email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
The subtitle of A First-Rate Madness, linking leadership with madness, suggests the book as a condemnatory study of the obvious historical culprits of genocide and other atrocities, from Hitler to Idi Amin. However, the opening chapters of the book confound the reader's simplistic expectations of a censure of mad leaders by launching its argument from the shocking assertion that the mentally healthy are less effective, and often dangerous, in positions of leadership during times of catastrophe, while the mentally ill may make the best crisis leaders. Nassir Ghaemi's "inverse law of sanity" sees the mentally ill leader as the best person for the job in one vital circumstance--in times of crisis. Following Cesare Lombroso (The Man of Genius, 1889) who equated genius with madness, on the argument that the genius was so far superior to the ordinary person that he could not be considered "normal" (contra the more popular view of Frances Galton, which equates sanity with intelligence and genius), Ghaemi proceeds to unfold the characteristic symptoms of the mental illnesses of depression and mania, and to locate evidence of these diseases in the details of the lives of a spectrum of historical leaders. The objective of this study is to unseat our simplistic understanding of the discrete categories of mental health and mental illness, to reveal the complexity of features associated with mental illnesses and to expose the positive qualities promoted by those who suffer and overcome mental illness.
Ghaemi, a scholar in the fields of history, philosophy and public health, is representative of a new breed of interdisciplinary scholar, laboring in the budding discipline of "psychological history," on the border between the fields of history and psychiatry. Ghaemi applies the evidentiary methods of psychiatry, "stripped of its psychoanalytic faith," to the case histories of dead leaders to demonstrate that many of history's heroic and villainous leaders suffered from mental illnesses, which greatly affected their characters, their political performances and their decision-making. Mental illnesses, explains Ghaemi, are diagnosed following four lines of evidence--symptoms (case studies including self-reports but also reports from friends and family members); genetics (family histories of mental illness); course of the illness (characteristic patterns of development over time); and response to treatments (a particular response to a drug suggesting a diagnosis of disease). This multi-evidentiary approach, argues Ghaemi, parallels the historian's method, which builds case studies of historical actors by reviewing a spectrum of documents, such as letters and other contemporary reports by family, friends and other observers.
Ghaemi's study begins from a reconsideration of what is meant by "mental illness." Concentrating on two of the most prevalent mental illnesses, depression and mania (commonly called bipolar or manic depression). Depression, the author explains, reveals itself in symptoms such as slow movement, low energy, declining interest in life and chronic fatigue or anxious pacing. The depressed are mired in the past and cannot break free from guilty or remorseful thoughts, and as a result, their lives are characterized by strings of broken relationships, high rates of divorce and alienation from loved ones, often resulting in suicide. In mania, the sufferer tends to be deliriously giddy or angry, talking fast, interrupting others and irritated by the slow pace of others. Their self-esteem raises them up beyond all guilt or self-doubt, so they often make poor judgments, their thoughts having been set free from all perceived limits. They report flights of creativity, explosions of thoughts, like fireworks or a racing computer. Their focus is solely upon the future; the past is gone and the present has little claim on their attention or conscience. Both mania and depression are generally understood to render the sufferer out of touch with reality.
However, Ghaemi challenges these merely negative assessments of mental illness, explaining that these diseases have been extensively studied and are shown to promote four qualities that are critical during times of crisis--creativity, resilience, realism and empathy. Mania stimulates creativity and resilience, while depression cultivates all four critical features--creativity in seeking solutions to crises, resilience in the face of hardship, realism in assessing the seriousness of impending consequences (versus the prejudice that depressives are unduly negative and out of touch with reality), and empathy for suffering others.
Moreover, Ghaemi argues that too little scholarly attention has been afforded the overlap between the symptoms associated with mental illness and the features of the personality type known as hyperthymic personality (from the Ancient Greek ύπερ θυμός or over-spiritedness). In terms of the three parameters that psychologists employ for categorizing human minds--neuroticism; sociability; and openness to experience-- Ghaemi sees hyperthymics forming a unique class of effective crisis-leaders, having no trace of neuroticism, yet displaying extreme sociability (extravertedness, rich sensitivity to others, generosity, cheerfulness, uncommon warmth) and an extraordinary openness to experience (risk-taking courage, strong libido, dismissive of social norms and unusually productive), features often associated with mania and depression. However, it should be noted that hyperthymia, where it is discussed at all in serious professional psychological scholarship, is disputed as a simplistically understood, poorly defined mental trait best left to use by popular self-help authors.
