Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ghaemi Conversation: Why We Need to be Asking the Questions

This is my fifth installment in our conversation on Nassir Ghaemi’s “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.” My previous post made note of the fact that two myopic scribblers posing as NY Times reviewers trashed Ghaemi for “practicing history without a license” and as being “unrealistic in his beliefs.”

The trash-talkers, needless to say, entirely missed Ghaemi’s point: Namely, that “normal” is highly over-rated and that (the right kind of) crazy can be an enormous asset when the chips are down. This is something I have simultaneously known all along and has never occurred to me. Then I opened Ghaemi’s book, and - pop! - the two contradictory halves of my brain reconciled.

I have devoted the better part of 12 years to urging my fellow bipolars and depressives to acknowledge the strange gifts that our conditions confer. In fact, crazy often leaves normal for dead. If you have trouble with this proposition, try imagining what the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would have looked like with someone chronically normal up there on the scaffolding.

My guess is two coats of beige.

Mind you, normal looks pretty good when our illness has the upper hand. But over the long haul, trial by ordeal has a way of imbuing us with the kind of strengths that those the pathetically normal cannot even begin to comprehend.

Fine, I hear you say. A little bit crazy may be fine for artists and eccentric capitalists, but for high political office? With the world on the brink of economic collapse? Surely, the situation calls for someone with an even temperament in the Oval Office, right?

You tell me. No-drama Obama has been in the hot seat for nearly three years. Are you happy?

Meanwhile, the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates - declared and undeclared - are vying for who can come across as the most crazy. What is wrong with this picture?

Do you see in our future the end of the world brought to you by Fox News, with Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly congratulating themselves on saving us from the evils of big government?

Can our past at least tell us something about what is going on? Funny you should ask. Dr Ghaemi serves up Lincoln and Churchill - two well-documented depressives, the latter slightly bonkers - who admirably rose to the occasion in times of crisis. Likewise, JFK and FDR leaned more toward the abnormal than we tend to acknowledge.

But that is only half the story, according to Ghaemi. Hitler, it turns out, was far more normal than we give him credit for, at least until 1937 when his physician put him on a mind-altering meds cocktail (don’t get me started on meds compliance). Meanwhile, beneath the whacko exteriors of Nixon and George W Bush lurked temperaments bordering on the pathologically sane.

Six years ago, at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, I heard Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel explain how his exposure as a boy in Vienna to the brutalities of Nazism got him started in psychiatry. Psychoanalysis, which passed for psychiatry back then, offered "perhaps the only approach to understanding the mind, including the irrational nature of motivation and unconscious and conscious memory."

"How,” Dr Kandel asked in his Nobel autobiography, “could a highly educated and cultured society, a society that at one historical moment nourished the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in the next historical moment sink into barbarism?"

Could normal be part of the problem? suggests Ghaemi in his own way. Can so-called normal individuals and whole populations even, in times of uncertainty and hardship and crisis, subscribe to crazy beliefs, make irrational decisions, and sanction unspeakable acts?

This is the kind of discussion we need to be having as the Presidential campaign kicks into gear.

Next: The NY Times refuses to take up this discussion.

Previous posts:

The Normal Paradox
Normal: It Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be
Reckoning with Evil 
Ghaemi's A First-Rate Madness: The Conversation Heats Up


Addy Bell said...

One of my issues with this conversation is how hard it is to define and quantify "normal". Is it the same as "healthy"? Or "well"?

I've studied the rise of the Nazis a fair bit, and I think that the use of the word "normal" to describe this historical period is highly questionable.

For instance, Hitler was brutally, savagely abused as a child. Could such a child possibly grow up to be "normal"? On the other hand, Victorian-era German child-rearing practices of the time were harsh and authoritarian, reinforcing obedience and veneration of authority at the cost of human empathy. By definition, this was the common practice at the time and therefore "normal". But it was hardly "healthy".

Add to this the fact that pre-Nazi Germany had endured a humiliating military defeat in WWI, followed by restitution policies that completely decimated their economy. The answer I see has much less to do with "normal" and much, much more to do with cumulative collective trauma.

Traumatized organisms do not function "normally". Trauma is linked to chronic stress which is linked to (among other things) mental illness. If we're using the word "normal" to describe an organism (or in this case a society) that is healthy and functioning well, it clearly doesn't apply to the historical situation that gave rise to the Nazis.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Addy. Very good points. Fortunately, after WW II, we weren't as dumb as the French were after WW I. My guess is the Soviet threat gave us no choice but to adopt a surprisingly enlightened policy to rebuild Germany. Result, no new generation of Hitlers spawned by resentful Germans.

Addy Bell said...

Exactly. The Threat of Global Communism (tm) was enough to make the Marshall Plan worthwhile. And, like you said, maybe our foreign policy nerds looked at the rise of Fascism in post-WWI Europe and said to themselves, "hmmm...."

For that matter Wilson foresaw disaster in the Treaty of Versailles.

There totally needs to be a "History Bar" where people argue about these things over drinks :)

Kay said...

I liked the premise of Ghaemi's book. But after reading it I was puzzled by who the intended audience was. He often referred to "we as homoclites" (i.e. normal), but I would think those of us with mood disorders would be more likely to read it.

A lot of good history was presented. But in my view Antietam was not a draw, rather a huge loss for both sides. He understated this. And as a relatively young person, I think I needed more historical details of decisions in JFK's presidency to appreciate the author's points.

Probably with 100 more pages, it would have worked better. But then it would be less likely to get published and read.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Kay. I'm glad you picked up on Ghaemi's perspective as a homclite (normal). I think we're used to the Kay Jamison "Touched by Fire" approach. It's impossible for someone "normal" to understand where we're coming from without doing a lot of listening first. Ghaemi has taken the time to listen. He may not be one of us, but in many ways he can speak for us.

I would have like to have seen 100 more pages, myself. How, for instance, would a loose cannon like Douglas MacArthur fit into Ghaemi's analysis? And what about LBJ? LBJ clearly had spectrum bipolar traits, but he fell apart under pressure. On the surface, this would contradict Ghaemi's thesis, but then maybe Ghaemi could have offered a counter-argument. As you said, 100 more pages.