info facebook LinkenIn youtube


Jane KesslerJane Kessler

Psychologist and bookstore owner

Date of interview: October 4, 2010

On a glorious fall afternoon sitting in the loft overlooking the cozy bookstore she bought 20 years ago, former psychology professor and child psychologist Jane Kessler shared her views on growing up in a peripatetic and close-knit New England family, her experiences as a WAVE in World War II, how the vagaries of chance influenced her career focus, and why she feels that living in the here and now is the key to successful aging.

Jane Kessler featured in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oct 2012.
Click here to read the article.

When and where were you born and raised?

I was born March 9, 1921, in Beverly, Massachusetts, in the same house my mother was born in. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Beverly because my grandparents continued to live there.

What did your mother and father do and where you are in the sibling line-up?

My parents were New Englanders. My mother was a housewife, though she had gotten a bachelor's degree from Boston University and a master's degree from Columbia University in business economics. She was very interested in business and worked for quite a while for Jordan Marsh [department stores] in Boston. She was what was called a floor walker. They don't use that term anymore.

My father was a chemical engineer. He was from a little town called Dover Foxcroft in central Maine and graduated from MIT. My younger brother, Dustin, 5 1/2 years younger, was named after him. We traveled a great deal because my father was constantly going places for his job. He'd examine sites and prepare building plans for new refineries all over the United States and all over the world. We kept moving to wherever his job sent him. [Chuckles] I was in four different schools in the second grade.

What was it like, always moving, never having a real "home," never having real roots in a community?

It colored my personality. I got used to being alone and I didn't bother to make friends because I knew we were going to move. I didn't like moving all the time, but it wasn't because of losing friends, it was because all my things were boxed up and I couldn't find anything. [Chuckles] I got very sensitive to the signs that we were going to move again.

You came of age during the Depression years. Do you think the Depression shaped the person you are today?

Not too much. And it didn't affect my parents, except it affected their parents, particularly my mother's parents. They were in real estate and they raised horses, and things really started changing for them with the automobile coming in. They always lived with us and we helped support them. One thing I do remember was the bank holiday [March 5, 1933], and wondering how could they could close all the banks.

You graduated from high school at 16. How did that happen?

Moving around I'd go from an easy school to a hard school or vice versa. When I'd go from a hard school to an easy one I'd skip a grade. When I was in high school in Scarsdale [north of New York City], that was not an easy school. I really had to struggle to keep up. I graduated from there in 1937.

In high school, what were you good, and not so good, at?

Everyone was under the impression that I was brilliant and made wonderful grades and never studied. That wasn't true. I studied all the time, but I hid it, pretending that I just "knew" it. I liked researching and writing. In senior year I did an independent study project on New England in the period of Emerson and Hawthorne and I really enjoyed that. My brother was very good in music and athletics, but I wasn't good in either, although I did get a letter in tennis. And the reason for that is that no one ever bothered to turn up to play me. That's when I realized that in a lot of things, all you have to do to be a winner is show up.

When you went away to college, were you planning on becoming a psychologist?

No. My father thought I should go to Vassar, which was nearby and an all-girls school. I'd never had a date at this point and I decided that I'd better go someplace where my chances of dating were going to be better than at Vassar, so I picked the University of Michigan because I'd researched it: there were 10 boys to one girl. [Chuckles] I did have a good social life there, which sometimes interfered with the academic life. I'd told my father that I was going to go into chemical engineering, so that he'd accept the University of Michigan choice. And I did enroll in several [engineering] courses, but they didn't work out. In an advanced mathematics course, the professor agreed to give me a D if I promised not to take any more math. The experience in that course taught me what it meant to really be out of your depth.

My three years at Michigan are probably what shaped my personality. I became very aware of political events because [the University of] Michigan was a very political campus. The strikes were going on at Ford at that time. Students were very involved in the Communism that was going around...The Spanish Civil War was going on. Hitler was coming up. I was very involved in all these mind-boggling things.

And the football team was good, too. [Chuckles] There was hardly any time to spend in the classroom.

I graduated, with a degree in psychology, from college in 1940 when I was 19. And I couldn't figure out what to do, so I came back home to Scarsdale. I started working on my master's degree at Colombia, and was doing part-time sales work at Stern Brothers [Department Store]. In May of 1941 I married a man I had met at Michigan.

