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Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

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The definitive work on the profound and surprising links between manic-depression and creativity, from the bestselling psychologist of bipolar disorders who wrote An Unquiet Mind.

One of the foremost psychologists in America, “Kay Jamison is plainly among the few who have a profound understanding of the relationship that exists between art and madness” (William Styron).

The anguished and volatile intensity associated with the artistic temperament was once thought to be a symptom of genius or eccentricity peculiar to artists, writers, and musicians. Her work, based on her study as a clinical psychologist and researcher in mood disorders, reveals that many artists subject to exalted highs and despairing lows were in fact engaged in a struggle with clinically identifiable manic-depressive illness.

Jamison presents proof of the biological foundations of this disease and applies what is known about the illness to the lives and works of some of the world's greatest artists including Lord Byron, Vincent Van Gogh, and Virginia Woolf.

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1996

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About the author

Kay Redfield Jamison

31 books1,732 followers
Kay Redfield Jamison (born June 22, 1946) is an American clinical psychologist and writer who is one of the foremost experts on bipolar disorder. She is Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is an Honorary Professor of English at the University of St Andrews.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 248 reviews
Profile Image for Owlseyes .
1,649 reviews266 followers
October 17, 2022
Being depressed and being an artist, it's quiet a connection. It’s hard. But being depressed and maniac, it powers a lot more a terrible state of being, I mean, for artists.

This is an exhaustive look (and study) at those connections. As you read, you will wonder about the side-by-side presence of genius and malady, of the most beautiful art productions and the agony of psychological suffering. All cases have impressed me, but most of all were the cases of poet Lord Tennyson and the musician Robert Schumann, as I checked on their family trees and the extensiveness of the malady.

Manic-depressive illness is a genetic malady. The study of genealogies shows the taint of blood, the erratic behavior, violent melancholy and tempestuous moods. It is a recurrent disturbance with links to depression and mania.

The list of artists is so long. I would refer some next: Herman Melville, Van Gogh, Samuel Johnson, James Bowell, E. Hemingway, Virginia Wolf, Mary Shelley and her mother…; J. Keats and so on. They all shared some of those characteristics in some lesser or greater intensity. Plus suicide in some, as you may already know.

The author referred the Adele Judas study of 1949 in German artists, which pointed to a “high abnormality” in poets (58%), musicians (38%) painters (20%), sculptors (18%) and architects (17%). The author herself studied Irish and British writers in the period 1705-1805: a magnificent study.

In a random fashion, I will refer some annotations I took from some of the geniuses approached.

Wordsworth said life “starts with gladness and ends with madness”. Lord Byron had bold, expensive moods, a predisposition to grief, chameleon like-qualities. Also, drinking and rages. He had said: “we of the craft are all mad crazy”.

Edgar A. Poe affirmed “I am constitutionally sensitive in a very unusual degree, I became insane”. “During those fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank”.

(Henry James)

On the case of the James family*, the father (who loved Swedenborg) had a melancholic strain. William James, the psychologist, was melancholic. Henry James, the writer, had a “black depression” and his brother Robertson was bipolar.

About Coleridge, Hazlitt said: “his mind was clothed with wings”.

Leo Tolstoy somewhere in his life said, “The thought of suicide came to me”.

(R. Schumann)

Now, just look at Robert Schumann's family tree**. Someone said, “he was obsessed with the thought of going mad”. His malady was pervasive, no doubts.

(Lord Tennyson)

In the case of Lord Tennyson: he had seizure-like trances, and kept a knife. His father had epilepsy. One of his sons inherited Tennyson’s black blood.

The book approaches also medication and new alternatives for treating the malady (gene therapy, namely).

Sometimes the fire of genius lives under the toughest conditions. We, the readers and observers and appreciators, hardly notice that, sometimes. This is a good book to get awareness of this grim fact. Just a “sorry” for those names mentioned in the book yet not referred here in this review, especially of this (and the past) century: a huge list of those afflicted by the malady at stake.



