Leston Havens, at 86; was noted psychiatrist, author

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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Beginning a chapter in his book “Making Contact: Uses of Language in Psychotherapy,’’ Dr. Leston Havens first quoted a passage in which writer Vladimir Nabokov describes a butterfly avoiding detection by imitating a leaf.

“All natural life abounds in versions of the chameleon,’’ Dr. Havens wrote. “Even the most primitive creatures find ways to hide themselves for survival.’’

Humans, with an evolved sense of predators and prey, have “minds so skittish and protective that we can compare them with small fish,’’ he wrote. “They glide rapidly past us, quick to feel the movement of the water and changing color or shape at any hint of danger.’’

Psychiatrist, professor, and writer, Dr. Havens examined patients and the therapeutic process itself in a series of books and a career that spanned decades, as he taught and influenced succeeding generations of Harvard Medical School students.

Dr. Havens, who lived in Cambridge, died July 29 in hospice care at Belmont Manor in Belmont. He was 86 and had a series of small strokes before succumbing to multiple organ failure.

Though he was a professor emeritus at Harvard and had been principal psychiatrist at Cambridge Hospital and the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, his teaching continues through seven books he wrote or coauthored.

“I write for the general reader, as much as for the professional,’’ he noted in the preface of his 1989 book “A Safe Place: Laying the Groundwork of Psychotherapy.’’

His writing could be poignant, playful, or both, depending on the examples he chose.

“Marriage has been called a great cage with everyone on the outside trying to get in and everyone on the inside trying to get out,’’ he wrote in “Learning to Be Human,’’ a 1994 book. “This is not the whole story. But it is true enough to pay off the psychotherapist’s mortgage.’’

Dr. Peter D. Kramer, who wrote best-sellers such as “Listening to Prozac’’ and studied with Dr. Havens, called his mentor an extraordinary writer.

“He’s one of those authors whose prose is simple and transparent, and yet who would take hours to read,’’ said Kramer, who teaches at Brown University and practices in Providence. “He manages to create complexity in the text that really gets you to think.’’

Janna Malamud Smith, a writer and psychotherapist who worked with Dr. Havens at Cambridge Hospital, said he “was more a philosopher in some ways than a psychoanalyst. And he had such a light touch.’’

That was particularly apparent in clinical work, where Dr. Havens “was devoted to working with psychotic patients, and he was incredibly gifted at it,’’ she said, adding that he seemed able to gain the trust of even the most paranoid patients.

“Les felt that if there was one other person in the world you could trust, you were probably going to be OK,’’ Smith said. “He worked endlessly to position himself so that that other person could experience a sense of safety.’’

The younger of two children, Dr. Havens grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a lawyer, a profession Dr. Havens considered. Instead, he studied history and philosophy at Williams College, graduating in 1947, and completed his medical degree at Cornell University’s medical school in 1952.

After further training in New York City, he took a residency in 1954 at Boston Psychopathic Hospital and began teaching at Harvard Medical School.

Three years later, he began a quarter-century association in a number of capacities with Massachusetts Mental Health Center, before joining the staff of Cambridge Hospital in 1982.

His first marriage, to Nancy Tucker, with whom he had four children, ended in divorce.

Work didn’t end when Dr. Havens left the hospital. Indeed, his office wasn’t always his favorite place to meet students or patients. He might mentor a student on a long walk or, in deference to a patient’s need for discretion, conduct a session during a stroll along the Charles River.

His mind, meanwhile, seemed rarely to shut down.

“He had so many ideas that I had to buy him a light-up pen because he’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to write something down,’’ said his wife, Susan Miller-Havens. “It used to be that all the lights would go on until I bought the pen.’’

Though he was a warm friend and an avid tennis player until he turned 80, often carrying on a deep discussion during a volley, Dr. Havens had little tolerance for casual gatherings and cocktail parties that listed toward the superficial.

“Either he would find somebody who felt the way he did and go somewhere and have what he would call a decent conversation, or he would just leave,’’ his wife said. “He found it intolerable, that name-dropping chit-chat.’’

Dr. Havens preferred deeper relationships that were more like his professional practice, where “he had a curiosity about each person that he met and a lack of assumptions about what he was going to find,’’ said his daughter Dr. Jennifer Havens, director of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City.

She said her father “gave a lot to a lot of people in the field and really played a role in trying to maintain a soul in psychiatry,’’ through his books, his scores of scholarly articles, and lectures.

“He was amazing as a public speaker because he would memorize his speeches,’’ his daughter said. “He would stand up and give these 45-minutes speeches without notes. Sometimes there would be an index card. He would walk around the stage and just talk. And he wrote everything longhand, he never used a computer.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Havens leaves two other children from his first marriage, Christopher of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Sarah of London; a daughter from his marriage to Miller-Havens, Emily of Brooklyn; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 16 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.

Reviewing “Coming to Life: Reflections on the Art of Psychotherapy’’ in 1993, Globe book critic Gail Caldwell said Dr. Havens “writes like a man who has learned everything and then thrown away the textbook: He’s all instinct and compassion, far more likely to quote Proust or Conrad than Freud.’’

Dr. Havens, however, drew much of his best material from his own thoughts. In “Coming to Life,’’ he devoted a chapter to a patient who sought psychotherapy when he was dying of cancer.

“Death is like great beauty, fame, or money in the self-consciousness it pulls from the observer,’’ Dr. Havens wrote of the patient, who in the course of the sessions became the doctor’s teacher.

“What this man gave was like a great scholarship to the university of life. He was too modest to speak of wanting to be remembered, but I want him to be remembered, to hear what only the survivors hear, because in his case the high-flown words are true.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at