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Stardust, Smoke, and Mirrors: The Myth of the Mad Genius

Article

Judith Schlesinger

Volume 37.5, September/October 2013

Stardust, Smoke, and Mirrors: The Myth of the Mad Genius

The myth of the mad genius began with a misinterpretation of Plato’s “divine madness” and has since gathered support and credibility because of public fascination, media distortion, and enthusiastic pseudoscience.

Most myths are popular because they offer quick solutions to the world’s ongoing puzzles, whether found in nature or in the baffling variations in human behavior. This is especially true when a myth is ancient, photogenic, and has a whiff of science about it. The mad genius myth qualifies on all counts, deriving its credibility from expert proponents (hereinafter called “mythers”) who proclaim the existence of a solid empirical link between great creativity and bipolar disorder, so that those who are blessed with the one must also be saddled with the other. This equation is patently false but too rarely challenged, even by mental health professionals who should know better, for reasons that will soon be explained. Meanwhile, the tragedy of the mad genius myth is that it encourages viewing the genius through a warped, dusty, and generic lens; this not only negates the individualism of society’s most exceptional talents, it also diminishes their accomplishments as a product of mental disturbance.

Popularity and Power

The myther’s favorite poster boy is Vincent van Gogh, whose painting Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear supplies their most convenient visual. Chances are this will continue despite new indications that someone else may have severed that famous lobe—this would be his roommate Paul Gauguin, who was notorious for his hot temper as well as his skill with a sword. Scholars have found intriguing clues to this alternate scenario among van Gogh’s 874 letters, which were posted in 2010 at www.vangoghletters.org. But such facts will matter little to mythers, whose exclusive focus on in­ternal pathology tends to minimize the impact of external stressors and events on the life of the artist.

In van Gogh’s case, this requires dis­counting his poverty, loneliness, and repeated romantic and occupational failures, as well as the physical consequences of epilepsy, absinthe poisoning, and late-stage (tertiary) syphilis; moreover, when viewed from this narrow perspective, his suicide stands unexamined as the ultimate proof of his mental illness. But syphilis also killed Theo van Gogh soon after Vincent died, suggesting that the afflicted painter took his own life at the prospect of losing his beloved brother, who was also his only friend and patron. Surely one doesn’t need bipolar disorder to experience this level of grief and despair. And as it happens, Vincent’s suicide has begun to generate its own swirl of controversy, with recent theories about gun accidents and other fingers on the trigger. (For a critical discussion, see Joe Nickell’s column, “The ‘Murder’ of Vincent van Gogh,” SI, September/October 2012.)

It should be noted that the symptoms of tertiary syphilis, which raged in many quarters until its 1906 cure, closely mimic the mood swings and psychosis expected of a bipolar diagnosis. A short list of famous victims includes Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe (Hayden 2003), who have all been trailed by whispers of madness. But it’s easy for any artist to acquire a pathological label, since, in addition to soft-pedaling any physical reasons for aberrant behavior, mythers prefer to ignore the crazy-making heartbreak and struggle of the creative life itself. For a fuller discussion of this point, see Chapter 8, “They Must Be Crazy” (Schlesinger 2012, 153–170).

To be fair, fascination with shattered brilliance is hardly new. The parade of the gifted and doomed stretches at least as far back as Icarus, one of the first to be punished for flying too high. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes were also inevitably destroyed by their internal flaws (Macbeth’s ambition, Hamlet’s indecision).Today, the breathless media coverage of every celebrity derailment continues to underscore the danger of great talent, while softening any painful jealousy it evokes in the less-gifted observer. In fact, the myth’s capacity to neutralize envy is a major reason for its popularity and endurance.

Another is the contribution of those creatives (and wannabes) who deliberately cultivate a wild, eccentric pose in order to appear more brilliant than they really are and get a pass on such mundane responsibilities as holding up their half of a relationship and paying their share of the rent. Steve Allen, that most un-mad of geniuses, called this ploy “the Bohemian excuse,” and its global appeal could well sustain the myth all by itself.

