Lee Oswald, at age 13, was showing the effects of chronic neglect

Lee Harvey Oswald: Troubled Youth

Oswald Assessed by Professionals at Youth House

Lee Harvey Oswald's life seemed like a collection of clichés from daytime TV talk shows. He was an orphan, and had no father-figure in his life. His mother worked, and had little time to spend with her son. He was a "latchkey" child who came home from school to an empty house. Although not actually poor, the family's finances were often marginal. Lee and his mother moved often, and Lee lacked chances to make long-term friends. None of this destined him to become an assassin, but neither was it the way to raise a psychologically healthy child.

Lee's problems came to a head when he and his mother moved from Fort Worth to New York City. Lee's truancy ran afoul of the social welfare bureaucracy, and he was subjected to a thorough psychological examination by mental health professionals.

The Warren Commission Report, pp. 378-383, reviews the situation and summarizes their conclusions.

New York City

Whatever problems may have been created by Lee's home life in Louisiana and Texas, he apparently adjusted well enough there to have had an average, although gradually deteriorating, school record with no behavior or truancy problems. That was not the case, however, after he and his mother moved to New York in August of 1952, shortly before Lee's 13th birthday. They moved shortly after Robert joined the Marines; they lived for a time with John Pic who was stationed there with the Coast Guard. Relations soon became strained, however, so in late September Lee and his mother moved to their own apartment in the Bronx. Pic and his wife would have been happy to have kept Lee, however, who was becoming quite a disciplinary problem for his mother, having struck her on at least one occasion.

The short-lived stay with the Pics was terminated after an incident in which Lee allegedly pulled out a pocket knife during an argument and threatened to use it on Mrs. Pic. When Pic returned home, Mrs. Oswald tried to play down the event but Mrs. Pic took a different view and asked the Oswalds to leave. Lee refused to discuss the matter with Pic, whom he had previously idolized, and their relations were strained thereafter.

Two reports from social worker Evelyn Siegel (née Strickman) outline her discussions with Lee Oswald and her impressions of him.
  1. The first is dated April 30, 1953. It is Siegel Exhibit 2 from the Warren Commission.
  2. A similar one, dated May 7, 1953, has some additional detail. It is Siegel Exhibit 1.

On September 30, 1952, Lee enrolled in P.S. 117, a junior high school in the Bronx, where the other children apparently teased him because of his "western" clothes and Texas accent. He began to stay away from school, preferring to read magazines and watch television at home by himself. This continued despite the efforts of the school authorities and, to a lesser extent, of his mother to have him return to school. Truancy charges were brought against him alleging that he was "beyond the control of his mother insofar as school attendance is concerned." Oswald was remanded for psychiatric observation to Youth House, an institution in which children are kept for psychiatric observation or for detention pending court appearance or commitment to a child-caring or D institution such as a training school. He was in Youth House from April 16 to May 7, 1953, during which time he was examined by its Chief Psychiatrist, Dr. Renatus Hartogs, and interviewed and observed by other members of the Youth House staff.

Marguerite Oswald visited her son at Youth House, where she recalled that she waited in line "with Puerto Ricans and Negroes and everything." She said that her pocketbook was searched "because the children in this home were such criminals, dope fiends, and had been in criminal offenses, that anybody entering this home had to be searched in case the parents were bringing cigarettes or narcotics or anything." She recalled that Lee cried and said, "Mother, I want to get out of here. There are children in here who have killed people, and smoke. I want to get out." Marguerite Oswald said that she had not realized until then in what kind of place her son had been confined.

On the other hand, Lee told his probation officer, John Carro, that "while he liked Youth House he miss[ed] the freedom of doing what he wanted. He indicated that he did not miss his mother." Mrs. Evelyn D Siegel, a social worker who interviewed both Lee and his mother while Lee was confined in Youth House, reported that Lee "confided that the worse thing about Youth House was the fact that he had to be with other boys all the time, was disturbed about disrobing in front of them, taking showers with them etc."