After getting your MA at Colombia, you joined the Navy. Where were you stationed, and what were you doing?

Actually, after Colombia I'd started work on a PhD at the University of Michigan, but when the war started I joined the Navy as a psychologist with the hospital corps. First I went to Smith College to be trained as an officer. Then I was sent to the hospital at Great Lakes Station, just outside of Chicago, for a couple of years. In 1943, I was sent to San Diego Naval Hospital.

I was always working with psychiatrists, but we weren't doing anything in the way of treatment. This was the place were I really got to see things, and learned a lot about testing and evaluating, but I wasn't thinking in terms of collecting information for the future: there was too much pressure to get the work done — fast.

After the war, you moved to Cleveland. What brought you here?

I divorced during the war, so I decided that since I was on the G.I. Bill that if they [CWRU's Psychology Department] would accept the credits I had from Michigan, I would finish the work here. I was interested in psychoanalysis and entered the training program, too. It was when I started working at University Hospitals that I made the professional choices I made.

When I started, I was their first psychologist. No one knew what to do with me, nor did I know what to do, because we weren't allowed at that time to do treatment. So once again, I was doing tests and evaluations.

A chance event had a major effect on my career. The hospital started a surgical procedure for [mentally retarded] children in the pediatric department, to increase blood flow — and therefore oxygen — to the brain. They had high hopes that this would increase IQ and stop mental retardation. People were coming from all over the world to get this operation. I didn't have my PhD, but was involved in testing the children — some 500 kids — before and after the procedure. What I found was that there was no greater change than what would have come naturally with age and living. I presented my findings a couple of places and that resulted in the loss of jobs for some people. But more than that, I realized that there were all those parents for whom the procedure had been their only hope. I was swamped with tremendous anxiety and guilt about what was going to happen to all these parents and children. That's when I started working with the mentally retarded, and got the Mental Development Center going at Western Reserve University. That was with the help of the Cleveland Foundation.

In 1958, after you founded the Mental Development Center, you were its director for over 20 years. What did the Center do?

After I got my PhD, I went to Case as a full-time professor in the Psychology Department. That's when we started a diagnostic center and counseling center for mental retardation — the Mental Development Center. It became an advocacy center for parents, too, because they had no place to go.

Initially, we did testing and evaluation. Then we got into parent counseling and we became very active working with the Cleveland schools, and had a special school on WRU's campus, too. We did workshops and we were involved in a lot of advocacy. [Chuckles] We were very, very busy.

In 1966, your groundbreaking text, Psychopathology of Childhood , was published. What led you to write it?

I was teaching a course on the psychopathology of childhood, and when you are teaching a course you write lecture notes and collect materials. That's part of your job. I did the book because I had all this information and there wasn't any other book like it. The timing was perfect for that kind of book. Today, there are many books on the subject.

During the 1960s and 1970s, you worked — and co-taught — with Dr. Benjamin Spock. What was it like to work with a man who was an international expert on baby and child rearing?

He was very good in front of the students and he was a very personable and friendly person. And, because the '60s and early '70s was an interesting period for a lot of reasons, he joined the students in many of their demonstrations. Everyone knew what his thoughts were on the Vietnam War. He used his personal experience, almost entirely, to work from, and he was very intuitive and empathic, particularly with babies, toddlers and very young children. When he started talking about school age children or adolescents, he was limited. His personal experience didn't cover that area very well, and he'd turn the course over to me at that point.

Though he wrote all the time, he never read anything. Everything he learned, he learned by word-of-mouth — with people telling him things — or what he'd experienced. We had a lot of good conversations, but I did find him somewhat anti-intellectual.

What do you think are current trends in child raising?

We had the first White House Conference on Child Development [in the U.S.] in 1910. And we had them every 10 years up to 1970. It's interesting to look at what the prime issues were at each conference, because they have changed considerably. One thing we have now that you didn't have before — and I don't quite know how to factor it in or out of the equation — is the focus on things like attention deficit disorder and autism and [other] learning disability disorders. It's difficult to be able to just look at the child-rearing trends for the kids who have no diagnosis at all. Everyone is more or less doing their own thing.