Profile Image for stephanie.
1,103 reviews381 followers
July 5, 2007
probably the most widely read of her books, i was disappointed. the thesis is that what we now call bi-polar I actually contributes to the artistic temperment and allows them to create the work that they did.

she looks at the people you would expect: woolf, plath, van gogh, etc.

the thing is, i feel very strongly that you can create beautiful works of art without being mentally ill - or while receiving treatment for your illness - so this book kind of rubbed me the wrong way. yes, i think woolf's depressive episodes would have been helped by some of the drugs we have now - but who's to say she wouldn't have been able to write to the lighthouse all the same? it might have been different, but maybe it would have been just as good.

i don't know. i hate the cult of the crazy starving artist. i admit i'm biased. it's well-researched and presented excellently, i just can't get behind it.
Profile Image for Cari.
280 reviews149 followers
December 2, 2008
Focusing on the relationship between artistic creativity and manic-depressive illness, Touched With Fire is rewarding, interesting and full of information. However, this is a book that requires an effort, expects you to be paying attention fully at all times. This is no quick, relaxing beach read. Jamison brings her scientific and academic background to her subject, which makes for a fascinating but difficult read for anyone lacking her extensive background. Her constant references to scientific studies can get confusing, despite extensive notes, graphs, and charts, but if you can make it through the first half, the work is worth all the effort.

Narrowing her focus to a select range of artists - Byron, Poe, Coleridge, Melville, Van Gogh, Woolf, etc. - and drawing from myriad scientific studies, Jamison's hypothesis that the "divine madness" often referred to in artistic works is manic-depressive illness and furthermore has a strong overlap with creativity is well-stated with a solid base of information. The extensive family histories of various well-known poets, writers, painters, and artists gathered here are almost worth the list price by themselves. She documents the devastating effects of both sides of the illness on each artist's life, family, and ancestry, as well as puts forth a significant amount of evidence, much of it from the artists' own works or journals, to support the idea that the illness, with its extremes of emotions and its productive hypomanic states, contributed to their subjects genius.

Jamison makes it clear these afflicted artists suffered greatly, and despite her academic approach, her sympathy for them shines through. (And no wonder. As the author of An Unquiet Mind, she's certainly been through many of the trials these same artists suffered in their times.) Such compassion serves to humanize her subjects in an oftentimes dry, distanced text.

Unfortunately, it's this same sympathy that, in a very small way, diminishes from what she is trying to accomplish as an academic. While appropriate in her memoir, her affinity with her subjects introduces an emotional element into an otherwise scientific text that is jarring. Additionally, her respect for these artists trips over into awe. Though she documents their sufferings and repeatedly states how the creative output is certainly not worth the torment of this illness, the reader is left with the impression this is merely lip service, especially as she tends to romanticize even their morbid excesses and most incapacitating depressions. As both an artist and someone who has suffered sometimes crippling depression for years, I find this alarming in an academic work.

Overall, Jamison has written an incredible book, one that takes the romantic notion of the melancholic artist and shows the facts and figures behind it, for better and for worse.
Profile Image for Ed Smiley.
243 reviews36 followers
April 9, 2011
Kay Redfield Jamison is a renowned psychologist, expert on bipolar (she prefers the term: manic depressive) illness, and is also bipolar herself.
She covers the relationship between creativity and mood disorders sympathetically and without reductionism.

This is non-fiction, so I can describe this without it being a "spoiler" OK?

She does not seek to "explain" creativity in a reductive way as the result of mental illness. (I must mention in passing that some reviewers seemed to have missed the distinction between explanation, correlation, and interaction.)

There is a wealth of material here, both anecdotal and statistical. Of course, creativity (aside from creative innovators with global reputations) is notoriously difficult to quantify, but aggregate statistics from multiple studies are presented clearly and a pretty suggestive. Diagnosis of mental disorders for historical individuals are also somewhat uncertain. Most surveys are highly suggestive of a correlation; however, most artists, writers, and other creatives do not appear to be suffering from a major mood disorder. However, the prevalence of mood disorders is far greater than in the general population. (In 19th century English poets it seems to reach about 50% however!)