History, in Brief

The mad genius notion benefits from the mystique that clings to virtually every Big Idea from ancient Greece: the conviction that it expresses something profound that “has always been known.” The irony is that this one idea began by distorting the original wisdom. For example, Plato invented the concept of “divine madness” to describe a visit from the gods that delivered precious inspiration and enabled the artist to create. This was a fortunate, unpredictable, and short-term event, nothing like the ongoing mental disorder it would become in our time. Over the centuries Aristotle’s benign view of melancholia was also twisted to fit the stereotype—often by influential writers who were themselves depressed and sought to alchemize their own suffering into inherent proof of their superiority.

One such popularizer was the Renaissance monk Marsilio Ficino, whose self-serving translation of ancient texts contained the news that being born under Saturn (as he was) was a sure sign of genius (Wittkower and Wittkower 1963). In 1621, British theologian Robert Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy: 988 pages that helped distract him from his own “distemper.” In his rambling and wildly popular tome, Burton considered everything from geography to goblins, but the

book’s most enduring legacy was to cement the connection between the words melancholy, depression, and artistic endeavor. Today the most prolific myther is psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who extols such benefits of her own bipolar disorder as “loving more, and being more loved” (Jamison 1995, 217–218). Her scientific claims will be evaluated a bit later.

The eighteenth century catapulted the mad genius into permanent cultural icon by merging colorful fiction about the tragic, brilliant hero with the noisy creative struggles of real poets like Poe, Shelley, and Byron. In a perfect storm of influence, all this intense literary and psychosocial drama was soon legitimized by a new scientific focus on the exceptional mind. Certainly the European climate was ripe for Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which sketched the contours of natural supremacy and triggered the eugenicist dream of breeding a superior race of humans. But since ambivalence is an integral part of the myth, by century’s end early psychiatrists were expounding on the dark side of genius and its common heredity with idiots and criminals.

Primitive as these speculations were, they are still being used to supply the myth with a long “scientific” pedigree. But this only works if the references are kept vague—and so virtually every writer who cites Cesare Lombroso’s 1895 book The Man of Genius as credible historical background neglects to reveal that he actually described geniuses as “stammering, sexually sterile, pasty-faced vagabonds of inadequate beard” (1895, 5–37, vi).

These waters are further muddied by the ongoing controversy over whether mental illness—including bipolar disorder—exists at all. Ten years ago the American Psychiatric Association was forced to admit that, despite its practitioners’ reliance on medical remedies and terminology, not a single one of the “disease” categories collected in their official manual (the DSM) had a known biological basis or sign (American Psychiatric Association 2003). This is still true today, and in fact the newest edition, the DSM-5, has inspired numerous journalistic exposés, passionate public criticism, and unprecedented protests within the guild itself. Even “the nation’s shrink”—the director of the National Institute of Mental Health—has slammed the DSM’s lack of validity, noting that the United States government’s active search for an alternative classification system has been going on for two years and is mandated to continue for eight more (Insel 2013).

Not surprisingly, mythers prefer to disregard such challenges, relying on public confusion about science to make their statements sound impressive. For example, in the past few years, they keep invoking a “proven” genetic link between bipolar disorder and great creativity. Aside from leapfrogging over the increasing doubts about the diagnosis, they are exploiting the widely reported jubilation over the “mapping” of the human genome—as well as the equally common ignorance about what this actually means. The fact is that this fabled guide only identifies the sequencing of protein chains, rather than establishing precise and immutable links between specific genes and any particular behavior or disease. In any case, even if reliable DNA causality is ever established, individual variations in environment and experience will always affect its expression. But this is much too equivocal for those who want the world to believe that the genetic ingredients of creativity and bipolar disorder, as well as the alleged link between them, are all backed by “indisputable scientific evidence” (Schlesinger 2012, 114).

Wobbly Research

In fact, they are not. And future prospects are dim, due to the enormous research obstacle that blocks any empirical inquiry from the start: the lack of universal definitions or measurements for either variable. The presence of creativity can only be inferred from subjective judgments, such as evaluating arbitrary paper-and-pencil tests of its many amorphous and endlessly-debated components. Similarly, since bipolar disorder lacks the tangible clues from blood tests, brain scans, or diseased tissue that a true physical illness would provide, its verdict turns on such slippery criteria as whether its politically-determined, behavioral “symptoms” are “persistent” during a “distinct” period—temporal parameters that are fully as ambiguous as the symptoms themselves. This makes it impossible to reliably identify these two concepts, let alone connect them in any definitive way—an exercise approximately as futile as trying to nail two cubes of Jell-O together.

