A Perspective on “Club Van Gogh”

Last week, I heard an NPR interview of Ellen Forney, a cartoonist and author whose new memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo and Me, chronicles her journey from experiencing symptoms of mental illness to receiving, denying, and then gradually accepting her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

In the interview, Ms. Forney talked about accepting her membership in “Club Van Gogh,” an elite “club” of extraordinarily talented writers and artists who are known to have suffered with depression, bipolar disorder or some other mental illness.  It has often been noted that extraordinarily talented people of many other professions are also among the sufferers of mental illness. Like the writers and artists of “Club Van Gogh,” some of these astoundingly gifted individuals have names that are almost universally famous – like Donny Hathaway, Phyllis Hyman, Robin Williams, Mike Tyson, Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Joel, Herschel Walker, Brooke Shields, and scores of others.

Many have opined – without any real proof, I might add – that the genius of such brilliant talents is in some way connected to, or even rooted in, their psychiatric illness. Others have the different but somewhat related view that talented people who suffer from mental illness have the unique ability, or perhaps even the responsibility, to experience the pain of their illness in order to channel it into their work and thereby communicate that pain to the outside world or express it for other sufferers who are less able to express it themselves.  Citing poet Anne Sexton, Ellen Forney discussed this topic during her interview:

“It was [Anne Sexton’s] opinion that it was the responsibility of artists to feel intense pain so that we could express that for other people who couldn’t express it themselves.  But then, of course, she committed suicide, as well.  So if you’re talking about how creative someone with a mood disorder can be, that really cuts short your creativity and productivity if you cut your own life short.”

What Ms. Forney touches on here as a creative person with a mental illness resonates with me as a psychiatrist.  We are talking about people suffering from illnesses – potentially deadly ones.  Suicide is the horribly tragic means by which devastating, debilitating illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and addiction disorders can become terminal illnesses.  People can die from these medical conditions just as they can from cancer and heart disease.   And just like those diseases, there is nothing romantic or creatively inspiring about the suffering a mentally ill person endures.  I’ve learned over years of taking care of many patients that it is brutally painful – not motivational or inspirational – to suffer the ravages of a diseased brain.

To be sure, it’s nothing less than awe-inspiring that so many people who have struggled with mental illness possess unimaginable levels of genius and creativity.  The stories of such wonderful people give me credibility when I tell my patients that their illnesses should neither define them nor confine them.  Still, we make a huge mistake – and do a grave disservice to people with mental illnesses – if we fail to understand, for example, that Phyllis Hyman must have been suffering pure agony when she wrote in her suicide note, “…I’m tired. I’m tired….”   Or that Donny Hathaway was so tormented by the hallucinations and paranoid delusions he suffered that he apparently threw himself out of a window during what should have been the prime of his life and the pinnacle of his brilliant musical career. While beautiful masterpieces like “You Know How to Love Me” and “A Song For You” will always bring joy to my heart, I will forever experience twinges of pain and sadness when I consider the incredible suffering these two profound geniuses must have endured.

This past weekend, we have just witnessed another tragic suicide (actually, a murder-suicide) by an NFL athlete.  When a young man’s devastating pain has led to such a horrific end, it’s easier to surmise after the fact that he must have been terribly disturbed and suffering greatly.  Long before people with mental illnesses come to a crisis point we should love and appreciate them and remember that many of them — from the Ellen Forneys, the Billy Joels, and the Herschel Walkers of the world, to their more obscure, less exceptional counterparts whom we all know in our personal lives – may be wonderful people with precious gifts and talents to share with at least some portion of the world. But until there is solid scientific proof to the contrary, let’s also recognize that people possess and express their creative genius – or their ordinary abilities — in spite of their struggles with mental illness, not because of them. Perhaps Ellen Forney said it best: “I find that stability is good for my creativity.”

Dr. Steve

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.