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Publisher Description

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.

Health, Mind & Body
October 18
Free Press

Customer Reviews

Naturesgreen ,


I find the book, "Touched with Fire", to be as offensive an analysis of the artistic temperament (and manic-depression) as would be a scientist's explanation of the relationship between race and low intelligence. Jamison uses as a basis of proof a seemingly-overwhelming list of well-known artists and writers who may have had illness or manic-depression. After hand-picking a few famous individuals as examples, she tracks backward into their genetic profile. The possibility that there is illness there is more than presumption, because there is ample content left behind by the artists and writers-- but that is besides the point, and clouds our judgement. We already know about the heritability of this illness.

What is an important point is that this book and it's hypothesis is confounded by the availability heuristic. We could give this book a different title and it could be filled with a long list of accountants, lawyers, and stock brokers with manic depression, but it is more difficult for us to create this list. Moreover, from an author's perspective this is much less interesting, because most of these people we would not know all that well, and it would not sell.

Artists, especially those that are particularly gifted, tend to be very well-known people. They are interesting and they capture our attention as individuals, but the best of them can harness the attention of a nation or even the world. Few tradespeople can rise to such global popularity, where one's love for that person's work transcends national pride or even ideology. So too, their craft was of higher regard in the past, because they really were known to be the creators of culture. They contributed to knowledge and were contracted by the national and ideological leaders to "market" their causes, and to create great works to exemplify the attractiveness of their beliefs.

Of course they are not the only famous people, but they make it their business to bring their inner world outward. By their nature they are sensing, reflective, seeking and improving. They talk about it, they make works of art to externalize what is inside, and they write about it. By these qualities, they have by their industry accumulated a public record of the deepest parts of the human soul. Now, one could see this as proof for the book's hypothesis. However, to anyone that has worked closely with manic-depression.... knows that most of what a manic-depressive struggles with is hidden away. Part of their depression stems from their need to hide it. If awareness and visibility of this illness in modern times is a struggle -- if writers... even psychiatrists, such as Kay Redfield Jamison, are writing books that clearly miss the mark in this age.... then you can only wonder about Manic-depression during the epochs reviewed in this book by virtue of the public record.

In the end, the only point Jamison addresses by this effort-- deceptively-shrouded in the full power and face validity of our nation's finest institutions-- is puffed-up, anectdotal proof that when a tree falls in the forest and noone's there to hear it, it doesn't make a sound. Moreso, when a supposed expert fails to write about it.

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