The depressed writer is a stock character, like the ditzy cheerleader or the slick salesman. It’s something we believe almost without thinking about it, in part because that pathetic figure so frequently appears in books and movies, and because we can point to historical examples of artists plagued by mental illness. John Berryman leapt from a bridge. Virginia Woolf walked into a river. David Foster Wallace, a fairly new addition to this sad list, hung himself. We mull the meaning of their deaths, divine clues from the works they left behind.
We do the same with other artists. After Robin Williams’s recent suicide came the predictable musings about whether his comedic brilliance was fueled by his apparent depression. Was his manic humor a tool to keep the darkness at bay?
Our readiness to accept the connection between mental illness and creativity makes Andreasen’s research all the more palatable: It is approval from on high of what we already feel in our guts. Perhaps it’s perversely comforting to us nongeniuses that artists, in a sense, pay dearly for their cultural accomplishments. Maybe you’ll never produce a great American anything but at least you’re not nuts. At the same time, it’s nice to think that the mentally ill harbor some special skill, and to argue otherwise seems unkind.
And that’s part of the problem, according to Judith Schlesinger, who is probably Andreasen’s most vociferous critic and author of The Insanity Hoax, a 2012 book devoted to skewering the supposed link. “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact,” Schlesinger writes. “It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius—and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful.” She accuses society of “chasing its geniuses with a butterfly net and demeaning their work as the product of a disordered mind.”