Essay

Headless Hearts

The double standards of the mad genius myth.

Robert Lowell’s place in the literary imagination is that of the natty New England colossus who fathered confessional poetry. In his 30s, Lowell began to exhibit symptoms of bipolar disorder (then called manic depressive reaction) that plagued him for the rest of his life and resulted in more than a dozen hospitalizations. The illness also inspired some of Lowell’s most famous poems, including the widely anthologized “Skunk Hour.” The poet W.D. Snodgrass depicted Lowell as a puppy dog: “[T]hough tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please.” But Lowell’s sweet, somewhat absentminded euthymic self was wildly distinct from his manic self, according to Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent biography-cum-psychological case study. When Lowell was manic, Jamison writes, he was “unkind, arrogant, and incomprehending [sic].”

In his review of the book for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda notes that “Jamison recognizes that Lowell damaged other people’s lives, but she excuses him because he had no control over his own behavior. … Lowell got away with a lot.” During his manias, Lowell drank heavily, got into altercations with police, and beat at least one of his three wives, the writer Jean Stafford. His world was shattered by temporary insanity, then restored, only for the poet to find himself yet again overwhelmed by gloom, hopelessness, and humiliation. Despite bouts with mental illness, he won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. He was the sixth United States poet laureate. He taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at Harvard. He earned astute and compassionate scholarly attention. 

But another poet—one who didn’t look, talk, or act like Lowell—might not have survived mental illness the same way. Another poet might have been abandoned by friends, evicted, or even killed by police. Another poet might not have had Lowell’s financial privilege, without which finding the time and resources to write prolifically and enjoy critical acclaim is difficult. 

Just as it’s a privilege to recover from a manic episode assured of one’s friendships and stable finances, so too is it a privilege for one’s madness to be the object of scholarly inquiry instead of noted on a police report. “When power intersects with mental illness, it becomes romantic,” says Okezie Nwoka, a friend of mine and a fellow writer living with a mental health condition. When a poet of Lowell’s stature—Boston Brahmin rich, white, able-bodied, straight, and cisgender—is mentally ill, the illness is often considered inextricable from his brilliance. Yet no one has written a major medico-biographical tome about Etheridge Knight, a Black, formerly incarcerated poet whose addiction could be framed as having galvanized his brilliance. The lists of luminaries who lived with mental illness likewise often leave off Reinaldo Arenas, the queer Cuban poet who suffered from AIDS and committed suicide in 1990 after years of persecution by Castro’s communist regime. We hear of Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath but only rarely of their queer, trans, disabled, or non-white counterparts. It seems that only straight, cisgender white men—and sometimes straight, cisgender white women—are canonized as mad geniuses. The peculiar exclusivity of this category has legitimized, and even celebrated, a neurodivergent few while compounding the shame and isolation experienced by the neurodivergent many.

Consider Naadeyah Haseeb, a 29-year-old novelist and poet living in North Carolina. Like Lowell, Haseeb is bipolar. (Full disclosure: Haseeb and I struck up a friendship in 2016 after bonding over our mutual diagnoses.) Her novella, Manic Depressive Dream Girl (2015), dramatizes the fraught romance between a white man and a bipolar Black woman. Her next chapbook will be a collection of blackout poems about mental illness. “A certain kind of person is allowed to act that way, allowed to be the mad genius,” Haseeb tells me. “I don’t think that I am for so many reasons, being a Black lady.” 

Though Haseeb feels rejected by the mad genius archetype, it still informs how she thinks about herself. She justified her teenaged sadness, for example, with the excuse that artists are supposed to be moody. The link between creativity and mental illness is so prevalent that Haseeb worries artists now see the two as indivisible. Years ago, when she had trouble writing, she stopped taking her meds and went without sleep in an effort to induce mania, which she hoped would result in a burst of creative productivity. Instead, she landed in the psych ward. She’s found that her writing habits fluctuate with her moods: sometimes the very thought of writing makes her anxious; at other times, she’s too depressed to open her laptop. And whereas a deadline is a fantastic motivator when she’s euthymic, it can be paralyzing when she’s not. 