Contrary to reports that appeared after the assassination, the psychiatric examination did not indicate that Lee Oswald was a potential assassin, potentially dangerous, that "his outlook on life had strongly paranoid overtones" or that he should be institutionalized. Dr. Hartogs did find Oswald to be a tense, withdrawn, and evasive boy who intensely disliked talking about himself and his feelings. He noted that Lee liked to give the impression that he did not care for other people but preferred to keep to himself, so that he was not bothered and did not have to make the effort of communicating. Oswald's withdrawn tendencies and solitary habits were thought to be the result of "intense anxiety, shyness, feelings of awkwardness and insecurity." He was reported to have said "I don't want a friend and I don't like to talk to people" and "I dislike everybody." He was also described as having a "Vivid fantasy life, turning around the topics of omnipotence and power, through which he tries to compensate for his present shortcomings and frustrations." Dr. Hartogs summarized his report by stating:

This 13 year old well built boy has superior mental resources and functions only slightly below his capacity level in spite of chronic truancy from school which brought him into Youth House. No finding of neurological impairment or psychotic mental changes could be made. Lee has to be diagnosed as "personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features and passive--aggressive tendencies." Lee has to be seen as an emotionally, quite disturbed youngster who suffers under the impact of really existing emotional isolation and deprivation, lack of affection, absence of family life and rejection by a self involved and conflicted mother.
Dr. Hartogs recommended that Oswald be placed on probation on condition that he seek help and guidance through a child guidance clinic. There, he suggested, Lee should be treated by a male psychiatrist who could substitute for the lack of a father figure. He also recommended that Mrs. Oswald seek "psychotherapeutic guidance through contact with a family agency." The possibility of commitment was to be considered only if the probation plan was not successful.

Primary sources available here include:
  1. The report of Oswald's probation officer John Carro, drawn from the the Warren Commission volumes.
  2. The assessment of psychiatrist Renatus Hartogs.
  3. An account of an examination administered by psychologist Irving Sokolow. It is Warren Commission Exhibit 1339.
  4. An account of Oswald behavior at Youth House written by a staff member. It also is from CE 1339.

Lee's withdrawal was also noted by Mrs. Siegel, who described him as a "seriously detached, withdrawn youngster." She also noted that there was "a rather pleasant, appealing quality about this emotionally starved, affectionless youngster which grows as one speaks to him." She thought that he had detached himself from the world around him because "no one in it ever met any of his needs for love." She observed that since Lee's mother worked all day, he made his own meals and spent all his time alone because he didn't make friends with the boys in the neighborhood. She thought that he "withdrew into a completely solitary and detached existence where he did as he wanted and he didn't have to live by any rules or come into contact with people." Mrs. Siegel concluded that Lee "just felt that his mother never gave a damn for him. He always felt like a burden that she simply just had to tolerate." Lee confirmed some of those observations by saying that he felt almost as if there were a veil between him and other people through which they could not reach him, but that he preferred the veil to remain intact. He admitted to fantasies about being powerful and sometimes hurting and killing people, but refused to elaborate on them. He took the position that such matters were his own business.

A psychological human figure-drawing test corroborated the interviewer's findings that Lee was insecure and had limited social contacts. Irving Sokolow, a Youth House psychologist reported that:

The Human Figure Drawings are empty, poor characterizations of persons approximately the same age as the subject. They reflect a considerable amount of impoverishment in the social and emotional areas. He appears to be a somewhat insecure youngster exhibiting much inclination for warm and satisfying relationships to others. There is some indication that he may relate to men more easily than to women in view of the more mature conceptualisation. He appears slightly withdrawn and in view of the lack of detail within the drawings this may assume a more significant characteristic. He exhibits some difficulty in relationship to the maternal figure suggesting more anxiety in this area than in any other.
Lee scored an IQ of 118 on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. According to Sokolow, this indicated a "present intellectual functioning in the upper range of bright normal intelligence." Sokolow said that although Lee was "presumably disinterested in school subjects he operates on a much higher than average level." On the Monroe Silent Reading Test, Lee's score indicated no retardation in reading speed and comprehension; he had better than average ability in arithmetical reasoning for his age group.

