Read A First-Rate Madness Online

Authors: Nassir Ghaemi

A First-Rate Madness

Table of Contents
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First published in 2011 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Nassir Ghaemi, 2011
All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Home After Three
Months Away” from
Collected Poems
by Robert Lowell
Copyright © 2003 by Harriet Lowell and
Sheridan Lowell.
Excerpt from Aristotle's
from “The Paradox of Genius and Madness: Seneca and His
Influence” by Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark,
Cuadernos de Filología Clásica
Complutense, Madrid, 1992).
Excerpt from
On the Road
by Jack Kerouac (Penguin Books). Copyright © Jack Kerouac, 1955, 1957.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
ISBN : 978-1-101-51759-8
1. Depressed person—Psychology. 2. Depression, Mental. 3. Leadership—
Psychological aspects. I. Title.
[DNLM: 1. Mentally Ill Persons—psychology. 2. Mood Disorders. 3. Leadership.
4. Temperament. WM 171]
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To my father, Kamal Ghaemi, MD,
and my mother, Guity Kamali Ghaemi,
and for
Heather, Valentine, and Zane
Why is it that all those who have become above average either in philosophy, politics, poetry or the arts seem to be melancholy, and some to such an extent that they are even seized by the diseases of black bile?
section XXX
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.
—Jack Kerouac,
On the Road
“Genl Wm T Sherman Insane” ran the headline of the November 1861
Cincinnati Chronicle
. General William Tecumseh Sherman had gone “stark mad” and been removed from Union command in Kentucky; his peers, family, and staff all agreed that he suffered from paranoid delusions. On his way home to Ohio, Sherman said with a shrug, “In these times it is hard to say who are sane and who are insane.”
He would reclaim his commission and go on to become a symbol of the Civil War's horror and a spokesman for psychological terror—the man history remembers for decimating Atlanta and scorching a trail through Georgia on his devastating “March to the Sea.” He is an iconic figure in American history, yet few Americans know about an essential aspect of the man whose “scorched earth” strategy informed modern warfare from London, Dresden, and the Battle of the Bulge to Vietnam, Bosnia, and Iraq.
Historical evidence suggests that Sherman suffered from manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder—extreme shifts in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function. Someone need have only one manic episode to be diagnosed as manic-depressive; in fact, most people with the illness suffer mostly from depression. In addition to the Kentucky breakdown, Sherman apparently had at least four other major depressive episodes, the first at age twenty-seven, with symptoms of hopelessness, inertia, insomnia, and loss of appetite. He'd been having trouble settling into a military career and feeling excessively controlled by his father-in-law. The second episode occurred around age thirty-seven, when Sherman was a struggling banker. Another followed a few years later, again involving financial hardship. Another, at age fifty-eight, thirteen years after the war, came after his oldest son, Tom, a deeply depressed and sometimes homeless man who ultimately died in an institution, refused to study law, as Sherman desired, and decided instead to become a Jesuit priest. (A paternal uncle of Sherman's also likely suffered from recurrent depression, a genetic link that supports this diagnosis.)
Sherman never admitted to a mental illness. In his
published in 1875, he famously blamed others for his mistakes and finessed all questions about his mental health. Historians indulged his charitable self-image for more than a century. Only in 1995, with the work of historian Michael Fellman, were Sherman's moods more thoroughly documented. Retrospective psychiatric diagnosis is fraught with risk and never definitive. Yet this doesn't mean we shouldn't follow the documentary trail and, in Sherman's case, consider the likelihood that a man who caused so much suffering, suffered much himself.
MOST OF US make a basic and reasonable assumption about sanity: we think it produces good results, and we believe insanity is a problem. This book argues that in at least one vitally important circumstance
produces good results and
is a problem. In times of crisis, we are better off being led by mentally ill leaders than by mentally normal ones.
There are different kinds of leadership for different contexts. The
non-crisis leader
succeeds in ordinary times, but in times of crisis should be kept far away from the scepter of rule. As we'll see, the typical non-crisis leader is idealistic, a bit too optimistic about the world and himself; he is insensitive to suffering, having not suffered much himself. Often he comes from a privileged background and has not been tested by adversity; he thinks himself better than others and fails to see what he has in common with them. His past has served him well, and he seeks to preserve it; he doesn't acclimate well to novelty. We see the non-crisis leader all around us—the CEO, the department chief, your neighbor's boss, the bank president, the president. One more fact: he is quite mentally healthy. He has never suffered from depression or mania or psychosis. He has never seen a psychiatrist.
ARISTOTLE FIRST SPECULATED about the link between genius and madness twenty-five hundred years ago, and at the height of the Romantic era the nineteenth-century Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso defined that link forcefully, which we might translate as a simple equation: insanity = genius. He believed you can't have one without the other. In contrast, the statistician and founder of behavioral genetics, Francis Galton, took the opposing view, which we can summarize as: sanity = genius. Galton argued that intelligence—the strongest indicator of a healthy brain—produced genius. Both men saw genius as biological in origin, but one believed it arose from illness, the other from health.
These two views have seeped into Western culture, with most of us reflexively preferring Galton over Lombroso. In this book, I take Lombroso's side, with some qualifications. Throughout I trace a basic law that emerges from studying the relation of mental illness to leadership. One might call it the
Inverse Law of Sanity:
when times are good, when peace reigns, and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as our leaders. When our world is in tumult, mentally ill leaders function best.
Four key elements of some mental illnesses—mania and depression—appear to promote crisis leadership:
realism, resilience, empathy,
. These aren't just loosely defined character traits; they have specific psychiatric meanings, and have been extensively studied scientifically. I use these terms in their scientific, not their commonsense, meanings. Among these qualities, psychologists have studied creativity and empathy most, but resilience and realism are just as important for leadership and have also been examined in some detail by recent researchers. Of these four elements, all accompany depression, and two (creativity and resilience) can be found in manic illness. Except for resilience, none are specific for other mental illnesses (like schizophrenia and anxiety disorders). Depression makes leaders more realistic and empathic, and mania makes them more creative and resilient. Depression can occur by itself, and can provide some of these benefits. When it occurs along with mania—bipolar disorder—even more leadership skills can ensue. In this book, I'll examine eight great political, military, and business leaders whose lives and work show various aspects of the link between leadership and madness: William Tecumseh Sherman, Ted Turner, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. I also provide counterexamples of five mentally healthy “normal” leaders who failed in moments of crisis: Richard Nixon, George McClellan, Neville Chamberlain, and possibly George W. Bush and Tony Blair. These counterexamples are important: I am not just diagnosing illness everywhere; I see mental health in most of our leaders, and I see it as a potential impediment in times of crisis.

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