There are also very interesting correlations between seasonal mood fluctuations and artistic productivity, and mood disorders and artistic occupations in family histories. Byron (who is featured on the cover of my edition with the fearful symmetry of his DNA), features prominently. His family history is so filled with edgy types, one becomes filled with admiration for his fortitude and discipline to be able to be as productive and as stable as he was in light of what certainly appears to be no exaggeration: he reported his mind was a continual seething chaos that threatened to break him at very moment of his existence.

In a way, instead of reducing creativity to a form of mental disorder, this book is a kind of tribute to highly productive artists and their discipline and talent, which, although making use of some of the positive results of their emotional turmoil, in large part allowed them to function in spite of, instead of because of that turmoil.

It is also to be noted that there are common traits between those suffering from mania or depression in general, and those that are artistic but of a more stable temperament, such as increased divergence in thinking, ability to form loose associations and correlations, empathy, exaltation, and thoughtfulness. So perhaps this is not surprising.

Profile Image for Aurélien Thomas.
Author 10 books105 followers
July 17, 2019
'The basic argument of this book is not that all writers and artists are depressed, suicidal, or manic. It is, rather, that a greatly disproportionate number of them are; that the manic-depressive and artistic temperaments are, in many ways, overlapping ones; and, that the two temperaments are causally related to one another.'

'Touched with Fire' is a passionate discussion of what is creativity, and how it can be served by the cognitive processes and moods involved in depression and manic/ hypomanic episodes. I personally love it, not least because I believe Kay Redfield Jamison (renown clinical psychologist and herself a manic-depressive, author of the bestseller 'An Unquiet Mind') has a strong point.

First, focusing on high profiles personalities (e.g. whole chapter or vignettes are dedicated to Byron, Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Robert Schumann...) I like her holistic approach, away from so many ridicule psychobiographies unfortunately so common with such topic. Indeed, she doesn't focus only on the lives of the artists discussed; she, because bipolar is a genetic illness, support her arguments by looking also at their family backgrounds. Depression, suicide, substance abuse, violence... It's all very telling. Then, because perfectly aware of the scepticism her claim might raise, she dedicates a whole chapter exposing, and then counter-arguing, potential criticisms in sharp and punchy insights, relying on wide researches despite limited data. I, for one, was in any case convinced. She even goes further than that, touching on ethical issues by questioning the impact of treating - if not eliminating -such disease in a last chapter that leaves thoughtful to say the least:

'If manic-depressive illness and its associated temperaments are relatively common in artists, writers, and composers, and if the illness is, at least to some extent, an important part of what makes their work what it is, what are the implications of treating the underlying disease and its temperaments?'

Now, it doesn't mean it's all very strongly convincing. Since depression and mania/ hypomania are cyclic patterns often linked to seasons, she tries and attempts to argue that, some artists had indeed creative periods more prolific than others matching those cyclic patterns. Was she here carried away by her own argumentation, or is there really a connection I personally find too good to be true? I struggled to follow her on that score, and so will leave it here.

Nevertheless, I was strongly convinced by her claim that there clearly is a link between manic-depressive illness and creativity. The turmoil coming with the exhilarating highs and frightening and crushing lows of such 'fine madness' makes, in itself, for such emotional experience that if harnessed by artistic tendencies it no doubt can be the source of uncommon and wonderful art. The high rate of artists having suffered such fate is, alone, a testimony to it! Making science dance with art - understanding a mental illness and the creative process - here's a book which is as enthralling as it is riveting.

A great read.
Profile Image for Nina.
10 reviews3 followers
January 10, 2008
Quick rundown on what I got out of this book...It's a heavy read, so you have to be 100% focused 100% of the time, not something you can lounge around and read lightly - but it is very interesting.

