The Spector of madness: are mental illness and genius inextricably linked?

The Spector of madness: are mental illness and genius inextricably linked?


It’s in no way a controversial statement to say that as a society we’re pretty opposed to murderers. When a murderer emerges blinking from prison, even long after they served their time, in the eyes of society they’re still branded with the mark of Cain. The perpetual rumblings from those who want to bring back capital punishment is the ultimate expression of this idea: once someone has deliberately taken a life, they lose the right to their own. Obviously not everyone subscribes to this harsh ideal of justice but it is very rare to see an unarguable killer (i.e. the murder was not committed against an abusive spouse etc)  portrayed in the media as anything but a monster even if they’re long out of prison. However, when audio pioneer and murderer Phil Spector died in prison on January 16th (just one of the half a million American casualties on the COVID front) the tone of the obituaries was notably different.

Spector had shot and killed his partner, the Hollywood actress Lana Clarkson. Even prior to that ghoulish act, rumours swirled that he kept his adopted children caged in their rooms, forcing them to perform sex acts for his entertainment. His previous partners each had their own stories of nightmarish abuse, from threats of hired contract killers murdering them on stage, to a gold glass-topped coffin he claimed he’d stash their corpse in so he could “keep an eye” on them. By all accounts Spector was spectacularly deranged and the kind of eccentric boogieman that no tabloid hack could resist. Yet the obituaries were generally phrased in the “troubled musical genius dies” vein as opposed to the expected torches and pitchforks. Spector had pioneered the Wall of Sound, a revolutionary production technique that he’d used to help shape some of the greatest songs of this or any era. From Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High to the Ronettes’s Be My Baby; his greatest successes were artistic high-water marks in a period distinguished by scintillating innovation. Even on songs he didn’t personally produce (such as the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and God Only Knows) his influence was unmistakable. Even so the quasi-hagiography that emerged in many publications after his death saw his murderous insanity couched in the same terms as a rockstar’s eventual fatal drug addiction: tragic, but the flipside of the genius that enabled the vertiginous artistic success he achieved

This public willingness to view acts of violence and madness as an excusable cost for greatness isn’t exclusive to Spector; practitioners of the arts who ended up with a couple of deaths under their belt, from William S. Burroughs all the way back to Caravaggio, are similarly given the benefit of the doubt by public perception. This isn’t the case with other professions: it seems unlikely that O.J. Simpson will be eulogized with such even-handedness, for example. So, what is it about the creative type that sees the public so willing to wave away acts of madness and brutality? Primarily it’s the fact that creative genius is deemed by many to be inextricably linked with mental illness. After all most people’s knowledge of Van Gogh focuses around the facts that he cut part of his ear off and that he was pretty keen on sunflowers (the facts generally recalled in that order).

Indeed, the artistic canon is a stupendous sanitorium where being anguished, tormented, alcoholic, angst-ridden, manic, outright psychotic, or just plain weird seems de rigueur for admittance. This is by no means a modern conception either; Aristotle pontificated that “no great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness”. There is something inherently comforting about the concept: if you are not a genius in your field (and even if you were, who could be narcissistic enough to admit it?) it’s not necessarily your fault, it’s just that your mind is straightjacketed by your blasted inconvenient sanity! This is something of a 19th century concept, but it still very much has its adherents, who have brought plausible evidence to the table. In a study in 2015, scientists in Iceland reported that genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often in people in creative professions. Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the genetic variants than professions the scientists judged to be less creative, among which were farmers, manual labourers and salespeople. 

According to the World Health Organisation, mental illness, unlike genius, is by no means a rare phenomenon. Mood disorders, such as the various forms of bipolar and depressive disorders, occur in about 10% of the population. Added to this are similar prevalence rates which exist for anxiety disorders. By comparison there are somewhat smaller quadrants suffering from schizophrenia, substance abuse disorder, the different kinds of personality disorders and autism, but enough to add several tens of millions more. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2001 (when the world’s population stood at 6.2 billion, or about a billion less than today), that there were some 450,000,000 people living in poor mental health. The number will be substantially higher today, yet it is safe to say that for the vast majority of sufferers their illnesses are more of a cross to bear than artistic rocket fuel.

Over the scope of mental illness, bi-polar disorder seems to have the most legitimate connections to the creative urge. Mania (the overwhelming highs that bipolar individuals often experience) tends to share some common traits across sufferers, such as a tendency for “thinking outside the box,” flights of ideas, the speeding up of thoughts and heightened perception of visual, auditory stimuli, all of which can jump-start creativity. Still, there are many who view it as ultimately a hindrance rather than a help. To return to Van Gogh (who might have actually lost his ear in a duel over a prostitute with Gaugin but shhh), the Dutchman lamented “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done.” The top of the artistic roll-call might have succeeded despite their illnesses rather than through a Faustian bargain with them. It is impossible to know for sure, but as long as madness is held up as a necessary spark for acts of true artistic greatness rather than something to be treated, we will set ourselves up for tragedy. Just ask Phil Specto

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