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How Norman Bethune’s most respected biographers distorted the truth

The Bethune portrayed in Phoenix is not the man that he was

Canadian PoliticsAsia

Dr. Norman Bethune with the Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit, which operated during the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1937). Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Unquestionably, Dr. Norman Bethune is one of Canada’s truly famous individuals. More than a dozen books have been written about him here in this country and an untold number in China where his martyrdom and memory continue to be influential.

Roderick Stewart alone wrote four books about Bethune, the last with his wife Sharon. This final book, Phoenix, is widely regarded as the definitive biography, the last word on its subject, putting an end to any need of further work.

And yet Stewart and Stewart understand their protagonist not at all. They portray Bethune as a womanizer and a drunk, neither of which was true, as a friendless loner who failed at everything he did, who moved on from failure to failure, rising again only to fail again—hence the book’s title.

Scott Davidson, director of the Bethune Memorial House, has insisted to me that Rod Stewart was always “a meticulous writer.” Similarly, reviewers of Phoenix have enthusiastically acclaimed the accuracy of the book, although how they would know this unless they had done the research themselves is something of a mystery.

But why bring up any of this now, eight years after the book’s publication? Because I think that Bethune’s story, and especially the nature of his character and personality, continues to be important particularly at this juncture in history. I dealt with some of these issues in my book Norman Bethune in Spain, and yet, the almost daily outpouring of anti-Chinese rhetoric by politicians and media here in Canada, convinces me that what Chinese scholars I have been in contact with refer to as “Bethune’s spirit” can function as a real bridge between our two nations during this time of increasing bellicosity.

Obviously this is not the proper venue to interrogate every incident in Phoenix and examine its veracity. One example will have to stand for many. The incident in question here is a fire that occurred in Bethune’s apartment. The event is recorded in the Stewarts’ text on pages 100-101. Here we are told that Bethune’s former wife Frances Penney had spiralled into a depression following her marriage to Albert Coleman in 1933. Then, “learning of her illness, Bethune too plunged into depression. Needing to lash out at something he chose the doll-child Alice.” This was an Alice in Wonderland doll that he shared with his ex-wife; a surrogate for the child they never had.

Now he set Alice on fire in his rented room and somehow allowed the flames to spread; by the time he managed to extinguish the blaze, it had destroyed most of his books and clothing. He showed up the following day at Sacré Coeur wearing a shabby suit and a pair of old shoes, one with a sole flapping loose. After explaining what had happened to Dr. George Cousineau, his anesthetist, he complained that he had absolutely no money to buy new clothes. Cousineau immediately set out to collect fees owed to Bethune by a few private patients and managed to raise three hundred dollars. But the day after Cousineau gave it to him, Bethune showed up at the hospital broke again and asked to borrow five dollars. He had bought some clothes with the money raised and spent the rest.

What is the reader meant to believe about Bethune from this description? First, and least important, that the incident took place in 1933 immediately subsequent to Penney’s hospitalization. Phoenix is explicit on this point. Indeed the alleged events are described in Chapter 6, “The Hill of Difficulty – September 1931 – November 1933.” Much more significantly, it is stated that the fire began with the burning of Alice. This is depicted as an entirely conscious and deliberate act, that Bethune chose to lash out at the doll, that he set the fire, and that he allowed the fire to spread. This is the language of intentionality: Bethune is depicted as mentally unstable, almost as an arsonist, and at the very least egregiously irresponsible. Finally, the Stewarts assert that after begging for money Bethune bought a few clothes and “spent the rest” presumably on himself, adding unconscionable egotism to his violent irresponsibility.

None of this is true. For one thing, the incident did not occur in 1933, but in 1936, and therefore had nothing to do with Bethune’s transient depressive response to Penney’s illness three years previously. We know that the correct date is 1936 because Cousineau tells us so. The Stewarts quite deliberately truncate Cousineau’s remarks eliminating what is most significant about them. What Cousineau actually said was that after raising some money for Bethune, who never billed his private patients, Bethune returned the next day and asked to borrow five dollars. And then Cousineau said: “He had in fact bought himself some clothes but he had also divided the money among those poor children to whom he taught painting.”

In 1936, and not 1933, Bethune had used his large apartment—not a mere “rented room”—on Beaver Hall Hill to help as many of the impoverished and unhappy children of the Depression that he could to express themselves through painting. He held classes for them every Saturday, and fed them lunch, gave them milk and cookies, and showed them every kindness. What Cousineau had to say, but what the Stewarts chose to deny us, is that far from being egotistical, Bethune was kind and generous, and not only to the children, but to his private patients who could ill afford to pay him.

What then of the fire itself? There is no evidence whatsoever that the fire began by Bethune deliberately setting the Alice doll on fire. There is no testimony to this effect by anyone who knew him. During the time when Bethune was helping the children learn to paint he was intimately acquainted with the painters Fritz Brandtner and Marian Scott as well as with his former wife Frances, all of whom were involved in Bethune’s work with the children, and none of whom make any suggestion of arson. On the other hand, and again denied us in Phoenix, Elsie Siff, who knew Bethune well and was seeing him at the time, stated that she thought the fire began accidentally as a result of his “amateurish wiring of the radio.”

There was no arson. There was no irresponsibility. There was an accidental fire in which the Alice doll was inadvertently consumed, and which Bethune himself extinguished. Nor could the fire itself have been of any great extent. The art classes apparently continued without any interruption. We cannot know with certainty, but it would appear that the fire, such as it was, must have taken place in his bedroom and near his clothes closet and not spread much further.

We are left with a final question: why do the Stewarts, allegedly so meticulous in their work, want to portray Bethune in the worst possible light? Why paint generosity as egotism, accident as irresponsibility? This is not easy to answer, and it cannot be answered here. But it must be said that the Bethune portrayed in Phoenix is not the man that he was. Elsewhere I make the point that Bethune was terribly wounded and damaged emotionally in his childhood and that in his life’s heroic journey he learned to heal himself through healing others. In the end he gave his life operating on the wounded at the front lines of the Chinese war of resistance against the invading Japanese fascists.

Like every man, Bethune had his flaws. There is no need to falsify the record with inventions and distortions. An accurate portrayal of Bethune’s personality is important then, not just for history’s sake, but because he continues to be a living force capable, let us fervently hope, of healing the dangerous rift opening between the country in which he was born and the country in which he died.

A former professor of psychology, David Lethbridge has written extensively on psychology, philosophy, and antifascist politics. His work on Bethune includes Bethune: The Secret Police File, and Norman Bethune in Spain, as well as several articles, book chapters and contributions to symposia.


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