The Genius of Madness

Aristotle said, “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness”.  He said that  in 350BC. Kay Redfield Jamison’s new book – Setting the River on Fire – her biography of poet Robert Lowel – says the same thing: beautiful minds are often attended by beasts of madness, the sharp toothed Black Dog, snapping incessantly at heels.

For a long time I sought to understand my mother’s madness. It manifested before I hit my teens. It was the seventies then. Mental illness was not the designer disorder it has since become. (One time president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and himself a sufferer of what he described as ‘thundering’ depressions, Michael Shooter, told me that: that the illness has lost necessary gravitas because it has ‘become a designer disorder’; everybody wanted one).  It was misunderstood, wore a stigma far uglier then than it does today. It was a shameful condition, ‘what does she have to be miserable about?’ people asked of my mother. Sometimes I asked myself the same. I stood, unwilling guest at her hospital bedside, wondering how I could recraft the story of visiting my mum in the psych ward so that she sounded Properly Ill, not Properly Mad, so that my 13 year old self would elicit sympathy, not scorn, when dad dropped me back at boarding school where I was the envy of my classmates who only knew I had missed double geography and liver at lunchtime.

Later, as an adult, my passion to understand her illness was more sympathetic, more finely honed. Better organised. But the stigma still weighed heavy: mental illness was more palatable if it came dressed up as keen intellect.  I embarked on a project to marry the mad and the clever and approached dozens of writers, artists, poets to prove to myself the link was more than hypothesis. My literary project, an unpublished proposal that languishes gathering virtual dust, was supported by astonishing writers – Andrea Ashworth, Sophie Hannah Jones, Carolyn Slaughter, Dorothy Wade, Marjorie Wallace, Sally Brampton (whose own madness has taken her), Tim Lott, Linda Gask … I drove it with obsessive compulsion: I would get the message out: You might be mad, sure, but there exists a parallel between mental fragility and creative brilliance. Ergo, you are Positively Brilliant.

I never did. Get the message out. And mum’s madness sustained. Until she had her stroke eighteen months ago. It cost her the ability to read. Stole much of her initiative, some of her vigour, blunted her sharp wittedness. Would it, I asked her neuro as Mum lay in her bed at the rehab facility where she spent months, also spare her future depressions, the same that had obliterated whole years of her life? No he said assuredly and with, I felt, unkind conviction, ‘different part of her brain’, he said.

Two weeks ago my mother appeared to begin to slip, a familiar apathy struck, tears fell.  She collapsed. I panicked. How would we survive a depression especially in the absence of reading; her default escape in previous episodes had always been books. For two days I prowled and prodded and cajoled, ‘get up, walk with me, eat with me, watch with me’. And she did, meekly, obediently.  That surprised me: in pre stroke days she would have dug her heels in, resisted, shouted, railed. And remained firmly, determinedly, in bed or foetal curled in an armchair, her uncombed hair a static-mad halo around her pale face.

And to my astonishment, the misery lifted and my old-new contented mum – the one who now spends long hours trying to decipher an article or a story that is helpfully augmented with pictures, the one who describes the cat’s antics  – was up early to walk, to talk, to smile. To eat breakfast with me and relate to me as much of the mornings news as she could recall. She was just having a bad day, it turned out. Two. She has never had a bad day or two in her life, her bad days run into weeks, months, years.

So the neuro was wrong, it seems, the stroke stole her intellect which is shattering but it also seems to have lent some peculiar immunity to desolation (I touch wood and cross fingers as I write). Madness then and genius are linked.

Sometimes, occasionally, I ask myself: which is the happier scenario: my brilliant, tortured mother or my happier slower one?  I do not miss Depression, I will never miss its slit eyes, its knifesharp teeth, its mean stealth and the way it simultaneously robbed us of Mum and Mum of life,  but I do miss the conversations, the intellectual stimulation that my old-sick mum could deliver.


Waking in the Blue, Robert Lowel

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence!  My heart: grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback
(if such were possible!),
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale-
more cut off from words than a seal.

This is the way day breaks ii-i Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobble,”
Porcellian’2 9,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig-
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning.  Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.



4 Responses to “The Genius of Madness”

  1. anon Says:

    Your writing is glorious! I am so glad your mother is feeling better. I suppose the better scenario of the two is the one where she suffers the least, even if it is at the expense of deep conversation.

    Have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Bishop, lifelong friend of Robert Lovell? I think you would really enjoy her poetry and that you’d find her life story fascinating.

    A few links:

    (Toibín’s short book on her is an absolute gem)

    The Art of Losing by Elizabeth Bishop

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    – Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

  2. anon Says:

    I also think you’d like reading about Maeve Brennan, a fascinating writer and woman:

  3. Jana Says:

    Do you sometimes feel mad? Mad that you didn’t have the happy Mom other kids had. Mad that you had to be the adult while you still were a child. Mad that you had to shoulder responsibility when your intuition told you this was your Mother’s job.
    I am. I am mad and feel guilty for being mad at the same time. Sometimes, I feel like a tree that someone has been leaning on for too long and I am starting to bend sideways…

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