Tuesday, August 30, 2011
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.
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