Alan A. Stone, 92, Dies; Challenged Psychiatry’s Use in Public Policy

Alan A. Stone, an iconoclastic scholar who used his dual tenured appointments at Harvard’s law and medical schools to exert a powerful influence on the evolution of psychiatric ethics over the last half-century, died on Jan. 23 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 92.

His son Douglas said the cause was laryngeal cancer.

Dr. Stone trained as a psychiatrist and as a psychoanalyst and began teaching at Harvard Law School in the late 1960s, just as the foundations of both fields were coming under scrutiny.

He was at the forefront of questions about how psychiatry is used as a tool of public policy; for example, he criticized the role psychiatrists played in laws that banned abortion based on claims about a woman’s mental health, and in the involuntary commitment of millions of Americans to public mental institutions.

As psychiatrists began to build careers as expert witnesses in criminal trials, he made enemies by opposing the practice, and by refusing to take the stand himself. That didn’t stop him from becoming the president of the American Psychiatric Association in 1979, a post where, among other things, he guided the decision to remove homosexuality from the profession’s list of mental disorders.

Despite his lack of a law degree, Dr. Stone was widely considered one of the best and most popular professors on Harvard’s legal faculty. He often taught courses with the criminal lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, on subjects ranging from criminal insanity to Shakespeare.

“They were this perfect yin and yang,” the former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who took one of their courses as a law student, said in a phone interview. “Dershowitz was doing what every good Harvard Law School professor does, emphasizing the rational, and what Stone was doing was saying, ‘That’ll get you part of the way down the road, but what about X?’”

Many former students, including Mr. Klein, cited Dr. Stone not just as an exemplary teacher but also as a profound influence on their careers, precisely because his approach differed from the legalistic thinking expounded by other faculty members. His colleagues tended to agree.

“For him the world was never right or wrong,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “It was always ‘why?’”

In part because of his capacity for thorough, critical thinking, the Department of Justice invited Dr. Stone to join a multidisciplinary panel that would examine the 1993 raid by federal agents on a compound near Waco, Texas, that was occupied by a religious sect called the Branch Davidians. Four agents and 76 members of the sect were killed, and Dr. Stone’s panel was charged with assessing whether the tragedy could have been avoided.

But very early on, Dr. Stone came to believe that their job was in fact to rubber-stamp the government’s own self-exculpatory assessment. He publicly criticized the Justice Department when it refused to give him classified material, and he refused to sign the final review until he was allowed to submit his own dissenting report.

He remained a vocal critic of the government throughout the 1990s, and in 1999 he called for the surviving Branch Davidians, several of whom had been sentenced to prison, to be pardoned.

“The Branch Davidians were more victims than culprits,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that year.

Dr. Stone made more enemies in 1995 when he declared that Freudian psychoanalysis was no longer useful as a science and was best relegated to the humanities, where it could be used to evaluate works of art.

“Psychoanalysis, both as a theory and as a practice, is an art form,” he said in a speech to the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. “I do not think psychoanalysis is an adequate form of treatment.”

Though legions of psychoanalysts took exception, to Dr. Stone that assessment was no insult — he considered art and psychiatry to be closely intertwined, and mutually supportive. In addition to teaching classes on the law and literature, he was for years a film critic for Boston Review, using his professional insights to tease apart movies like “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), which he argued was a story about the ethics of euthanasia, and “The Tree of Life” (2011), which he hailed for its treatment of Oedipal conflicts.

Later still, he decried his profession for its complicity in the so-called war on terror under George W. Bush, when psychiatrists were employed in “enhanced interrogation” sessions that, Dr. Stone said, amounted to torture.

“What American law and American psychiatrists and psychologists need to do now,” he wrote in The New York Times in 2005, “is to reassert our basic norms of decent and ethical conduct, which seem to have collapsed in our response to 9/11.”

Dr. Stone in 2017. He once argued that psychoanalysis was no longer useful as a science and was best relegated to the humanities, where it could be used to evaluate works of art.Credit…Dana Smith

Alan Abraham Stone was born on Aug. 15, 1929, in Boston. His father, Julius, was a lawyer, and his mother, Betty (Pastan) Stone, was a homemaker. All four of his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.

Along with his son Douglas, he is survived by his partner, Laura Maslow-Armand; another son, David; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Sue (Smart) Stone, died in 1996. His daughter, Karen Stone Zieve, died in 1988.

His parents led a liberal household, taking in Jewish refugees during the 1930s while also weathering antisemitic prejudice; despite clear qualifications, his father struggled to get a low-level judgeship.

He attended Boston Latin School and Harvard, where he majored in social relations. He also played right tackle on the varsity football team; among his teammates on the 1947 roster was Robert F. Kennedy.

He graduated in 1950 and received his medical degree from Yale in 1955. He conducted his residency at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., a suburb of Boston, and trained in psychoanalysis at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

At one point, he made an exception to his refusal to testify as an expert witness. Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court staged a “trial” for Hamlet in 1994, on the premise that he had survived the play’s bloody ending and was now charged with murdering Polonius, his uncle’s counselor.

The question, as Justice Kennedy constructed it, was not whether Hamlet had killed Polonius — that’s clear in the play — but whether he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Mr. Klein, Dr. Stone’s former student, was working in the White House at the time, and he suggested his old professor as an expert witness for the prosecution.

The mock trial was conducted several times (in most instances the jury deadlocked), including in 1996 at Boston University.

When asked at that event whether he had made himself familiar with the “record” in the case — that is, the play itself — Dr. Stone responded, “Yes, and I agree with the justice that it’s well written.”

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