What gets served up instead is a stack of mismatched studies that incorporate so many different concepts, designs, instruments, populations, and methodologies that their findings are virtually incompatible. Mythers get around this by claiming the results “all point in the same direction,” although this is no surprise when researchers start with the same agenda. In its own hopeful way, the increasingly popular “meta-analysis” approach vaults over such inconvenient disparities by homogenizing them and declaring this to be “scientific.” And so the mad genius gets elevated from fallacy to fact.

Methods to the Madness

The mythers derive their pseudoscientific rationale from three primary sources: psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig and psychologist Jamison, whose 1989 study and 1993 book have become the sacred scrolls of the mad genius movement (for detailed critiques of all three, see Schlesinger 2009, 2012). Much like citing Lombroso’s work without quoting his words, many writers repeat the dramatic claims of this trio without divulging how they were derived. After three decades of studying this literature, I suspect that too few people have actually read the originals, assuming that someone earlier in the chain has already done the proper vetting. The result is that the frequent repetition of these references in both the popular and professional literature creates that coveted whiff of scientific legitimacy all by itself.

Andreasen’s 1987 study is still called “the groundbreaker.” Comparing thirty writers she knew at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with thirty roughly matched individuals in “non-creative” fields like social work and law, she was their sole interviewer and judge, using her own diagnostic protocol that was not printed with the article and was only available upon request. Andreasen’s shocking result—that fully 80 percent of her male, white, and middle-aged writers were mood-disordered—was quickly scooped by Psychology Today and Science News as if it described all writers of every age, race, type, geography, and gender. Even a full generation later, few realize that Andreasen’s stunning majority of disturbed writers reflects such a small, homogenous group—and moreover, one living at a retreat that happens to be famous for attracting burned-out professionals. But most damaging, since Andreasen’s results failed to reach statistical significance, is that they could never be more than suggestive rather than the supposed “proof” of creative pathology they have since become.

Jamison’s 1989 study has had a greater impact with an even weaker methodology; it effectively launched her as the go-to media expert on the mad genius and continues to appear in virtually everything written on the subject, both inside and outside the field. Like Andreasen, the lone interviewer who hand-picked her white, male, and middle-aged acquaintances, Jamison interviewed forty-seven award-winning British playwrights, poets, novelists, biographers, and visual artists to determine the rate of mood disorders among them. Again, she also invented her own diagnostic criteria, uniquely claiming that her subjects’ reports of treatment were the most stringent index of their disorder. But the fatal flaw was her lack of a control group, which precluded any of the customary statistical analyses and left her with only simple percentages to report.

This would seem to end the matter right there. Yet some of those percentages are so impressive that they continue to trump the study’s lack of validity. For instance, her 50 percent rate of mental illness among poets seems to confirm the common perception that theirs is an especially perilous art—unless you read the article for yourself and learn that this number only represents a total of nine people. Equally obscure is the fact that the hefty 12.5 percent of visual artists taking antidepressants actually reflects only one person.

It doesn’t help that the original article is so difficult to find. Although it appeared in something called Psychiatry, that journal is not one of the prestigious, peer-reviewed journals of similar title that can be searched through the customary professional data­bases. Rather, this Psychiatry is the interdisciplinary newsletter of a non-degree-granting therapy school in Washington, D.C. My copy took some determined off-track digging to find, requiring waiting several weeks and paying a $27 fee to a retrieval service that seems to have since disappeared (it’s interesting that Jamison’s current online CV lists 126 articles, and this is the only one that omits naming the publication). Such hurdles can easily encourage busy researchers (and cash-strapped grad students) to simply trust their colleagues’ verdict and pass along the news without examining the content themselves.

The third major resource is Arnold Ludwig’s book, The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy (1995), which actually does nothing of the sort. But the title has apparently convinced researchers that there’s no need to go any further, since—once again—writers are far more likely to acknowledge the work than to describe it.

