Three Degrees to Washington: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

TOPICS: Documentary Editing, Editor’s Perspective, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Three Degrees to Washington, Washington or Custis Family

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
September 20, 2017

Miniature of Martha Parke Custis, as painted by Charles Willson Peale (1772). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I flirted with different answers to this ever-present question: teacher, pediatrician, school psychologist, child psychologist. Having earned a BA in psychology (and classics) from the University of Virginia in 2000, I settled on clinical psychologist, with the goal of teaching college students and treating patients. Since this required a PhD, I applied to several highly competitive doctoral programs but was rejected by all of them. What would have happened had I been accepted? For one thing, I would have missed becoming acquainted with George and Martha Washington.

It may seem like a reach for me to say that my psychology background and history, specifically of the founding era, go hand-in-hand. My father paved the way for me. For a graduate seminar in counseling, he wrote a psychoanalytic profile of Thomas Jefferson, in which he suggested that Jefferson’s fraught relationship with his mother led to his architectural fixation with domes! A field of academic scholarship with this approach actually exists: psychobiography analyzes the lives and psyches of historic figures. Psychobiographers Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson took a psychoanalytic approach (like my father did) to profile Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison. Marvick, Winer, and Anderson concluded that Madison “most closely follows the model of the angry revolutionary striving to overcome his passivity toward the father and replace him with his own righteous authority.”1

My interest in psychology also stems from my love for biographies. In addition to exploring different kinds of people and the worlds in which they live, biographies bring readers inside the minds of their subjects. When I was about five years old (in the mid-1980s), I checked out my first biography from the local library; it was a children’s biography of Madonna! As an adult, my favorite (auto)biography is Katharine Graham’s Personal History, in which Graham recounts her time as publisher of The Washington Post (unheard of for a woman in the 1960s and 1970s) and the Post‘s game-changing coverage of the Watergate scandal.

My psychology background, along with my interest in people and history, helps me fully engage with The Washington Papers. I connect on a personal level with the individuals who wrote and received the correspondence with which we editors now are entrusted.

For example, a thread that runs throughout Martha Washington’s correspondence is her concern about her family’s well-being, especially the precarious health of her daughter Martha Parke “Patcy” Custis. Martha’s anxiety came to a head in a gut-wrenching letter (written by George on June 20, 1773) that I transcribed for the upcoming Martha Washington Papers project volume. George described Patcy’s death to Martha’s brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett:

It is an easier matter to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family; especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patcy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday removed the Sweet Innocent Girl into a more happy, & peaceful abode than any she has met with, in the afflicted Path she hitherto has trod. She rose from Dinner about four Oclock, in better health and spirits that she appeard to have been in for some time; soon after which she was siezd with one of her usual Fits & expird in it, in less than two Minutes without uttering a Word, a groan, or scarce a Sigh.2

As emotional as this scene is, what really hits home for me is Martha’s reaction, which George recounted in the same letter: “This sudden, and unexpected blow, I scarce need add has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery; which is encreas’d by the absence of her Son…and want of the balmy Consolation of her Relations; which leads me more than ever to wish she could see them.”3

Now that I have a daughter, I can relate even more to Martha as a mother. I can’t begin to imagine what she felt after Patcy’s death. There are some things that even a psychology degree can’t prepare you for.

This blog post is the second of a three-part series, “Three Degrees to Washington,” about how my humanities majors help me at The Washington Papers. Part three will explore my educational background in film. You can read part one, about my classics degree, here.


  1. Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson, “Notes Toward a Psychoanalytic Perspective on Three Virginia ‘Founding Fathers,'” Annual of Psychoanalysis 31 (2003): 163.
  2. “To Burwell Bassett from George Washington, June 20, 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 243-44.
  3. Ibid.