Haseeb isn’t alone. Another writer friend of mine can feel his hypomania “glowing” in his chest. “If I can feel the glow, I just won’t take my meds,” he tells me. In the film Touched with Fire—named after Jamison’s 1993 book about creativity and bipolar disorder—the two main characters, both bipolar writers, constantly flush their pills in an effort to maintain their creativity. One character triumphantly quotes Byron: “We of the craft are all crazy... Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” 

“Part of me believes [the mad genius archetype] derives from people wanting to believe that there’s a reason for this kind of thing happening,” Haseeb says, referring to severe mental illnesses. “There’s all sorts of people making creative work, but people always look towards the extreme stories.”

Rage Almighty, a 33-year-old Black poet based in Dallas, echoes Haseeb. Almighty suffers from depression, as evinced in his poems “Depression” and “Romantic Suicide.” Another poem, “Moody Child,” is written from the point of view of a bipolar Black man whose illness is never addressed. The narrator ends up incarcerated, mourning the fact that “mental illness doesn’t get attended to until prison.” The poem is based on two men Almighty knows, one a teenaged ex-poet from Dallas now serving a life sentence for murder, the other an older man who “has made a career of jail.” Almighty notes that many communities of color face financial barriers to obtaining mental health treatment. According to a 2014 study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 15.9 percent of Black Americans were uninsured compared to 11.1 percent of white Americans. In 2012, the percentage of people unable to get—or delayed in getting—necessary medical care and prescription medications was 18.7 percent for the uninsured and only 8.4 percent for those with private insurance. “It’s almost as if we’re not allowed to have mental health issues,” Almighty says.

Almighty has always been fascinated by the image of the self-loathing rock star and the brooding writer. “The Kurt Cobains. Hank Moody from Californication,” he says. “I was a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson until I found out he was problematic.” Fascinated though he was, Almighty quickly realized that those personas were off limits to him. “This romantic, brooding writer-rock star … I don’t think it’s even available to us, on top of all the things we have to go through in society just being of color,” he says. 

He wrestles with thoughts of worthlessness. “There were a couple times I cut a show short because I got tired of my own thoughts while I was performing,” he says. “I’m doing a poem, and a parade of negative things runs through my mind, and it physically makes me tired.” When he is able to perform, Almighty’s candor offers listeners a powerful glimpse into his experience, as in his poem “Depression:”

Depression is four hydrocodones, two x pills, and a poetry show.
Feeling like the biggest hypocrite in the world. 
It’s tears that will never fall from your cheek, fear of adding to the water that
I’m already chin-deep in...
Yeah, I wanna die, but not that way.

Maybe Kurt Cobain-like, possibly Chris Benoit-type, partly Chris Farley.

The mad genius is more than just a circumscribed archetype; it’s implicit permission to be messy and self-absorbed and lose control without the threat of dehumanization. It’s the transference of power from audience to creator. And it’s the difference between winning a Nobel Prize and being dosed with sedatives in prison. The white, male genius has generally been allowed to behave repulsively and remain a vaunted artist; the non-white, non-male, (allegedly) non-genius has gone ignored, unpublished, or unpaid. 

***

“I often think of male writers and artists who lived with mental illness and were, by many accounts, also addicts and abusive to their partners or spouses, yet their art has risen to an almost untouchable plane,” says the poet Carleen Tibbetts. “The argument urging for a separation of the artist from his creation was common, whereas a woman artist living with mental illness and still trying to create was dismissed as ‘crazy.’” Tibbetts points out that although a few female writers—Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton—are allowed into the mad genius club, their suicides often overshadow their work. By contrast, figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and David Foster Wallace are popularly regarded as martyrs and their work is lionized. Cishet white women are also allowed a place at the table. Trans artists, queer artists, and artists of color are rarely identified as touched with fire: writing about or experiencing psychological “messiness” renders their work inscrutable to consumers of popular literature. At worst, it prevents their work from being read at all. 