Bipolar disorder, along with various other mental illnesses, has long been perceived as an mysterious yet threatening disease, which manifests in extremes of temperament; - ranging from ecstatic highs, to debilitating lows, often seasonal in nature. The link between the artistic temperament and bipolar disorder is affirmed by exploring family histories of famous sufferers, more conclusively seen through the overlapping temperaments; certain characteristics central to both the bipolar afflicted sufferer and the artistically inclined. It has long been perceived that mental derangement, or insanity, has been a gift of the Gods, transcending human capabilities. It is this notion of a “divine madness” which creates controversy surrounding the rapid development of scientific breakthrough; such as the Human Genome Project, which attempts to control such diseases by first identifying genes affiliated to the disorder.

Moreover, the societal benefit of bipolar, at the expense of bipolar patients in their sufference, deems it irresponsible for science to intrude and eradicate the genes for the disease if possible. Moreover, gene therapy is often contradictory to contemporary belief; - it is not extremely accurate; the presence of the gene does not act definitively – it is not guaranteed that simply having the gene will result in the individual attaining the disease. Dr John Robertson, who in his studies of Edgar Allan Poe, states it well in saying that upon eradication of such genes, we would be left with simply with

“A race of stoics – men without imagination, individuals incapable of enthusiasms, brains without personality, souls without genius…”

Edvard Munch remarks how integral his illness was to his artworks as well as to his person; “A German once said to me; ‘But if you could rid yourself of many of your troubles’ to which I replied “They are a part of me, and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings’ Virginia Woolf also reiterates the value of her unstable frame of mind as she states;

“As an experience, madness is terrific, I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots our of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does”
Evidently, this raises many questions; Does the person define the illness, or does the Illness define the person? At the same time, putting aside the master/slave relationship; it also questions whether there could exist a sort of symbiosis – as the inextricable link between the disease and the individual could be used to the benefit of one. The individual thereby lives with the illness, a love/hate relationship with an entity that captivates the mind and soul so completely. Many artists perceive the wide range and extremes of emotion central to not only the ability to produce creative work, but also to the human condition itself. Hence, there has been some preference to avoid lithium, missing the ‘highs’ of the mania, contrasting the unusually stable and ‘flattened’ world induced by pharmaceutical means.
Profile Image for Nimue Brown.
Author 46 books119 followers
August 8, 2012
A fascinating book exploring the complex history between mental health issues and creativity. It’s startling how many icons of creative working had not only personal mental health issues, but family histories laden with suicides and troubled minds. The statistics for mental health problems in poets especially, as opposed to the rest of the populous, are alarming. I’m wary of the archetype of the mad genius, as is the author, to my relief. There’s no suggestion that madness is necessary for creatives, or unavoidable, and recognition that more hyper states can be alluring for the creative person. But at the same time, severe mental illness kills people. What might Van Gough or Virginia Woolf have been able to do had they not taken their own lives?
I’ll admit I spent a lot of the early chapters measuring myself against the content. (No, I’m not that bad in the grand scheme of things). I also found the first few chapters, where the theoretical stuff is laid down, hard work – despite having read a lot of psychological writing in my time. Much of the problem is that there are plenty of big, clunky medical terms in the mix. But, then we get onto the lives of writers, artists, poets and the relationship between condition and creativity. Fascinating, often heartbreaking stuff.
I have no doubt that people who do not quite fit in are more drawn to creative forms of living. The mad inventor type is as alluring as the mad poet. Creative work allows for days when you can’t get out of the duvet, as a regular job will not. The highs and lows can be harnessed. I also know for certain that to work creatively requires a kind of self awareness that might make mental fluctuations both more apparent and of higher impact. It does require heightened emotion and sensitivity to be a creative person in any field. Where we draw the lines between healthy and aberrant, should not be in the hands of the (pathologically) unemotional.
I also wonder how much different life would have been for many of our greatest creative minds, had they lived in cultures that nourished and cherished them. We tend to give our creative folk a hard time right up until they are a big hit, then we sit them on impossibly high pedestals, scrutinise their every move, and kick them down the first time they falter. That would be enough to break plenty of perfectly well balanced people.
Profile Image for Cyd.
568 reviews13 followers
September 22, 2012
This book adds context to Jamison's later and much more personal book, An Unquiet Mind, which she wrote only two years after this one. It also gives me more context for my own life. I am no Byron or Shelley or Van Gogh, but I believe her conclusions about manic-depressive illness and creativity apply to me nonetheless. Jamison really GETS it; her books make me feel less lonely. And not only does she totally get it; she is incredibly articulate about it. Highly recommend everything she has written for anyone living with manic-depressive illness (a.k.a. bipolar disorder).
Profile Image for Kristin.
Author 3 books10 followers
November 22, 2015
Interesting insights here. There is a danger, of course, in romanticizing biopolar disorder as some kind of marker of creativity. It's worth pointing out that there are many creative people who don't suffer from the horrors of bipolar disorder, and many people with bipolar who are not creative.

