I recently read Judith Schlesinger’s book The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius. What a relief! With a gallivanting, witty writing style, Schlesinger doesn’t just debunk, she pulverizes that annoying meme that mental illness is more common among artists than the general population. Interestingly, every time I’ve brought the book up to others, be they creative pros or not, they immediately argue that artists are in fact more prone to depression, mania, schizophrenia, drug addiction and any number of other primarily mental disorders. Of note, the author is a devoted jazz fan, so there are a number of references to jazz musicians, which I found useful.

The Insanity Hoax by Judith Schlesinger

Schlesinger starts with the obvious difficulties of defining talent, artistic success (just being “eminent” or wildly commercially successful doesn’t provide an objective point for comparison) and creativity. One of her favorite targets is good-old Freud: “Big C [great, as opposed to ordinary, creativity] was a major interest for Freud, who painted it with his usual limited palette of depression and discontent. His philosophy was basically this: once parents pour your mold and it sets, life becomes a constant struggle against its (always) uncomfortable fit,” she writes.

Then she quotes Freud himself:

“[The artist] is one who is urged on by instinctual news which are too clamorous; he longs to attain honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women; but he lacks the means for achieving these gratifications. So, like any other unsatisfied longing, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, on to the creation of his wishes in the life of phantasy.”

I know I’m unlikely to convince you to drop this strong cultural belief that artists are prone to craziness. I have held it myself. But the tide really is changing, as positive psychology, happiness and flow research studies are beginning to gain acceptance (for the longest time, it was only acceptable to study sadness). Schlesinger — a psychologist — shows ample evidence that the creative process is “healthy and life-affirming.” She quotes another researcher (Daniel Nettle, 2001), who says “psychological studies have shown again and again that, however much we want to romanticize [genius], it is typified by qualities that are disappointingly opposite of psychotic: self-discipline, tenacity, organization, calmness, and strong self-image.”

Much of what has been written in recent decades linking creativity and madness has been scaffolded, Schlesinger giddily reveals, on the flimsiest of academic foundations. A “landmark study” by psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop ran from 1972 to 1987. In that time, “Andreasen interviewed only thirty writers, all of whom she knew personally. This automatically compromises the value of her findings.” Her sample was all-white, middle-aged and male. “Andreasen’s stunning conclusion—that fully 80 percent of writers had mood disorders, compared with only 30 percent of non-writers–became the first brick in the new empirical foundation.” In other words, subsequent studies cited this source, never replicated, as if it were gospel.

Next came Kay Jamison, who shamelessly rode the art-and-madness train to commercial success, even producing a 1988 series of concerts honoring “four allegedly bipolar composers. Their diagnoses were ‘proven’ by their own compositions, as the National Symphony played their faster sections to show their mania, and the slower ones to demonstrate their depression.”

It’s really fun to read Schlesinger ripping apart the citations in Jamison’s work to show how everything is built on innuendo and shoddy, biased, unreplicated work. You’ve got to read it for yourself. I just love her spunky metaphors, such as the “squid defense.” She describes the American Psychological Association conceding in 2003 that they can’t find “definite biological basis for the disorders they were selling. But they also quickly mobilized the classic squid defense: blasting out clouds of ink to confuse the enemy and obscure the issue.”

None of this is to dispute that mental illness exists, of course. But this ancient belief, given new life by modern psychology starting with Freud, penalizes “normal” artists. Schlesinger points out that many jazz artists who live mundane, productive lives were neglected by biographers, while Bird and Monk got all the attention for their struggles. In the case of Monk, I personally think he was crazy all right: Crazy like a fox. Turning in circles on stage? That’s called showmanship—er, branding, as we call it today. Granted, his problems and addictions did get the better of him in the end.

“Psychiatry already has serious credibility problems and is likely headed for more,” concludes Schlesinger, who points out that social definitions of abnormality change constantly: “In 1851, slaves who tried to run away were said to suffer from the pathological disorder of ‘drapetomania’ (from the Greek ‘drapetes,’ or runaway, and ‘mania,’ or frenzy). Would anyone call that a mental disorder now?”

Be kind to your mind! Read this book!


InsanityHoax Back Cover