torrin a. greathouse is a 23-year-old poet and self-described cripple-punk in Southern California. Her chapbook boy/girl/ghost (2018) is about the three identities her body has inhabited. “I was a boy and became a woman, so I’m able to claim certain experiences within that boyhood,” she says. greathouse lives with multiple mental health conditions and a severe spinal deformity requiring that she use a cane. Her poetry allows her to comprehend her intersecting identities: “Through writing I have been able to better understand what it means to be a woman who was a boy. What it means to be living with the mental illnesses I have. What it means to be living in a disabled body, and what it means to be living in a disabled woman’s body.” 

greathouse sees the critical apparatus surrounding men like Lowell as preserving the mad genius archetype. “The line between crazy and eccentric is defined by its proximity to power,” she says. “The tortured genius floats in this bubble of eccentricity.” She argues that the mad genius archetype allows for an expansion of masculinity. The mad genius trades in his masculine dominance and assertiveness for introspection, overcoming and/or embracing his mental illness to create art. A stereotypically feminine trait—introspection—is assigned to a man and is celebrated as a result. Of figures such as Plath and Woolf, greathouse says, “When a woman is allowed to occupy the position of the mad genius, it’s politicized. When a man occupies the position of mad genius, it’s apolitical.” 

According to scholar Elizabeth Willson Gordon, Plath biographers, including Jacqueline Rose (The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, 1991) and Anne Stevenson (Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, 1989), “engage with the romanticizing of Plath for seemingly feminist reasons … and the importance of the author as a gendered being.” Plath was something of a feminist icon in the 1970s, a perception that hasn’t faded from emerging scholarship about her. Two recent academic texts, for example, are titled “Feminist Critical Study on Contemporary Women’s Writing and Female Culture with Special Focus on Sylvia Plath’s Poems” and “Sylvia Plath as Feminist.” In the lability of her illness and the tragedy of her death, Plath has become a representative of her gender rather than her generation.

greathouse and I speak about the theory, popularized by Jamison’s Touched with Fire, that creativity and mental illness are linked. Like Setting the River on Fire, Touched with Fire is a gorgeously written volume that promises bipolar sufferers their illness can mean more than a future of blood tests, hospitalizations, and lithium. According to Jamison, the bipolar person is an ideal vessel for artistic inspiration: “Poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and inconstant moods, can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience.” 

greathouse disagrees. “Feeding [people of marginalized identities] the narrative that art is tied to our mental illness and helping our mental illness will harm our art is just another form of violence, really,” she says. There is danger, sometimes fatal, in not treating mental illness. Compounding an untreated mental illness with oppressive social forces can tip one toward the life-threatening end of the unmedicated spectrum. In “Ablution with Violent Intrusive Thoughts,” greathouse writes of suicidal ideation: “i pick up a pair of scissorsto cut your hair or your wristand put them back in the drawer. run the water until steam rises like broken question marks. glide a razor over my cheekif you pressed deep enough you could peel all these imperfections awaytrying to hide the coarse hair breaking through my skin.” 

Although depression can be crushing, greathouse says she’s no stranger to the seduction of mania. Once, while manic, she wrote a full-length manuscript of poetry in three weeks. “Not too long ago,” she writes, “I found an online community of bipolar folks who try to stay ‘on’ all the time, triggering manic episodes and sustaining them for as long as possible. The allure of that is incredible. To stay happy, to stay on top.” 

Robert Lowell didn’t begin taking lithium until 1967, when he was 50 years old, relatively late in his illness. Desperate for a solution to the problem of his “manic seizures,” he was what psychiatrists today would call medication-compliant. In a 1968 letter to poet Elizabeth Bishop, he wrote, “The pills I am taking really seem to prevent mania. Two or three years will be necessary, but already critical months have passed. Ordinarily I would certainly have been in a hospital by now.” According to Jamison, previous biographies of Lowell were uncharitable in their portrayals of him as a loutish monster rather than a gentle man afflicted by a disabling mood disorder. Jamison may have overcompensated by being too forgiving in her characterization, but she certainly doesn’t believe that Lowell was more creative or productive off lithium. Quite the opposite: mania upended his life. The risk of experiencing a “flattening” of one’s creative abilities on lithium—an experience Jamison recounts in her autobiography An Unquiet Mind (1996)—is small compared to the brain- and life-damaging effects of unmedicated bipolar illness. 