That should probably be said again: being bipolar is not romantic; it is many things, but few of them are actually enjoyable. The fact that some bipolar folks find creative ways to express themselves despite this often debilitating and deadly illness is a nice little pay-off for the difficulties it causes in their lives. And perhaps we can all benefit from their unique insights into the pains of the human condition that many people thankfully may never experience.

I don't think Jamison romanticizes the illness, but I think this book could easily be misread--particularly if you ignore the tables which show the high suicide rates of untreated artists with bipolar disorder.

While she is a big proponent of lithium and treating the illness, I don't think Jamison spends enough time discussing the faulty reasoning many artists have that medicating the illness will render them unable to produce any work. The fact of the matter is few artists actually produce in a depressed phase (and often don't survive it), and yet lithium does have the potential to remove those depressed phases, thus allowing the artist to produce even more.

I think this book is important but ultimately does little for reducing the stigma of the illness and its myriad misconceptions--by sufferers and non-sufferers alike.
Profile Image for Ermocolle.
370 reviews30 followers
May 16, 2021
Non bisogna mai perdere l'occasione di informarsi, che sia un testo, una biografia, un corso per familiari di chi convive con la malattia mentale o una seduta psichiatrica e psicologica condivisa... Un viaggio difficile, doloroso ma fare finta di niente o abbandonare la lotta purtroppo non aiuta.

Ti ci ritrovi e non sai bene cosa succede... Lo stigma esiste e non aiuta. Amavi l'artista, il creativo, l'imbonitore di gioia e a un tratto, senza preavviso, conosci la sua scimmia.

E allora ti documenti e "imbracci" le armi della conoscenza per aiutare e aiutarti.

O almeno questi sono l'intento e la speranza, per scardinare la convinzione che chi ti affianca si limiti a stare bene se te ne stai tranquillo nella tua depressione senza creare imbarazzi, paure e sconcerto.

Profile Image for Calli.
21 reviews20 followers
September 21, 2008
I have often been curious about the saying, 'There is a fine line between genius and madness,' and with that I have continually found myself drawn to the works of writer's poets, artist's, musicians, scientists, philosophers, et all whom are said to have suffered from some sort of mental illness. I have been unconsciously (until recently) been drawn over and over again to this subject, this connection between what this author describes as the 'Artistic Temperament,' and in this case Manic-Depressive Illness. I had been researching this subject strictly out of fascination and came upon this book at my local university's book store just the other day. It is beginning to answer many questions that I have had. The author is also the author of 'The Unquiet Mind', the memoir of her own personal account with mental illness. I personally do not suffer from manic-depression but know many talented people who do. We all have our ups and downs in life to be sure, but this goes deeper and looks into the lives of favorites like Vincent van Gogh, and many many others. The list is quite lengthy of the talented people whose names are recognized as huge talents in their fields. I can't wait to read more.
Profile Image for Lori Anderson.
Author 1 book100 followers
February 1, 2013
I marked this book up and down with a pencil, underlining passage after passage. I read this book trying to understand my depression and while the book is primarily about bipolar, which I don't have, it's full of information that can help someone fighting depression. And if you are trying to figure out where you lie within the spectrum, it's a helpful tool.

As a jewelry designer, glass bead maker, and writer, I've always suspected there was something behind the "artistic temperament", and this book not only delves into the lives of various famous artists, composers, and authors, but talks to the ways depression and bipolar has been misunderstood.