Lee told Carro, his probation officer, that he liked to be by himself because he had too much difficulty in making friends. The reports of Carro and Mrs. Siegel also indicate an ambivalent attitude toward authority on Oswald's part. Carro reported that Lee was disruptive in class after he returned to school on a regular basis in the fall of 1953. He had refused to salute the flag and was doing very little, if any, work. It appears that he did not want to do any of the things which the authorities suggested in their efforts to bring him out of the shell into which he appeared to be retreating. He told Mrs. Siegel that he would run away if sent to a boarding school. On the other hand he also told her that he wished his mother had been more firm with him in her attempts to get him to return to school.

The reports of the New York authorities indicate that Lee's mother gave him very little affection and did not serve as any sort of substitute for a father. Furthermore she did not appear to understand her own relationship to Lee's psychological problems. After her interview with Mrs. Oswald, Mrs. Siegel described her as a smartly dressed, gray haired woman, very self-possessed and alert and superficially affable," but essentially a "defensive, rigid, self-involved person who had real difficulty in accepting and relating to people" and who had "little understanding" of Lee's behavior and of the "protective shell he has drawn around himself." Dr. Hartogs reported that Mrs. Oswald did not understand that Lee's withdrawal was a form of "violent but silent protest against his neglect by her and represents his reaction to a complete absence of any real family life." Carro reported that when questioned about his mother Lee said, "well I've got to live with her. I guess I love her." It may also be significant that, as reported by John Pic, "Lee slept with my mother until I joined the service in 1950. This would make him approximately 10, well, almost 11 years old."

The factors in Lee Oswald's personality which were noted by those who had contact with him in New York indicate that he had great difficulty in adapting himself to conditions in that city. His usual reaction to the problems which he encountered there was simply withdrawal. Those factors indicated a severe inability to enter into relationships with other people. In view of his experiences when he visited his relatives in New Orleans in the spring of 1950, and his other solitary habits, Lee had apparently been experiencing similar problems before going to New York, and as will be shown below, this failure to adapt to. his environment was a dominant trait in his later life.

It would be incorrect, however, to believe that those aspects of Lee's personality which were observed in New York could have led anyone to predict the outburst of violence which finally occurred. Carro was the only one of Oswald's three principal observers who recommended that he be placed in a boy's home or similar institution. But Carro was quite specific that his recommendation was based primarily on the adverse factors in Lee's environment -- his lack of friends, the apparent unavailability of any agency assistance and the ineffectualness of his mother -- and not on any particular mental disturbance, in the boy himself. Carro testified that:

There was nothing that would lead me to believe when I saw him at the age of 12 that them would be seeds of destruction for somebody. I couldn't in all honesty sincerely say such a thing.
Mrs. Siegel concluded her report with the statement that:
Despite his withdrawal, he gives the impression that he is not so difficult to reach as he appears and patient, prolonged effort in a sustained relationship with one therapist might bring results. There are indications that he has suffered serious personality damage but if he can receive help quickly this might be repaired to some extent.
Lee Oswald never received that help. Few social agencies even in New York were equipped to provide the kind of intensive treatment that he needed, and when one of the city's clinics did find room to handle him, for some reason the record does not show, advantage was never taken of the chance afforded to Oswald. When Lee became a disciplinary problem upon his return to school in the fall of 1953, and when his mother failed to cooperate in any way with school authorities, authorities were finally forced to consider placement in a home for boys. Such a placement was postponed, however, perhaps in part at least because Lee's behavior suddenly improved. Before the court took any action, the Oswalds left New York in January of 1954, and returned to New Orleans where Lee finished the ninth grade before he left school to work for a year. Then in October of 1956, he joined the Marines.
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