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Once landfill-bound, the U of M’s Benjamin Karpman Papers are a treasure trove of GLBT history

“These papers were in the process of being discarded when someone identified them as being an important piece of GLBT history,” curator Lisa Vecoli said.

Regina Kunzel shown reviewing documents in the university's collection.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Libraries

About a decade ago, a large collection of psychiatric records — 21 boxes worth of personal writings, family histories and careful physician’s notes — were discarded in a trash bin outside St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., ready to be tossed in a landfill. Then someone took a second look.

It turns out that the pile of “trash” was actually a treasure trove of first-person accounts written between the 1930s and the 1960s by people who were being treated by University of Minnesota-trained psychoanalyst Benjamin Karpman for “non-conforming” sexual behavior and gender identity. Understanding the writings’ worth, their anonymous discoverer made an important decision: to collect them all and send them to the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.

Lisa Vecoli, Tretter Collection curator, said that the Benjamin Karpman Papers’ discovery was a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck. St. Elizabeths was the first federally operated psychiatric hospital in the United States, and most of the patients reflected in these records were being treated by Karpman for issues of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some had been committed to the hospital and others were treated in his outpatient practice.

“These papers were in the process of being discarded when someone identified them as being an important piece of GLBT history,” Vecoli said. “They had seen something in a magazine about the Tretter Collection, so they were aware of our collection and the archive. They sent the papers to us because they felt that they needed to be preserved. They didn’t want them to be lost to history.”

Historical significance

What makes this collection so important? Regina Kunzel, professor in women’s studies, history and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University, said that the collection represents the life stories of a group of people whose histories have often been silenced or hidden.

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“The thing that most grabbed me about this collection was that this is a rare window into the lives of a diverse group of people who are writing about their lives and what it meant to them to be in psychoanalysis,” she said. “These are voices that are rarely heard.”

The papers contain a number of Karpman’s own writings and manuscripts, but the bulk of the collection is made up of his patients’ personal writings. “Because Karpman was a psychoanalyst,” Kunzel explained, “he encouraged his patients to write down and share their life stories.”

The fact that Karpman’s patients were in the midst of psychoanalysis means that they were intent on revealing details of their personal lives. Unlike regular medical records, which tend to contain only dry details, the Karpman Papers are revealing and intimate, Vecoli said: “They include artwork and letters and journals and dream journals.”

The collection is a historian’s dream come true. Kunzel, who previously served on the University of Minnesota faculty — as a professor of history and professor of gender, women and sexuality studies — explained that when she lived in Minnesota she spent months reading, sorting and analyzing the Karpman Papers. She is now hard at work on a book based on what she found in the collection, focusing on “the encounter of queer and gender non-normative people with attributions of mental illness and psychiatric treatment.”

“These are extraordinary documents written by people that we don’t often get to hear from in history,” Kunzel said. “There is a lot of published work by psychiatrists, but we don’t know very much about the lives of the people they treated and what it felt like to be subject to psychiatric scrutiny. We don’t usually have these kinds of sources, and when you do, it is impossible to ignore.”

Vecoli said that there are days that she can’t believe the Tretter Collection’s luck.

“As the curator I get chills just thinking about these records,” she said. “It’s amazing material.”

The writings offer a rare glimpse at the social norms and standards of a different era, Vecoli added.

“This is a particularly important collection because of the period of time it represents, from the 1930s to the 1960s. They are mental health records. These records peek behind the veil at the way the mental health profession of the time responded to people of varying sexualities and genders. Having access to a critical mass of mental health records from this period of time is extraordinarily rare.”

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Confidentiality and respect key

While Vecoli and Kunzel both believe that the collection is too important to the public to keep under wraps, they both understand that because the content is deeply personal, maintaining a level confidentiality and respect for the people whose stories are included is central. 

“We haven’t promoted this collection widely because we don’t want to sensationalize or exploit these stories,” Vecoli said. “These are real people’s traumas and emotions and families and we want to respect that.”

Many of the stories in the collection are sad. In their writings, some patients found solace in Karpman’s focused attention and analysis, but many if not most were victims of societal standards of “normal behavior” that they could not or did not meet.

The patients who are represented in the collection include, Kuzel said, “people who were gender non-normative who feel very strongly they are not the sex they were assigned at birth. This was before the time when surgery was available to them. Karpman is trying to get them to understand the causes of what he considers a disorder. There are also people who are being treated for various kinds of ‘gender trouble.’ There are young people who were committed by their parents for homosexuality. There are married men who want very much not to be attracted to other men and are in treatment for that. Among the most incredible cases in the collection is a journal of a man who has had a lobotomy to try to cure him of his homosexuality. It does not cure him of same-sex desire.”

Because these documents are medical records, they were created with the assumption of privacy, Kunzel said. This means that even when doing research, she must treat them as private documents.

“I take my ethical commitment to these documents very seriously, as does the library,” she said.  

Vecoli added that the Tretter Collection feels a unique responsibility with this collection of documents.

“As an archive we feel two really crucial imperatives,” she said. “One is we think this is an experience and moment in time and a reality that it is essential to document, to remember, to record. Most people in their 20s and 30s today would be surprised to learn that there was a moment in time when people were sent to mental hospitals because they were gay. I think it is important that we don’t allow this history to be forgotten.”

The second imperative, Vecoli said, “is these are real people’s lives. These are real people’s dream journals and family histories and confessions and we have an important responsibility to ensure that while those are protected and preserved they are also treated with the utmost respect and confidentiality.”

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Collection available to researchers

Because they are old documents that have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions, the Benjamin Karpman Papers are in fragile condition. Once Kunzel sorted the contents, Tretter Collection staff digitized the documents, and made them available to researchers, albeit with a rigorous approval process.

Researchers associated with an institution that has an institutional review board (IRB) must apply to their board to access the papers, Vecoli said. All researchers, regardless of IRB involvement, are required to sign an agreement.

“The agreement is several pages long. It basically says, ‘I understand in using these records I’m going to see information I’m not allowed to see and I promise not to see it,’” Vecoli said. “They promise not to reveal or distribute or make public any of the confidential information they are seeing.”

To further protect the privacy of Karpman Papers’ subjects, Tretter staff have assigned a common identifier or pseudonym for each individual in the collection, Vecoli said. “We have assigned a 157 pseudonyms.” This way the writers cannot be clearly identified in research, but researchers have a common language to refer to each of the subjects.

Researchers also can’t take photos of the archive or ask for copies, Vecoli explained. They can take notes, but: “We get to review their notes.” This approach may seem overprotective, but Vecoli thinks is essential to preserving the integrity of a collection that feels rare and powerful.

“We’re doing everything that we can think of to try and create an environment where people understand the responsibility they have in reviewing these materials and treat the collection with the respect it deserves,” she said. “This is an important collection, and it needs to be treated that way.”