The Myth of Madness and Brilliance

As historian David Gerber observes in an article on the Blind Veterans Association, “positive stereotypes can be as big a burden as negative ones.” Gerber uses the example of the “cliche that the blind are capable of deeper wisdom than the sighted.” Blind disability activists, he writes, “denounce this flattering stereotype, just as they denounce negative stereotypes of the blind as helpless or doomed to live in existential or cognitive darkness.” [New Disability History, p. 313].

I’d like to do the same for the mythical link between  “madness” and “brilliance” that have emerged in discussions of the shootings at University of Alabama. This article from ABC news quotes a number of psychiatric experts who claim that the “insular lives” of professors — especially those in the sciences — makes it easier to hide a mental illness.  For example, according to Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman for the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein college of Medicine,

“They [scientists] work in solitude and they don’t need to interact in complex social situations and can be paranoid for a long time without someone realizing.”  Using the example of John Nash, the Nobel-winning economist from Princeton, portrayed in “A Beautiful Mind,” [pictured above], Galynker states, “”Brilliant scientists are supposed to be crazy.” Even the Chronicle of Higher Education reinforces these stereotype of the “nutty” genius, declaring academia  a “home to oddballs” and a “petri dish for madness”  because of a “high tolerance for eccentricity.”

I really wish these articles would actually talk to professors in the sciences instead of administrators and folks in HR.  Not only is it a myth that scientists work in isolation — collaborative work is the norm in the sciences — but severe mental illness is more often a hindrance  than an asset to productive work.

I would say the same about Kay Jamison’s “evidence” of  link between the artistic temperament and manic-depressive illness.  While I admire Jamison’s skills as a clinician and her courage in sharing her first-hand experience with bipolar disorder, as a historian I just have to groan at these “pathographies” or retrospective diagnoses of historical figures.

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