I think I know what’s wrong with you
Despite the fact that I have no training in medicine, psychiatry, psychology or even sociology.
Abraham Lincoln, Marylin Monroe, George Gershwin
I do think I know what’s wrong with you. This is despite the fact that I have no training in medicine, psychiatry, psychology or even sociology.
In college I studied the plays of Eugene O’Neill, modern poetry and how to write a news story in the inverted pyramid style. I understood only two of those three things. Fine, I thought, leave something for the other students.
What I did learn in college was a deeper love of books. Spending so much time reading is why my bills are often late, skirts have torn hems — taped instead of repaired — and boxes for Goodwill are still piled in the hall. It’s all because of books.
One of the books I’ve been reading has enlightened me about mental ailments. “Andy Warhol was a Hoarder” might not sound like a scholarly publication, and it’s not, but, oh, how interesting. This is the book that has given me confidence to diagnose other people.
Author Claudia Kalb analyzed 12 of history’s great personalities and came to interesting conclusions:
Marilyn Monroe probably had borderline personality disorder.
Albert Einstein likely had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
George Gershwin had attention-deficit hyperactive disorder.
Abraham Lincoln might have had clinical depression.
This raises the question of a connection between mental maladies, including addiction, and creativity and genius. Do people have to be a little nuts to create works of art, solve scientific riddles or become a business titan? Is a mental blip the grain of sand in the brain that creates a pearl? If all of us have quirks, how much is needed to be brilliant? How much is too much, making our lives unmanageable and the lives of our friends and families unabridged hell?
When do we just drop it? James Thurber’s 1937 book “Let Your Mind Alone” was his playful poke at popular self-help and psychology books of the time.
Kalb lays out some convincing evidence of her analyses, gives a broader discussion of each specific ailment and then considers how modern medical treatment might have altered history.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s gambling disorder wrecked his personal life several times even as he wrote masterpieces, including his book about compulsive gambling, “The Gambler.”
Einstein was a social misfit from childhood. He didn’t speak until he was 3 years old, then he habitually repeated sentences to himself. He flew into such rages, he once threw a bowling ball at his sister’s head. He did not connect well with other people; he did poorly in school; he was more interested in things and thinking.
In adulthood, Einstein was disinterested in personal grooming and disheveled in dress. Even in winter, he often went without socks. (Disclaimer: I have male colleagues who do not wear socks, but I am not going to diagnose them.) And yet, his disengagement in social mores gave him powers of intense concentration. Hence, his genius.
Gershwin was hyperactive as a boy — restless and inattentive, quick to street fighting. As an adult, he walked and talked fast. In conversation, he made staccato beats with his left hand. Today, his inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness might be diagnosed as ADHD.
Which raises a question: When do we leave our minds alone? Would Gershwin have written “Rhapsody in Blue” if he were taking Ritalin?
And when do we leave other people’s minds alone? If the person is happy and not hurting himself or others, should we try to rope and medicate them?
Several years ago, a popular psychological self-help seminar swept through here. I think at the break the participants were sent out to recruit friends. Three people telephoned me in succession to say, “You really need this program.” Three people. Wow.
Then I remembered the joke, “If I talk to God, that is called praying. If God talks to me, it’s called schizophrenia.” And I went back to my gardening.