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We all know the names of some pretty sick writers. There are the alcoholics and drug addicts: Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Samuel Taylor Coleridge . . . there are the institutionalized "mad": Ezra Pound, Zelda Fitzgerald, the Marquis de Sade . . . and there are the suicides: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Jerzy Kozinski, Hemingway again . . . Questions come to mind like, Is there something about writing that makes you want to kill yourself? Is there really more mental illness among writers than among the general public, or are we just more aware of famous people so it feels that way? Does a dramatic event, like suicide or incarceration, help to perpetuate the myth of a person's life and garner more attention for his or her work than it might otherwise earn? Or is creativity itself somehow related to mental illness? Are genius and insanity perhaps close cousins?
The three authors of Sounds from the Bell Jar seem qualified to help us explore such provocative possibilities. Gordon Claridge is a Lecturer in Abnormal Psychology at Oxford University and Ruth Pryor and Gwen Watkins are literary scholars. The authors selected ten writers, beginning with Margery Kempe (c. 1373-?), and ending with Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) They then constructed a book whose purpose is "to re-examine their lives and works in a manner not previously attempted, combining the expertise of the literary critic and the professional psychologist, in order to show how their creativity and their tendency to psychosis shaped and influenced each other." Whether they accomplished that goal is debatable.
A few other snippets from the introductory chapter whet the appetite of the curious: " . . . effective creative production and an ongoing state of serious mental illness seem quite incompatible." And "It is . . .likely that what connects creativity to madness is some aspect of the thought styles which psychotic and original forms of thinking have in common . . ."
From here, though, there is more description and diagnosis than actual analysis of the promised issue. Most of each chapter is devoted to biographical summaries of each author, with particular effort made to establish the subject's madness. In some cases, Claridge (presumably) examines the available evidence of illness and tries to establish specific diagnoses of psychosis, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Why the exact diagnosis is relevant is not clear. It is also not always convincing, for several reasons: some of the earlier subjects left limited information behind; and definitions and treatments of mental illness have changed so drastically over the years that it is extremely difficult to interpret the records left from another century. For example, the authors state that "All psychiatric assessment procedures contain an instruction to set aside as diagnostically insignificant any experience that occurs as part of a shared religious or subcultural belief system." But they go on to say that "To follow that rule uncritically for Margery Kempe would make it virtually impossible to reach any conclusion about her from a modern psychiatric viewpoint, given the religious climate of her times."
Similarly, the authors do not seem to have set a clear standard for why they included these ten writers and not others. Has Thomas Hoccleve or Antonia White gone down in history among the most creative thinkers who ever lived? Is John Clare (who is included) a better poet or a more demonstrably ill one than Ezra Pound (who is not)? Also, one of the "writers" was, in fact, illiterate: apparently Kempe dictated the account of her life to two different scribes. Why does this qualify her for inclusion?
Only in the final chapter is a concerted attempt made to corral all the data and find connections between the writers' illnesses and their work. And what is determined? First, we are warned at the outset of this chapter that this was not a scientific study; there was no control group, the sample was small, and the choice of subjects was "rather arbitrary." Then a fair amount of attention is given to facts and incidents that actually signify nothing of relevance. White and Plath, for instance, both spent more than they should have on clothes. So do some other women without writing talent. That Plath once claimed to have frittered a month's pay on a raincoat with a pink lining proves nothing about either her creativity or her impending suicide, and yet it is given serious consideration here.
We learn that some, but not all, of the writers under consideration came from families "where at least one parent manifested either serious eccentricity or actual psychosis." And yet none of the writers' parents are also famous writers, so this fact would seem to weaken the idea of a connection between the art and the illness. If these particular illnesses have a genetic, or a hereditary component, why doesn't the talent as well?
When the authors of Sounds from the Bell Jar conclude that "Our subjects, while a small and extreme sample, do seem to confirm the conclusion that there is a genuine association between creativity and insanity," the careful reader will shake her head. In spite of some interesting discussions, digressions, and diagnoses, no such thing has been demonstrated.
© 2001 Heather Liston. First serial rights Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.