On the other end of the mental health spectrum, Ghaemi places the typical mentally healthy leader--the bank president, ordinary national leader or corporate executive leader--and he delineates the shortcomings of these "normal" leaders. They tend to be privileged, idealistic, overly optimistic and generally insensitive to suffering, having never known suffering themselves. A perfectly adequate non-crisis leader, argues Ghaemi, the mentally healthy are fine in times of peace, but they can be ineffective and downright dangerous in times of crisis--underestimating the risks involved, lacking compassion for those who are suffering, disconnected from those outside his class and inconsistent and waffling when catastrophes strike. Moreover, the most "normal" people, incapable of realistically assessing risk, can easily become devout followers of dangerous dictators. Ghaemi uses the example of Nazi generals under Hitler, as well as the German masses, as "homoclites" who are easily swayed to atrocious acts by the charisma and exuberant energy of a manic depressive leader.
Ghaemi dissects the lives of U.S. Civil War leaders, prominent World War II leaders and finally national heroes and peace figures, such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. His objective is to show probable evidence of mental illness in each of these heroes/villains, but also to break down the reader's neat categories of mental health and mental illness. Our ideas about "normalcy" in mental health are skewed, argues Ghaemi. "Normal" people tend to sacrifice realism in the interest of happiness, seeing themselves as happier than most other people, better off than they actually are, and less endangered by the risk factors of their lives. When dark realities do strike them, they tend to freeze, waffle, and rebound from trauma far less quickly than those who are deemed "abnormal." Mental health, Ghaemi explains, is better viewed as a spectrum of the qualities denoted as symptoms, rather than as discrete categories with opposite features. His "Goldilocks principle" suggests that those in the middle of the U-curve, having not too much and not too little, but just the right amount of these symptoms, fare best in confronting reality and navigating successfully through the tragedies of their lives. Most people have more or less severe forms of mental "illness," argues Ghaemi, such that in non-crises, their "illness" serves them poorly, causing them to look to others for support. But in crisis situations, our "illness" can help us thrive; we see the problem more realistically, step up to support those around us, and act decisively to change the situation. "Depressive realism" kicks in to replace the "positive illusions" that fool us into thinking we have more control over external events than we actually have; they warn us of the actual risks involved and help us to devise creative responses to deal with our difficulties.
One stunning upshot of Ghaemi's study is its implication for our view of those who have suffered and overcome mental illnesses: Ghaemi is convincing in his claim that people who have suffered through and overcome their mental illnesses, far from deserving the negative stigma generally attached to them in their societies, should instead be recognized as superior human beings, in many respects improved by their ill-health experiences. It seems Nietzsche is right: whatever does not kill us (or drive us to utter psychosis) makes us stronger, rendering us more resilient, compassionate, creative and shrewdly realistic. Like hardships such as poverty during childhood and other tragic experiences throughout life, mental illnesses can build our core skills for navigating the human condition and connecting with others. Painful episodes of mental illness are always periodic, so the breaks between the episodes, explains Ghaemi, allow time for intense self-reflection and reflection on the tragedies and contradictions of life, that are ultimately shared by all. Thus mental illnesses teach people how to survive difficult circumstances, they build resilience to future challenges and catastrophes, and they stretch our hearts to connect us with others. They teach us the existential equality of all persons, our common vulnerability to suffering.
Ghaemi's book is fascinating, well-written and carefully researched and accessible to any educated audience. The audio version is easily followed and serves well for passing the hours of a long car ride. The book's structure holds fast the reader's interest by maintaining a consistent pattern of alternating chapters detailing a diagnosis with meticulous mini-biographies of historical figures who exemplify the diagnosis. The historical evidence Ghaemi rallies to support his diagnosis is seamless, with few exceptions. The best feature of the study is the work it performs to upset our facile prejudices against the recovered mentally ill. Ghaemi insists on dismantling the discrete categories of mental health and mental illness, so the blurred borders between the two categories enable us to see more clearly that the very same qualities deemed symptoms of mental disease under peaceful historical conditions are identical to the features of genius we glorify in times of trouble. This common identity has a twofold upshot for the reader: it warns us against demonizing those who have suffered through mental illness, and it warns us of the risk of placing our unqualified trust in charismatic, high-spirited leaders during times of crisis, without taking great care to place adequate checks and balances on their actions.
© 2012 Wendy C. Hamblet,
Wendy C. Hamblet, Professor, North Carolina A&T State University