After a teaching stint at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, she returned to Columbia to begin her formal training in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
She served as chief of developmental psychiatry services for infants and children at Harlem Hospital for more than 20 years and as an associate clinical professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She later opened a private psychiatric practice in Rockland County and helped establish a mental health program in the local school system.
Her interest in psychiatry stemmed partly from her own childhood. As she said in her daughter’s book, her mother did not like the itinerant life of a preacher’s wife and suffered from depression. After each move, she spent weeks in bed.
In addition, her mother and father remained grief-stricken over the death of their infant son. Whenever they moved, they placed a large portrait of him, measuring three-by-four feet, prominently in their new living room. The brother she had never known came to dominate Margaret’s inner life. She had a recurring dream that she was the one who died and was laid out in a coffin beneath the portrait.
Candy Man represented what she could never be. He was a boy, for one thing, who, her father believed, would have grown up to be a priest like him. A girl could not be a priest. Beyond that, he had light skin. Dr. Lawrence was darker and always felt she suffered by comparison.
On the surface strong and confident, she never fully overcame her feelings of inadequacy. When, as a renowned doctor, she visited Columbia Presbyterian Hospital one day after being away for nearly 50 years, she felt a wave of insecurity.
“I feel especially self-conscious about my hands,” she told her daughter. “I think, if only I had on my white coat, I could put them in my pockets,” to disguise them. But, she said, “Here I am, black as you see me.”
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