal description of Kinsey—everything from his drab exterior, his unchanging placidity, his weak sense of humor, his distrust of theory, his secretiveness, his formal table manners, his contempt for games and anything which seemed to him a waste of time, his rigidity, his crew cut, his love of routine, his abstinence from liquor and tobacco, his dry empiricism, his hatred of beards, his total lack of political interest, his insistence on precision, down to, and including, his ubiquitous bow tie—if we put all of this together we might indeed wonder how anyone could have worshiped him or found him “an athlete of the spirit.” If anything, Pomeroy’s Kinsey sounds like a walking illustration of the tyranny of the mean. How can we square this automaton, this least common denominator, with the man whose warmth, again to quote Pomeroy, “impressed everyone who met him”? Indeed, if this was Alfred Kinsey—whose life’s work was measured by a number—how could he have persuaded anyone at all to reveal his deepest personal secrets to him?
But of course Pomeroy’s Kinsey is not the real Alfred Kinsey, or at least not all of him, for what we have here is a onesided presentation, an advocate’s brief. Pomeroy’s book exists not only to recount the life of the man he admires but also to expound the proposition that Kinsey belongs with the immortals, and in order to make his case, Pomeroy is obliged to assert that what Kinsey did, i.e., describe and count, was the essence of science. Thus we have the dedication: “This book is dedicated to the scientific spirit and method in research that Alfred C. Kinsey epitomized and to which he gave his life.” But because Pomeroy’s definition of science, like Kinsey’s, is quantification pure and simple, all methods and no spirit, he is compelled to focus on Kinsey the collector and underplay everything about the man that was intangible, psychological, irrational, everything that he loved about Kinsey—in short, everything that was human. The single most important decision in Kinsey’s life must have been the one to shift from collecting wasps to human histories, but Pomeroy gives us no clue as to why the choice was made other than because Kinsey found himself “working in a research field virtually unexplored.” But how did Kinsey get involved in the marriage course in the first place? Wasn’t there anything about it that particularly sparked his interest? Was sexuality just another subject for him? Questions like those are avoided or ignored because a quantifier like Pomeroy has no way of dealing with internal states.
Kinsey was a quantifier too, but his disciple, in order to beatify him, has pushed the teacher’s lesson beyond anything that was originally intended, sacrificing, in the process, the fullness of the man to the quantifier’s ideal of the perfect scientist. The most revealing passage in the book is Pomeroy’s response to the question of how he knew when an interviewee was lying. For Pomeroy the answer was simple: “There are only three possible ways of not telling the truth: by denying or covering up, by exaggerating, or by remembering incorrectly. Exaggeration was almost impossible with the system we used for asking questions rapidly and in detail. . . . Not remembering accurately could be dealt with statistically. . . . Covering up, however, was the most serious problem, since there were so many taboo items in most people’s histories. But there were numerous cross-checks, so an answer at one point actually gave us a clue to an answer elsewhere.” Yet Pomeroy has already given us Kinsey’s own reply to exactly the same question: “The experienced interviewer knows when he has established a sufficient rapport to obtain an honest record in the same way that the subject knows that he can give that honest record to the interviewer. Learning to recognize these indicators, intangible as they may be, is the most important thing in controlling the accuracy of an interview.” That is, what was a matter of human interaction, vibrations, and “feel” for Kinsey has been reduced to one, two, three by Pomeroy.
Interviewing wasn’t the only lesson Pomeroy failed to grasp. “The trouble with you, Pomeroy,” Kinsey once told him, “is that you don’t appreciate the value of Freud. He was a great man.” And Pomeroy never did get the point, although Freud hovers over his book like some kind of holy ghost. On the one hand he frequently pairs Kinsey with Freud in order to establish his hero’s eminence and certify his achievement (“Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was as much a landmark in its field as Freud’s first work had been”), but on the other, Pomeroy can never bring himself to believe that Freud was much more than a metaphysical moralist or that psychiatry was anything but a house of straw. And although he never says so, there is obviously little doubt in Pomeroy’s mind that Kinsey’s accomplishment ranks higher than Freud’s. Indeed, how could it be otherwise, since according to Pomeroy’s notion of science not only Freud, but even such “hard” scientists as Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein are little more than mushy theologians and mystics?
Ironically, Kinsey the man has to be rescued from the clutches of his closest associate and greatest admirer, though in a sense Pomeroy knows what he is about: to retrieve Kinsey the man is to diminish the achievement of Kinsey the scientist—because if Pomeroy’s behavioral picture of Alfred Kinsey is not the whole story, then Kinsey’s quantitative approach to sexual behavior is not the whole story either, and some of the old questions concerning the Kinsey Report return. What was the point of collecting 100,000 histories anyway? What was to be gained? Is there anything to be learned from the Kinsey Reports other than that human sexuality is a wondrously varied phenomenon? Of course it is good to have that fact on record—many Americans, it seemed, needed to hear about it; and Kinsey’s ideas about prison reform and the social treatment of deviance still wait to be acted upon. But once everyone understands that surfaces conceal a bewildering variety of behavior, there is really nothing else that numbers alone can tell us. Kinsey published his own findings after collecting only 18,000 histories; what could he have added with 82,000 more?
Did Kinsey himself come to ask this question? Pomeroy suggests that Kinsey’s premature death was at least in part attributable to the loss of financial support following publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, but this is the voice of the disciple speaking, the advocate who continues to believe in the importance of his mentor’s unfinished work. But might Kinsey’s death not have been hastened by the loss of a sense of purpose, by the dawning realization that the goal he had set for himself was a meaningless one? Here too, perhaps, Pomeroy may simply have misunderstood what his teacher and idol was trying to tell him.