Patch Adams: Doctor, clown, prophet, revolutionary, ‘Commy,’ and a lot of fun

At about 7:05 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 13, I saw the best speaker that Saint Louis University has ever brought on campus. Dr. Patch Adams began his speech in a very unconventional manner. He walked out in clown clothes and went into the audience to talk to people. Then, the sound guy turned his microphone on and, without skipping a beat, he started addressing the entire room. He started out stating that his goal was to work toward a world where people would have to look up the word “war” in a dictionary. He hadn’t even been introduced yet!

Adams made some very controversial statements throughout the entire event. For example, he emphatically stated that he did not believe that there was a biochemical basis for mental health problems like depression and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. He said that he never has, and never will, prescribe antipsychotic medication to his parents. This drew shocked reactions from the audience. Having many friends who are clinically diagnosed and struggle with these problems, I was slightly shocked as well.

Another theme that he kept revisiting was that the world has gotten to its current awful state because men hungry for power and money have ruined it. He seemed to be very against the ideas of capitalism and consumerism and openly stated that he was a “Commy.” Although the audience laughed at this, I could not help but wonder whether he was serious.

At the end of his speech, he invited anyone interested to come to his hotel room at 11:00 p.m. I, having been spellbound for an hour, knew for certain that I was going to go. So, I joined about 40 medical students and undergraduates in the lobby of Hotel Ignacio where he had us do “love exercises.” They consisted of hugging strangers for a long time, stroking the hair of other strangers who laid their heads in your lap and then holding the face of another stranger, looking into their eyes and repeating the phrase, “I love you.” To be honest, it was rather uncomfortable at the time.

However, while repeating “I love you” to a random person, I realized that I not only loved him, but I loved the human in him. Dr. Adams was trying to show us that we love everybody, simply by virtue of their being  fellow human beings. In his speech, and in those exercises, it was evident that he was a revolutionary. He wanted nothing less than a complete overhaul of our societal structure.

The above two claims sound crazy to most of us, but that is exactly the point that he was trying to make. When he said that there is no biochemical basis for mental health problems, I took it to mean that they were problems only because we set arbitrary social standards for them to be so. He quoted Freud in saying that such “disorders” were simply a healthy response to an unhealthy environment.

In the free hospital that he ran, he and his colleagues treated people with love and laughter, and for Adams, no other medicine was needed. He had a vision of an alternative society. In that society, people didn’t value money and power. He saw no place for war, famine or hatred in that society. In his imagination, his world was beautiful, and people really loved each other. To a lot of people, Adams may be just plain crazy. But, when seen through his eyes, he is just trying to build a better world.

Adams attempted to show the audience their biases. He tried to show them that they were limiting their worldview. They were putting life into a box that was crafted for them by the media, or by the government, or by the biases of the generations of people before us. He desired a world where nobody would know what war is. In that world, people would be enculturated to place importance not on money or power, but on love for every human being. His bias was that he spoke from the perspective of a revolutionary who sees that beautiful world.

Adams is a living, breathing example of the prophetic imagination.