I highly recommend this book.

Lori Anderson

11 reviews
January 7, 2014
One of Jamison's earliest books, but she's always a consummate researcher and a conscientious writer. I love her work, and have read nearly everything she's published. In my opinion, she's that good (though her memoir is not her best work). If you enjoy poetry or are interested in the lives of poets and writers, this is a fascinating study.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
2,126 reviews87 followers
May 20, 2013
It's become something of a game in the popular media to diagnose long-dead artists with various chronic illnesses, in particular neurological and mental disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. In this well-researched book, Jamison takes this beyond idle speculation and, using family histories, evidence from the artists' works (particularly those of poets and writers), and personal papers, compelling argues that manic-depressive (AKA bipolar) disorder has played a huge role in the creative fire behind certain artists we consider geniuses.

Jamison is herself manic-depressive (and I highly recommend her memoir An Unquiet Mind), and it may be in part because of this that she does such an excellent job of avoiding glorifying this illness while still acknowledging that it seems to fuel a certain kind of genius in some artists. She is quick to point out that there are boring, unproductive manic-depressives, and there are many great artists who seem to have been completely without mental illness. For this reason, I disagree with the Amazon.com review that said that anyone "struggling with the age-old question of whether psychological suffering is an essential component of artistic creativity ... will be forced to conclude that it is." That is not Jamison's point at all -- instead, her intent is to explore the relationship that some artists have with manic-depressive disorder.

I do wish that Jamison had spent more time on exploring the relationship that modern artists who suffer from bipolar disorder have with their illness and with the medications that are now available to control it. She does spend some time talking about how lithium in large doses can suppress creative thought for some people, also noting that lower doses or different mood stabilizers frequently remedy this probablem. But I wish there had been some case studies of modern artists to go along with the studies of past geniuses.
Profile Image for Sarah Embaby.
65 reviews56 followers
June 25, 2013
I think it's brilliant with all the backgrounds and the back-ups statics.... the accuracy is very good
it's also very recommended to psychological-researchers and students......
Personally, I'd spent the latter 6 years suffering of the Manic-depressive Illness..... Though I have no Idea, it was an illness or what's happening? All I know I was suffering in melancholy alone
But to face something you don't know, is very terrifying in itself
you have no Idea how your mood change and your hypomania starts... the voices, the pictures and the Melancholy!

But Bad news, I'll always suffer from.....
Good news, Now I know how to contain the situation and somehow it's part of being who I am and temperamental with Art
Though all the people mentioned in the book are really the greatest and there's no comparison of course, but illness doesn't choose....

Better days are Coming..........
Profile Image for D..
94 reviews4 followers
April 21, 2019
I read this some time ago, and the take-home message only served to underscore the stereotype of The Artist as a tragic figure of tortured genius. Romanticizing mental illness is neither productive nor helpful when discussing it in the context of daily life. Pithy bits of poetry to set the mood at the start of each chapter just felt belittling. Attributing some level of artistic mastery to illness undermines the hard work it takes to achieve that level of skill.
I'd rank it half a star if I could, for upholding a false and damaging ideal.
Profile Image for Cameron Gordon forbes.
3 reviews1 follower
September 9, 2012
An inspiring book for the mentally ill and for that reason i award if 5 stars. Though in the vast majority of cases examined here the family history of the individual had as much if not greater influence on the incident of depressive illness as any creative talent.Still, it shows what people, who would otherwise have been wrote off by society can achieve by picking up a pen or a brush. Not all great artists are mad. But the mad can become great artists.
Profile Image for Carter.
48 reviews1 follower
August 18, 2008
An illuminating look, in detail, at what we know (or knew, as of 1996) about the connections between manic depression & artistic creativity. My gut reaction was to assume this connection was imaginary, but the science says otherwise. The book's term-paper structure makes for relatively slow, but very interesting, read.
Profile Image for Sue.
37 reviews
August 9, 2011
This was a great book! So many great artistic minds moving at incredible speed to create masterpieces... and then the crash. I read it over 10 years ago and then gave it away so can't refer to it now. I highly reccomend it! Musicians, Poets, Artists, etc...
Profile Image for Raegan Butcher.
Author 15 books116 followers
April 22, 2008
Interesting ramble thru the mental wards of art and literature to see the effects of mental illness on a wide variety of artists, painters, poets, writers and other assorted misfits.
Profile Image for Kenny Kidd.
145 reviews3 followers
February 26, 2023
A dear friend of mine recently read a book called Autism Unmasked and, in their words, the first chapter alone made them cry because so much of their internal life that they hadn’t heard explained/mirrored before made a great deal more sense to them. It offered an incredible catharsis and moment of clarity for them, and I’m really glad they got it :)

