“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”
( Salvador Dali )
The romantic notion that mental illness and creativity are linked is so prominent in the public consciousness that it is rarely challenged….. To be sure, research does show that many eminent creators – particularly in the arts – had harsh early life experiences (such as social rejection, parental loss, or physical disability) and mental and emotional instability. However, this does not mean that mental illness was a contributing factor to their eminence. There are many eminent people without mental illness or harsh early life experiences, and there is very little evidence suggesting that clinical, debilitating mental illness is conducive to productivity and innovation.
( “The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness,”
Carrie Fisher had quite the resume that few people outside of Hollywood know about. In addition to being an actor, best-selling author, and screenwriter, Fisher was “one of the most sought after script doctors in town.” As a script doctor,  Fisher’s (mostly uncredited) work included Hook, Sister Act, Last Action Hero, Made in America, and The River Wild.
Fisher also was known for being candid – and wickedly self-deprecating – about her struggle with bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Was known. Damn. I so hate having to write about the multi-talented Fisher in the past tense, but it her bipolar disorder – specifically, how she’d tried to self-treat it – which killed her.
She died at age 60 – way too young. After losing consciousness on a plane flight and dying four days later in an ICU, her autopsy revealed heroin and other opiates and MDMA in her system, a revelation which surprised and frustrated and saddened her family and friends. Although I share most of those emotions, it (the revelation of the drugs she’d taken) was no surprise to moiself . She’d been open about how the various psychiatric medications she took for her bipolar disorder didn’t always work well or consistently. As a young adult Fisher discovered, long before getting her bipolar disorder diagnosed, that whatever it was that made her brain do the things it did, LSD and other the hallucinogens her friends ingested had the opposite effect on her, and it was an effect she welcomed. Whereas her friends took those drugs to “trip,” she took them to feel “normal;” as in, they tamed the frenzied delusions which so tormented her when she was in the manic phase of her disorder. She continued self-medicating for the rest of her life. Fisher had the best professional/medical help her Hollywood paychecks could buy, and it wasn’t enough.
People who buy into the “tortured artist” stereotype would credit Fisher’s bipolar disorder for her creativity. I heartily enjoyed Fisher’s works and her wicked wit – some of the lines in her various books made me spit out my gum  in guffawing admiration. But, if there had been a definitive cure for her bipolar disorder – one pill/surgery/treatment/genetic tweak and it’s all under control! – and I’d expressed the opinion that Fisher should keep suffering in order to make art, I hope that someone would’ve slapped me upside the head and shamed me for being a cultural vampire.
Moiself most firmly holds to the following:
Writers, musicians, artists and scientists and other “creatives” produce great things *in spite of,* not because of,
any afflictions they may have.
This topic is on my mind because of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. It is the book I’m reading…as in, ahem, still reading. I’ve mentioned this book previously in this space; the reason I’m still reading it after two months is that it’s chock full of scientific, historical, and medical discoveries and the resulting political and cultural and ethical adaptations and information such discoveriespawn, and…the predicaments. Some chapters I have to chew on for days, even weeks – in particular, the one I just finished: Chapter 41: Thought Experiments.
This chapter deals with the ethical questions raised by the CRISPR gene editing technology developed by Doudna and other scientists, a technology (“genetic scissors”) which may lead us to both the greatest opportunities and most disturbing dilemmas of our times. It doesn’t matter that, for the present, the overwhelming majority of scientists (and the public) have either signed or supported pledges not to use the genetic scissors for germline editing.  Once the technology exists, it will be used – as in the Chinese scientist’s creation of the first gene-edited babies.  Gene editing, like any other activity or profession, can and will be regulated, but for what, and how, and by whom? And there will be a black market for the technology, and hackers using and, (depending on your POV) “misusing” the technology.
Chapter 41 offers up specific examples wherein gene editing could do good (e.g., treating ALS) before, as the author puts it, “our knees jerk and we stumble onto hard-and-fast pronouncements (somatic editing is fine but inheritable germline edits are bad; treatments are fine but enhancements are bad).” In one segment of the chapter, “Psychological disorders,” the author postulates how and if people will decide, should the genes that contribute to a predisposition for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression be isolated, whether or not to allow (or even encourage) parents to make sure that these genes get edited out of their children:
“But even if we agree that we want to rid humanity of schizophrenia and similar disorders, we should consider whether there might be some cost to society, even to civilization. Vincent van Gogh had either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. So did the mathematician John Nash (and also Charles Manson and John Hinckley). People with bipolar disorder include Ernest Hemingway, Carrie Fisher …and hundreds of other artists and creators….
Would you cure your own child from being schizophrenic if you knew that, if you didn’t, he would become a Vincent Van Gogh and transform the world of art (don’t forget, Van Gogh committed suicide)….
A reduction in mood disorders would be seen as a benefit by most of the afflicted individuals, parents, and families…. But does the issue look different when asked from society’s vantage point? As we learn to treat mood disorders with drugs and eventually with genetic editing, will we have more happiness but fewer Hemingways? Do we wish to live in a world in which there are no Van Gogh’s?”
Here are the chapter notes moiself made, while reading this section of the book:
First of all, IMO the world would get along just fine with fewer Hemingways.
