Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process

Michelene Wandor on writers' revealing accounts of both their muses and their demons

December 11, 2008

In having Theseus muse "The lunatic ... and the poet/Are of imagination all compact" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare was not the first to connect what we now call mental illness with creativity. Plato and Aristotle had already chewed over the relative merits of poetry, with Plato arguing that the poet should be banished from his ideal republic, on the grounds that poetry undermined the powers of reason. Similar issues are posed by Richard Berlin's intriguing new book, cast in distinctly modernised, investigative formulations: does madness give rise to creativity? Does creativity lead to madness? Does depression or mental illness impede the creative process, or enhance it?

The two phenomena share a particular feature as objects of analytical fascination. Both seem to be mysteries deeply sourced in the individual. However, while mental illness is seen as socially problematic - the individual becomes dysfunctional or unable to cope with the norms and expectations of social conventions - creativity is valued and revered, even desired. When it rises above the norm, in whatever field of intellectual endeavour, it is called genius. Generally, people seek "cures" for mental illness, but no one seems to pursue cures for manifestations of creativity. At their extremes, then, both mental illness and creativity appear to hold secrets, desired or not, for which science might promise enlightenment.

Berlin's project takes the bridging process of "treatment" (drugs, talking therapies) as a way in to answering the questions. Sixteen contributors, poets and/or therapists, write about the relationship between their variously diagnosed mental illnesses and their creativity. Ranging from ascribed manic depression to schizophrenia, uni- and bipolar conditions, the chapters are always moving accounts of years, if not decades, of battling with such experiences. All writers include examples of poetry, produced before, during and after "treatment", in order to try to account for the impact of each on the other.

For many, depression is a constant companion. Despite poetry's "fluffy image", Gwyneth Lewis writes wryly that depression has been "one of the most reliable guardians of my life as a poet". Some contributors say they felt better when they were on medication, and were therefore more able to write. Some found that medication's side-effects made them less able to cope with daily life, and therefore also impeded their writing. The drugs that all were prescribed came from the relatively new category of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), of which the most famous or notorious is Prozac. Chase Twitchell lists 16 different psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs that she has been prescribed at various times. This is shocking, confirming the fact that, as she points out, no one really knows how these drugs work, or, indeed, what causes "affective disorders" in the first place.

Although Berlin does not draw this out in his introduction, there are recurrent social factors in many of the anecdotal autobiographies here: childhood trauma, marriages under stress, divorce, sexual abuse, difficult personal relationships, fierce competitiveness at university or in the literary world and the isolation of motherhood. Many sought refuge in alcoholism and/or hard drugs, before consulting psychiatrists or psychotherapists. All had experience of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, often therapist-hopping before finding the "right" one for them. Ren Powell went to seven therapists, one of whom fell asleep during a session. He astutely remarks that the solution lies in how one takes (or is able to take) responsibility for one's life.

And here, in a way, the desire to find a symbiotic relationship between mental illness and creativity falls apart. The desire to cure mental illness and the desire to encourage creativity are at odds. Berlin argues that poets, apparently, tend to be more "depressed" than other kinds of people, leading to what is known as "the Sylvia Plath effect" - the brilliant poet who committed suicide. I have heard the same claims made for doctors, dentists, Norwegians, etc. Poets may get depressed, or it may be that when people are depressed, they may write poetry. Understandably, since he is a psychiatrist, and has both genuine concern and vested interest, Berlin comes to the (banal?) conclusion that "with effective treatment and tremendous motivation, poets can maintain their creativity".

While each chapter makes moving and painful reading, the book's overall approach has some dangers for current discussions about creativity. Berlin's project is not to offer any theory of creativity as such, although he refers to Freud's notions of creativity as rooted in the unconscious, and Helene Cixous' championing of dreams. As long as creativity and mental illness are yoked together in an impossible construct of cause and effect, creativity is itself rendered as a kind of social pathology. Barbara Lefcowitz even fears that writing poetry may itself be an addiction. Let us hope no one is misguided enough to want to cure it.

Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process

Edited by Richard M. Berlin

The Johns Hopkins University Press 181pp, £14.50

ISBN 9780801888397

Published 13 May 2008

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