***

When Nwoka first learned about his mental health condition, he read about the 19th-century “illness” drapetomania. According to some white doctors at the time—particularly Samuel A. Cartwright, a physician who practiced in the South and served Confederate army camps during the Civil War—any slave attempting to flee captivity was a “drapetomaniac” for being Black and wanting to live free. 

“This same logic is exercised today,” Nwoka says. “This is the master narrative, which is white hegemony. And if you deviate from it and want to be outside of it, you’re crazy.” The more one follows the logic of white hegemony—going to elite institutions, getting a high-paying job, using language as a kind of currency to access privileged circles—the closer one will be to good health care and health. Mental illness will likely be met with better management and more compassion. When I tell Nwoka about Lowell’s time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—his fame, the adoration of his students, the fact that he’d secured his teaching position after the onset of his manic seizures—Nwoka is impressed but nonplussed: “Robert Lowell was breaking barriers for others after him, but he had that access because of power and privilege.”

As Jamison writes, “Transformation can heal and art can transform … there is a connection, Lowell believed, between how the world is and what the imagination comes to rest upon, what it works to transform.” Art has much to transform in this world. And that transformation is not going to come from the powerful: it will come from the marginalized and belittled, the artists who have not stood to benefit from the structures designed to elevate poets such as Lowell. 

In his poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane,” Knight recounts the story of an angry inmate forced to undergo a lobotomy. After the procedure, he’s uncharacteristically tame as the other inmates shout racial slurs and shake him, and the narrator suspects Hard Rock has been permanently changed: “And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed. / He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things / We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do.” Thousands of men like Hard Rock vanish into prisons or state hospitals and suffer in ways those on the outside prefer not to think about. Confronting Hard Rock’s suffering would mean confronting the entire white hegemonic system that preserves one artist’s brilliance and degrades another’s. It would mean an honest survey of the cultural devaluation of Black art and intellect, which historically has been divested of its origins and repackaged as the product of white ingenuity. Consider the appropriation of the Lindy Hop in the 1930s and 40s, the rise of rock-and-roll in the 1950s, or Amy Winehouse’s Motown aesthetic in the 2000s. In Knight’s poem, white hegemony stole Hard Rock’s personality and left him docile and lobotomized. 

In a 1957 letter to Bishop, Lowell wrote that he acted with an “abysmal myopia and lack of consideration” around her. He continued, “My disease, alas, gives one (during its seizures) a headless heart.” The world of the mad genius is a lonely, homogeneous one: the few inhabitants look the same, originate from more or less the same backgrounds, preoccupy themselves with similar concerns. They are unique in that the culture gives them permission to be mentally ill. The purported link between mental illness and creativity shrouds their behavior—however hurtful, erratic, or bewildering—in the cloak of genius. 

But a new generation of poets is fed up with the rarified world of the mad genius. Recent collections such as Madness (2017), by sam sax, and In These Days of Prohibition (2017), by Caroline Bird, for example, thematize substance abuse and addiction in addition to mental illness. As these and other poets continue to become more prominent and amplify emerging voices, the calcified notion of the mad genius may begin to crumble. The literary world of the future looks increasingly inclusive, with mental illness becoming a topic of discussion rather than a source of strange magic or brooding stigma. Slowly but surely, the head will be reunited with the heart.

Originally Published: May 14th, 2018

Rebekah Frumkin earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MSJ from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, McSweeney's, Guernica, The Baffler, Pacific Standard, In These Times, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing through Catapult and English literature and...