Oh Captain, My Captain: Weighing in on Robin Williams

Oh Captain, My Captain: Weighing in on Robin Williams

Oh Captain, My Captain: Weighing in on Robin Williams

Robin Williams and the mad genius myth.

Each time such a brilliant star falls from our sky, it triggers the same nonsense about genius and mental illness.  This is partly because our communal shock and grief need a reason, something to make sense of the tragedy, so we can move on. 

As always, many are evoking the supposed link between great creativity and madness.   Williams’ death has generated much confident rhetoric about the cinematic “evidence” of  depression that was so “obvious” in his serious roles, and the “manic” energy of his monologues that were additional “signs” of his bipolar unhingement.   

The problem is this: there is still no genuine scientific proof that creativity and psychological dysfunction are inherently related.  All we have are a few wobbly old studies that professionals tend to cite without reading; if they did, they’d know how weak they are in conception, methodology, and results.  Yet their “data” keep provoking the familiar “mad genius” pronouncements that substitute for fact—much like the vague references to genetics and the brain that are as tantalizing as they are inconclusive.

Myths are rarely friendly with science, but with this one, the public’s powerful and everlasting need for the mad genius idea is quite enough to keep it afloat.  Whether the tragedy involves Robin Williams or Philip Seymour Hoffman, the coverage invariably collapses any inconvenient differences into a one-size-fits-all explanation. Moreover, when this much talent requires this much suffering, it becomes a relief not to be a genius.  And meanwhile, few recognize the bizarre expectation implicit in the myth: that humanity’s highest achievements must spring from its most disordered minds.

There are more pragmatic considerations, of course.  How could someone so gifted, successful, and beloved find life so unbearable?  How could he have the awareness, resources, and humility to reach for every professional lifeline–-AA, Hazelden, who knows how many top therapists—and be failed by all of them?  It’s possible that Williams’ despair was deeply chemical, unreachable by love or reason, but so far, science doesn't know precisely how that works, let alone how to fix it.

Meanwhile, the gossip continues: it must have been financial worries (though quickly debunked, still good for extensive coverage).  The suicide was spontaneous, not planned (and therefore less awful).  He and his wife had separate bedrooms (utterly rare and obviously damning, right?).  She was too alienated to check on him in the morning (he could have been saved).  He was peering down the long barrel of a Parkinson’s diagnosis (even if good lives are still possible with that disease). There was even a hot gush of online blather blaming the public for rejecting his newest TV show.   But as every clinician knows, the ultimate cause of suicide lies with the suiciders themselves; unfortunately, this reality cannot protect their loved ones from  the searing, unanswerable guilt that often lingers for the rest of their own lives.

Were Williams’ psychological difficulties responsible for his comic genius?  It's more likely that he managed to happily express the latter despite his troubles with the former.  In any case, it's crucial to remember that both depression and suicide occur outside of the creative professions, where the struggles are fully as intense, tragic, baffling, and hurtful to survivors—even if less interesting to the public.  There’s no real science to support the belief that creative artists and performers suffer more dysfunction than anyone else.   It's just popular and comforting, for a host of reasons, to claim that they do.   



The Insanity Hoax is the first book to directly challenge the mad genius myth by exposing the pseudoscientific foundation it sits on, as well as the social and psychological reasons for its widespread popularity. The myth is far from being the universal “truth” people think it is.

Based on her thirty years of research as well as creative and therapeutic experience, psychologist Judith Schlesinger tracks the stereotype through centuries of changing history and culture, explaining why it remains powerful despite its lack of empirical support. The Insanity Hoax also reveals creatives’ own perspectives about how the artistic life can make a person crazy, all by itself.

A scholarly yet entertaining read, The Insanity Hoax is a groundbreaking book that should be read by students, teachers, practitioners, admirers and critics of creativity and the arts; mental health professionals; and especially those who believe that exceptional minds should be celebrated, rather than diagnosed.

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