The link between genius and mental illness
“Men have called me mad,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence…whether much that is glorious–whether all that is profound–does not spring from disease of thought…”
Many people have long shared Poe’s suspicion that genius and insanity are entwined, writes psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, international authority on mental illness. Many poets, painters and composers throughout history have had depression or mania.
Some researchers, along with Jamison, speculate that mood disorders allow people to think more creatively and to experience a broad range of intense emotions. Jamison, the author of several books on mental health, explores the topic in Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
Here’s a glimpse of just a few of the gifted and successful figures of our times who have lived with mental illness.
Anna Marie Patty Duke Pearce, Award-winning star of television, Broadway and film; author and spokesperson for mental health: After years of turmoil, she was diagnosed with manic depression (bipolar disorder) “She credits Lithium with keeping her symptoms under control. “No more crazy highs, no more suicidal lows. It’s given me a life!” Anna said about her successful treatment.
Winston Churchill 1874-1965, Prime Minister (U.K.): “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished,” wrote Anthony Storr about Churchill’s bipolar disorder in Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind.
Brian Wilson, founding member, producer, composer, and arranger for The Beach Boys: “I went through times that were so scary that I wasn’t sure I’d make it through,” he recalls in a story in The Los Angeles Times: But he returned triumphant to the stage, having “emerged from his darkest, most paralyzing blue period to again celebrate his music – and the human spirit – with his fans.”
Robert Munsch, beloved and best-selling children’s author, of such delightful and irreverent books as Mortimer, The Paper Bag Princess and Love You Forever. “About grade seven or eight, things started getting weird and wonky,” he says. “I’d feel great for two weeks, then horribly depressed for two weeks.…” Munsch says he’s not classic bipolar, “I’m depressed more than I’m up.” Antidepressant medication has worked well for Munsch, softening his moods but not stifling his creativity.
Art Buchwald, writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist: Buchwald’s career, built upon his razor-sharp wit, includes 30 books and syndication in 500+ newspapers. He talks openly about “the black pit” of his mental illness, having been hospitalized for depression in 1963 and for manic depression in 1987. Since his recovery, he has used his high-profile status to educate the public about mental health issues, especially about stigmatization of mental illness in the workplace and the ways it affects employee promotion, job security and work relationships.
, actress and author renowned as Princess Leia in Star Wars and daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, was diagnosed as manic-depressive at age 24. In her book Postcards from the Edge and the film it inspired, she wrote about her rehab, electroshock treatment and recovery from her illness and her drug addictions. She has started in countless films and television shows and her memoirs and novels have been best-sellers.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatnes, author Joshua Wolf Shenk writes: “Sometimes, a impenetrable fog seemed to settle around him… [At times] Lincoln sunk into a deep depression which deeply worried his friends and led in 1841 to aggressive medical treatment which probably made him worse.
Ernest Hemingway: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize (1952), and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1954), the novelist’s suicidal depression is examined in The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him by Denis Brian.
Mike Wallace, Co-Editor of 60 Minutes “On two or three occasions, I came very, very close [to suicide]. But, when I got the right help and treatment, I was able to put that behind me….There’s nothing, repeat, nothing to be ashamed of when you’re going through a depression. If you get help, the chances of your licking it are really good….[Having battled depression] I’m more compassionate, I’m more understanding and, ultimately, my life has been a lot fuller because I experienced this,” he says in an interview with CBSCares.
Dave Matthews, chart-topping musician, composer: “I was depressed. It was not a good time for me,” he told Rolling Stonemagazine. “I was feeling remarkably alone… I don’t want to be someone who writes about how sad I am, I’d rather write…with some sort of strength. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s any gift – or offering – being made. I would like to be an inspiring force.” A new album, with an entirely new sound, essentially saved Dave’s life; he finally felt good about what he’d accomplished.
Judy Garland, singer, Oscar-winning actress: Performing from the age of two, she starred in countless musical films and thrilled audiences with her live performances. She led a life of great highs and deep lows; through it all though, her inestimable talent shown.
William Styron, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist: After being fired from McGraw-Hill for tossing balloons out an office window, he co-founded the Paris Review. His books included The Confessions of Nat Turner, about black slavery, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968, and Sophie’s Choice, which was made into a powerful and moving film.
After “having trudged upward out of hell’s black depths,” he wrote Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness in 1990, an uplifting and probing look at depression. He died in 2006 of pneumonia.