Similarly (though not to minimize or reduce their experience at all), reading the first chapter of this work on the correlation between what we commonly conceive of as “The Artistic Temperament” and the traits of Manic-Depression, hit me deeply, vulnerably and with great catharsis; particularly the descriptions of mixed manic-depressive episodes, which have explained a frightening, kind of electrically charged depression that won’t allow me to just be sad, tired, and uncharmed by life, but forces me to move, act, and do often-risky things in attempts to at least quiet that electricity so I can JUST be depressed…hearing many famous, beautiful writers expressing this kind of sensation so fully broke me a bit. It’s not a diagnosis of course, but it’s something I will be bringing to therapy, and for that I’m very grateful for this book.

Outside of my personal experience in reading it though, this is an excellently researched, beautifully written piece of psychology that defends its thesis quite well, and asks difficult questions about how Manic-Depression ought to be treated in certain cases, especially if controlled mania/hypomania can lead to some astoundingly beautiful creative works…a difficult subject, and I definitely enjoyed Jamison’s raw memoir on having the illness more, but I was engaged in the topic throughout.
Profile Image for Dave.
95 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2011
I added both editions, oops.
any way. This has been touted as the book to read on the bipolar-manic-depressive/ cyclothymia spectrum of mental illness or craziness as we call it. The 'fine madness' which affect artists and why is it...Of course KRJ's (author) is considered special to write this book as she is a professor and researcher of mental disorder and is reportedly afflicted with Bi-polar or something.
While it is an interesting list of studies and opinions of quite well known writer and some painters, this is really focused (especially early on) on the poets who would express their own concerns with being 'mad.' It often become overly clinical and filled with research reviews. I don't think this offers much insight but tell us what we already know, perhaps it shed light on a glaring flaw of all science. There is a need to categorize and label every aspect of life and mental state, the range of what is normal is getting narrower and narrower, and this book highlights this unintentionally.
For all its esoteric charm and good, it really is to narrow minded it seems. and the small detail of well known visual artists (painters etc.)filmmakers, musician and actors to liven up the anecdotal portions or even lend more to her thesis here is frankly not well planned out. Sorry Doctor, but you were so manic to get your point across you alienated and missed the mark. it seems poets are the ones who suffer most and only a well known few- and acouple of obscure ones.
Profile Image for Mommalibrarian.
728 reviews45 followers
October 23, 2013
"Although manic-depressive illness is much more common in writers and artists than in the general population, it would be irresponsible to romanticize am extremely painful, destructive and lethal disease. Most people who suffer from manic-depressive and depressive illness are not unusually creative, and they reap few benefits from their experiences of mania and depression; even those who are highly creative usually seek relief from their suffering."

The author wrote this on page 207 of her 260 page book. This book tread a thin line between trying to follow that idea and being the usual voyeuristic accounting of the mental illness of the great and creative. More pages were written about these life stories than anything else. The non-biographical part stretched out descriptions of the few studies in the area with the author's opinions (which she documents she has sent into scientific publications who have presented the facts in a way she did not feel was accurate.) All of the book is extensively footnoted; with all 82 pages clustered at the back of the book rather than at the bottom of the pages. No claim is made by the author of medical or psychological expertise in this area. The book seems to be written for the general public rather than professionals. It is an odd mix of semi-erudite and sensational.
Profile Image for Charlie.
514 reviews27 followers
December 11, 2015
I had heard that Dr Jamison has a tendency to romanticise mood disorders, but I didn't understand how true that was until I read this book. Knowing she herself was diagnosed with bipolar helps me understand even more. I'm type two bipolar, so none of the information in the book was very new to me, and a lot of the stuff she'd talk about would be discussed over and over. Some of the anecdotes from bipolar artists, poets, and writers were pretty interesting, but what I was hoping for were answers, or at least conclusions of some sort.