Ludwig’s method was to gather 1,004 New York Times biographies of eminent people from different fields (96 percent of them white), as if they were all shaped by the same ingredients of success. To justify bundling together such dissimilar luminaries as Amelia Earhart, Harry Houdini, and Marvin Gaye, Ludwig invented a number of common explanatory variables like “oddness” and “anger at mother.” Despite the fact that these are neither defined nor measurable, they appear in the fifty-five pages of charts and graphs that reassure the reader that something scientific has occurred. Ironically, although Ludwig admits that “mental illness is not essential for artistic success” (1995, 7), his work—or at least its combination of titles—is regularly used to argue the opposite.

A final truth-twisting technique is the “psychological autopsy,” in which mythers comb the histories of long-dead geniuses for “evidence” that they were bipolar, even though the verdict is implicit in their choice of whose lives to examine in the first place. Any surviving diaries and letters are scrutinized for signs of delight and disappointment, since finding both is the bipolar jackpot. Autopsists will also dissect other people’s writings for concerns about the artist’s state of mind. These become additional “data” despite the clear possibility of personal agendas or simple gossip—i.e., that the target’s correspondents are doing an early version of Tweeting and for similar motives: to alleviate boredom and stir things up.

Yet hearsay and rumor can easily qualify any artist for the mad genius list, the most popular of which is Jamison’s collection of 166 (1993, Appendix A). Although to her credit she softens her diagnoses with the word probable, that word tends to fall off whenever her selections are cited. It doesn’t help that she has also produced several concerts to “honor” supposedly bipolar composers by exhibiting musical “evidence” of their pathology. In the first of these, in 1989, the National Symphony played composers’ happy and sad compositions together to demonstrate their aberrant fluctuations of mood (for a full discussion of this video, see Schlesinger 2012, 106–109).

Ultimately, all this diagnosing of the long-dead seems pointless as well as mean-spirited. As every clinician knows, it can be tricky enough to evaluate someone who is sitting right in front of you; in fact, the difficulty of getting clinicians to agree on a diagnosis is an ongoing and familiar problem, and the main reason that the DSM criteria keep shifting around. What is less well-known is the fact that such remote assessment is actually unethical, since psychiatry’s own Goldwater Rule prohibits the public diagnosis of any individual without benefit of a face-to-face interview. But few people know or care about all this.

In the end, the mad genius myth is far too popular to give up—it’s old and glamorous and shimmers with a pseudoscientific patina. Besides, the currency of psychology has always been abstraction: aside from neuroscientists who directly examine the brain, hypotheticals may be the best it can offer. This would be fine if it enabled people to accept and appreciate the differences among us, whether in temperament or accomplishment or anything else. The problems arise when such variations are pathologized without proof, diminishing the bright stars who bring such joy and beauty to the rest of us.


References

American Psychiatric Association. 2003. Press Release 03-39: Statement on Diagnosis and Treatment of Mental Disorders (September 26). Online at http://www.psych.org/MainMenu/Newsroom/NewReleases/2003/NewsReleases.

Andreasen, Nancy C. 1987. Creativity and mental illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry 144: 1288–92.

Hayden, Deborah. 2003. Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. New York: Basic Books.

Insel, Thomas. 2013. Transforming diagnosis. National Institute of Mental Health Director’s blog (April 29). Online at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. 1989. Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists. Psychiatry 52: 125–34.

———. 1993. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press.

———. 1995. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lombroso, C. 1895. The Man of Genius. Contemporary Science Series. Edited by Havelock Ellis. London: Walter Scott. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger’s Publishing Rare Reprints.

Ludwig, Arnold M. 1995. The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. New York: The Guilford Press.

Schlesinger, Judith. 2009. Creative mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the mad genius hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts 3(2): 62–72.

———. 2012. The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius. Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York: Shrinktunes Press.

Wittkower, Rudolf, and Margaret Wittkower. 1963. Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists. New York: W.W. Norton.

Judith Schlesinger

Judith Schlesinger, PhD, is a psychologist, therapist, educator, musician, jazz critic, and the author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, which combines three decades of scholarly research and clinical experience into the first comprehensive analysis of this pseudoscientific stereotype. A psychology professor for seventeen years, Schlesinger’s publications include her film biography of Humphrey Bogart (Metro Books, 1997), articles in The American Psychologist and the British Journal of Psychiatry, the psychology chapter in Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook (Garland Publishing, 2000), and ten years of “Shrinktunes” columns for allaboutjazz.com that explore the overlap between psychology and music.