Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review Club: A First-Rate Madness

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness
by Nassir Ghaemi
Penguin Press, 2011

I saw the author interviewed on The Daily Show and had to buy this book. It's political/historical psychology, but also collected biography because he has thumbnail sketches of a number of famous world leaders. The emphasis is on their mental state and degree of mental illness (or lack thereof), focusing specifically on bipolar disorder and/or depression. He includes FDR & JFK, whom he contends had something called hyperthymic personality, a mild version of mania.

Obviously, it's difficult to do psychological evaluations of people who are long dead. Ghaemi's approach looks for four aspects of mental illness: symptoms, family history, course of illness and treatment. Sherman, who was bipolar, mainly treated his condition with alcohol. Of course, that was one of the main drugs available to him at the time.

Ghaemi's contention is that a crisis calls for extraordinary leaders and that "normal" folks just don't cut it. They're not creative or realistic enough in their thinking. (Depending on the need of the moment.) FDR was hyperthymic and he was able to be creative in responding to the Great Depression. He tried different things; if they didn't work, he tried something else. But he didn't think conventionally.

Churchill, on the other hand, was a "depressive realist". He suffered from depression but not mania. New studies now find that people who have experienced depression are more realistic than "normal" people, who tend to be unrealistically optimistic. Churchill's "depressive realism" allowed him to see the danger in Hitler's Germany when all the normal people, like Neville Chamberlain, could not. Sadly, Churchill was right.

(I love the wonderful cover graphic. Here it is closer up.)

There's a separate section about JFK & Hitler and how the drugs both took affected them. JFK had good results from drugs for his Addison's disease, at least in some of the time, whereas Hitler's quack of a doctor had him mainlining speed. No wonder he was so crazy. Amphetamines make bipolar people cycle off the charts.

Oddly enough, the most disturbing part of the book was the chapter on homoclites, i.e. normal, mentally healthy people. Being mentally healthy doesn't mean being a nice person. Most of the Nazi leaders other than Hitler were quite normal. Ghaemi cites a study of mentally healthy people and goes on to explain that Nixon, despite his paranoia, was mentally healthy. (He had good, rational reasons to be paranoid. "They" really were out to get him!)

I can't say that Ghaemi is correct in all he says (what do I know?) but the argument is persuasive. I do know that I'll never look at a political leader again without trying to assess his or her mental health. Not sure if that is a good thing or not. I will look at them very differently!

This is the most fascinating book I've read all year. You can find a short excerpt from it at Nassir Ghaemi's website.


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@Barrie Summy