Jamison established that people had made a connection between creativity and tempestuous moods way back in Ovid's time and that mood disorders run in families, but she never even hazarded a guess as to why there might be that connection, or if there's any way to eliminate or lessen the effects of mood disorders over generations. It was a really disappointing read overall, and I wouldn't recommend it. Apparently her memoir is even more self-indulgent, so it's probably better to just find a different author if you want to read books about mood disorders.
Profile Image for Rob.
12 reviews16 followers
June 6, 2007
Kay Redfield Jamison has written a highly engaging book about BiPolar illness in connection with creativity and artists of all stripes. This book helped me identify my own condition as manic-depressive (as I am an artist as well) eight years before I as actually diagnosed as such by a Cornell trained psychiatrist. In other words, reading this was better than eight years of dealing with mental health professionals. So I highly recommend the book.

However, one think that has increasingly bothered me in retrospect is the highly romanticized account of the condition. Nothing is romantic about weeping in bed for days on end or quitting jobs because of a chaotic, racing mind. To understand the deep affects of depression, I recommend Andrew Solomon's Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. But for a poetic, readable account of the engines of creativity, Touched With Fire is a good read.
Profile Image for Bobby.
393 reviews19 followers
June 19, 2013
Dr. Jamison is a fine writer and the I am interested in the general topic but for whatever reason I found the book less engaging than I expected to. A major problem for me was that Dr. Jamison kept on writing statements like (not a direct quote but close enough), "Although study XYZ have methodological limitations, they showed/trended to show..." The problem with basing arguments on poor data is that (obviously) one's conclusions may not be valid, i.e., a bunch of bad studies add up to a bunch of bad studies, not valid results just because there were multiple studies done which produced similar results. So although I agreed with many of her assertions, the way she tried to make her case often left me less than convinced. On the plus side, I enjoyed her in-depth treatment of Lord Byron (most other figures, she only discussed briefly).
Profile Image for Julia.
60 reviews8 followers
June 15, 2011
I came in pretty skeptical of Jamison's thesis, which sounded way too romantic for a serious disorder, and of her methods, especially attempts to posthumously construct diagnoses based on artists' biographical data and creative output. She handles both of those issues deftly, though, and with a combination of modern scientific research and well-chosen quotations and anecdotes, presents a nuanced, persuasive overview of bipolar symptoms correlating with artistic productivity. I'm thoroughly impressed by how fluidly she links stuff like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to stuff like the DSM-IV.

Profile Image for Charlie L.
23 reviews5 followers
September 12, 2012
This is a highly-detailed discussion of the relationship between artists and manic-depressive illnesses. It covers every aspect I could think of regarding the relationship between these two and presents research findings in a straightforward way. It is particularly refreshing in that it weaves back and forth between science and art: not only does it use extensive research to support its points, but it is filled with prose and poetry that gives artful support. Highly recommended for anyone interested in melancholy as it relates to art or artists.
Profile Image for Nina Pace.
11 reviews3 followers
June 24, 2010
An amazing insight into the bipolar temperament and its relationship with creative ability. Allows a fantastic glimpse into the heightened senses of people with this mental illness, and attempts to reveal the long family lineages of famous artists and writers suffering this condition. A challenging but worthwhile read for anybody interested in mental illness and/or creativity.
Profile Image for Darlene Cypser.
Author 25 books18 followers
May 24, 2011
This is a fabulous exploration of the potential link.between creative genius and what others might call madness. It is extremely well-written book intended for the non-scientific audience. Commentators who claimed it was written for scientists obviously have never read any scientific papers, nor much in the way of literature.
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