And you see a lot more provisions being made today by schools and others to take care of children. That means that more people are involved in child rearing today than just the parents. It really is more of a "village" approach today.

At 69, most people would think about retiring. You bought a bookstore and became a bookseller? That was a leap. What decided you to make it?

I knew that when I was 70 I'd have to leave the university — they had age limitations, which I don't think are so bad, by the way — and I didn't want to hang around academia or volunteer my life away, which I would have because I can never say no. And I didn't want to do private practice and have to deal with insurance restrictions, because I'd be working with a population with significant handicaps.

The book store looked like it would be a modest undertaking. And it was near where I was living at the time [Fairmount Blvd.]. And, because my family collected books from way back, I knew something about books. But I didn't know anything about business.

You've had the store for 20 years. Why did you stick with it?

[Chuckles] Why wouldn't I?

It's very much a neighborhood store and I live just around the corner. Everyone wondered in the beginning how I was going to compete with the big stores. And I admit that I thought, early on, about expanding, but now I realized it's good that we didn't. Being a small store serves us well. We have low overhead and people feel more comfortable in a small store. And because we are a neighborhood store, whenever we order a book we are pretty sure we know who will buy it. Our competition is the Internet, but we can compete with that because so many of our shoppers live around here. The real unknown now is Kindle, and we haven't gone in that direction because I'm waiting to see if they can simplify things.

What's a "normal" day like at Appletree Books?

[Chuckles] We are always busy. We order books three or four times a week. A normal day means lots of unpacking and then making sure the books get where they are supposed to go. Many days we are doing a book event. Yesterday we were down at the Botanical Garden. But the events aren't just about selling, they're about meeting people where they are and finding out what they want.

At 89, you're in robust health, both physically and mentally. What are you doing to maintain your physical health and stay sharp, focused, engaged?

I try to pay attention to what is going on around me. Not just work-related events, what's going on politically, what cultural and musical events are coming up. And I read the papers pretty thoroughly, including the business section.

I don't think very much about the past. Where I live, there are many older people, and I'm always amazed about how much they reminisce. That's thinking about what's gone and finished and done...the good old days. But, if you go back and look at them, they weren't all that good, so I'm not inclined to go back to the good old days. It's much more interesting to me to think about what's going on now and what's going to happen.

And I'm active with things I care about so I'm still paying a lot of attention to what's going on in the mental health field, and I'm fairly active with Magnolia Club House, which is a club house for mentally ill adults in University Circle. I'll be a bit less involved soon, though, because I've made the decision to give up driving, due to vision problems. This is a big issue for me, but I'm doing it — on my own, and a little ahead of when I would have to do it — because I know it's something I should do.

MythBusters is all about successful aging, and you personify the phrase "myth buster" — someone who is defying all the stereotypes about aging. How do you define successful aging?

Realizing that you still have a life, and that — one day at a time — you are constantly looking around and engaging in things that are important to you.

Do you think of yourself as being a MythBuster?

No, but I will admit that now that I'm going to be 90 I'm a bit surprised.

What are your tips for successful aging?

Be interested in the present. I don't mean you have to forget the past, but you have to put it aside and stick to the present. And by that I mean you have to develop a real interest in the present. For that, you might do some volunteering, but it has to be something you are really interested in, not just a hobby. And be interested in people, really interested. That's important.

Know yourself, what you can do and what you can't do. But it's not just the knowing, you have to accept your limits, too. When you do that, you are taking control of things.

You've had a lot of experience "looking inside" people, figuring out what motivates them. So, what do you think people need to be doing to become interested in actively planning to age?

More from having watched my own parents and grandparents age — not so much from my own background in psychology — I've come to realize that is really difficult. And much of that difficulty has to do with the fact that there is a lot of depression among the elderly. And for this depression, you can't just give a pill, there has to be purpose and stimulation. And, somehow or other people have to find something good about it [aging], and so many people just can't.

You are sitting on 60-plus years of great stories and, given your former career and what you are doing now, you are a writer. Is there a bio or book in your future?

Writing about me would be boring. If I ever decided to write, it would be something historical.

Back to the top