And about a world with “no Van Goghs” – seriously? He is/was one of my favorites. But if people like VG had never been born, or were born but without their mood disorders, we wouldn’t miss what works they never produced…or perhaps we’d all be enjoying the art and literature they *did* produce, during a lifetime of creative endeavors not cut short by suicide (Hemingway at age 61; Van Gogh at age 37!).
VG’s world and Hemingway’s world had to get along without them, and did.
BECAUSE THEY WERE SO MISERABLE THEY FUCKING KILLED THEMSELVES.
We don’t have and likely never will have a time machine to see the “what ifs” that might occur should a person be born, or not born, or have this trait or tendency or lack another. We often casually throw around such “what ifs” for the thought experiment, but we should never forget how many of the “tortured artists” we label as such were literally tortured to death by their mental demons. Van Gogh *killed himself.* Although that fact is presented parenthetically in the book, I think it should be front and center to any debate about these issues. I think that only a person who has no experience with the suffering inflicted upon a loved one with schizophrenia would even be able to play devil’s advocate and pose such a question, about “society” being richer for one man’s exquisite anguish.
More chapter notes from moiself:
And how could you sentence your child to that fate, knowing the suffering? “Yes, she’ll have bouts of – if not live the majority of her life with – dealing with horrific, debilitating delusions…but she may write some catchy songs/paint some cool pictures other people will enjoy….”
So, we would chose to have other people suffer as long as there is the possibility they will do something to entertain us?
“Of course we should use germline therapy to fix things like schizophrenia that nature got horribly wrong.”
( James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix.
Watson’s son Rufus has schizophrenia.
Quoted in chapter 41 of The Code Breaker )
Whenever I hear/read a claim about how the physical suffering of, say, a person afflicted with Huntington’s Disease caused that person to become more empathetic, or that the mental suffering of schizophrenia allegedly produces creativity, I think of all the kind, creative, empathetic peoples I know who have somehow managed to develop and nurture those skills and abilities without having to suffer the brutalities of the loss of language, thinking and reasoning abilities, memory, coordination and movement (Huntington’s disease) or hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior (schizophrenia).
We praise Van Gogh’s art and rightly note his influence on generations of artists…but the man never made a dollar from the Starry Night posters you see on dorm room walls all over the world, nor one cent from his Almond Blossom painting being reproduced on reusable tote bags. In fact, he never made any money at all from his art. 
Yes, it is a great (and necessary) “Thought Experiment,” to think of both the positives and negatives that can come from having – or getting rid of – certain mental and physical maladies. And you can play that game in a myriad of ways. Those what-if they’d-never-existed? arguments are, to me, ultimately ridiculous. You can’t think of it one way without postulating the other – think about how much more great art could have been produced by those who suffered from mental illness, including artists we never heard of because they killed themselves before their talent came to fruition.
Gene editing, in some form, is inevitable. I won’t even deal with the trivialities of how the technology may one day be used, such as using it to make would-be basketball players taller, or to have more green-eyed redheads in the world. For me, who has seen the anguish severe mood disorders inflict upon individuals and their families, I would take the opportunity to relieve future generations of that, if the “genetic scissors” approach could be shown to be safe and efficacious.
Relieve suffering, if you can. Trust me, art will survive.
“Vincent Van Gogh’s mutilation of his own ear, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and Ernest Hemingway’s alcoholism are just a few of the anecdotes that fuel the popular belief that creativity goes hand-in-hand with mental illness…. a systematic review and meta-analysis of the research on mood disorders and creativity found no clear link between them. ‘You can have a mood disorder and be creative, but those things are in no way dependent on one another.’ “
( “No Clear Link Between Creativity and Mood Disorders,”
Association for Psychological Science
* * *
Punz For The Day
Carrie Fisher Memorial Mental Health Edition
I hate being bipolar… It’s fantastic!
I met a bipolar fortune teller yesterday – she says she either feels very manic,
or quite depressed – never a happy medium.
Did you hear about the white bear who had a female mate *and* a boyfriend?
Apparently, he was bipolar.
* * *
May you never conflate great art with great suffering;
May you read at least one of Carrie Fisher’s books;
May you engage in your own thought experiments of which genes you would
(or would not) edit out of humanity;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
* * *
 A script doctor is a (usually uncredited) writer called in, by a movie’s producer and/or director, to help fix or improve a movie, by polish or fleshing out a character, “punching up” jokes, dialogue, and other story elements.
 Yep, despite rumors to the contrary, I can read and chew gum at the same time.
 A process wherein the genome of an individual is edited in such a way that the change is heritable – germline editing affects all cells in an organism, including eggs and sperm; thus, the changes will be passed on to future generations. This is in contrast with somatic gene editing, which affects only certain cells of the patient being treated.
 After which the scientist, He Jiankui, who carried out his own experiments on human embryos to try to give them protection against HIV, was convicted of violating the Chinese government’s ban on such experiments. For acting “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain”, seriously disrupting “medical order” and crossing “the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics,” He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined three million yuan (roughly $430,000 ).
 He made not one legitimate sale of his paintings. His brother Theo bought one ( so VG could claim to have sold one and thus be a professional artist, which was the requirement to have his work shown at a certain gallery), but that doesn’t count.