Secrets of the Creative brain
For the July/August issue, the neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen shared her insights into where genius comes from, and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness. One of her earliest research subjects was Kurt Vonnegut. Andreasen described his intermittent depression, as well as the mental-health issues in his highly creative family.
I read with interest Nancy C. Andreasen’s article, partly because I am in it, directly and indirectly. Her efforts to understand the source of creative genius are impressive. There are details in the article of personal significance that I need to address.
The bipolar disorder in my family comes from my mother’s side, not the Vonnegut side. Like any other genetic anomaly, it pops up every now and again in our family. In textbook fashion, it does its terrifying jiggitty-jig; hopefully the fire gets put out before the house burns down. People I love are blessed and cursed with this illness. None of them is a creative genius, at least not of the famous sort. I count myself as one of them, an ordinary, bughouse-crazy one who dog-paddles in the depressive end of the pool. I don’t have exciting problems to show for it, except for a marriage that has lasted 32 years—definitely a case of codependency. I don’t drink, because alcohol wreaks havoc with my meds. I have never been arrested, and I am not proud of that. My eating disorder is no one’s business, but I have outgrown it. In any case, the list of Vonnegut-family troubles quoted from my brother’s books is best read in context, not dropped into a magazine article.
Edith Lieber Vonnegut brought three extraordinary human beings into this world, one of them my famous father, Kurt Vonnegut. My grandmother was also a writer and might have been a creative genius, but we’ll never know, because she was never published, though she tried. That my grandmother was deeply depressed doesn’t surprise me. Doctors routinely prescribed barbiturates with no warnings about the dangers of mixing them with alcohol. Women like my grandmother (the depressed, marginalized ones) often died from accidental overdoses of phenobarbital and alcohol, which is what I believe happened to her. I am certain that if I didn’t know any better, I would have washed down an entire bottle of pain pills with a pint of whiskey if my son was about to be shipped off to a holocaust, which was the case with my father in 1944.
Whether or not my grand-mother meant to make a statement by committing suicide on Mother’s Day, she deserves something better than a marker that might as well read “Vindictive Mother.” May I suggest she died of heartbreak? I don’t think my father needs a suicidal mother to solidify his rank among the greats. The firebombing of Dresden is a fact, and that, I believe, was the crucible that forged his creative genius.
Somewhere between the stigma and the fetish that continue to haunt issues of mental illness lies compassionate, practical (scientific) help that will keep our beloved creative geniuses, as well as ordinary people, from hurting themselves.
Finally, one of my father’s biggest contributions to the genetic pool is The Great Love of Beer, which pretty much explains all the arrests.
Researchers have unwittingly turned their backs on a particular subset of humanity that often displays creativity under great pressure.
I am referring to the extremely talented individuals in those sports where the action flows continuously. The Sidney Crosbys in hockey, the LeBron Jameses in basketball, the Lionel Messis in soccer are undoubtedly supremely skilled in the physical aspects of their sports. However, they are probably not that much more capable physically than the rest of their teammates or their opponents. What makes them great is their ability to do things with their physical attributes that lesser players do not imagine. And they do these things in the heat of the action, creating moments of supreme performance artistry time and time again. There are likely solitary sports as well, such as free-climbing, where the creative process is ongoing.
It would be interesting to determine which portions of these athletes’ brains are active during their moments of creativity.
Nancy C. Andreasen replies:
Many thanks to Nanette Vonnegut for presenting an alternative perspective on the Vonnegut family. This is an important reminder that many stories have more than one side. And I heartily second her plea for “compassionate, practical (scientific) help that will keep our beloved creative geniuses, as well as ordinary people, from hurting themselves.” One of my hopes in writing this article was that it would help reduce the stigma that is so often attached to mental illness, and that it would instead convey the positive message that is an underlying belief of the National Alliance on Mental Illness: “People with mental illness enrich our lives.”
In the July/August issue, Sarah Boxer asked, “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” She hypothesized that “mothers are killed in today’s kids’ movies so the fathers can take over.”
Despite the interesting observations in this article, there is no conspiracy, subconscious or otherwise, to negate mothers. The elimination of mothers in fantasy stories is a disguised compliment to motherhood.
The understood principle is that a good mother makes life so easy that nothing is impossible. If you have a mother’s ever-present guidance and wonderful encouragement, you can do anything. There is no challenge to build a story around if Mother stays, so Disney tells her to go.
Dads, on the other hand, are often viewed by children as aloof in real life. Kids secretly hope Dad would prove fun, caring, and plenty strong if circumstances forced him to get involved, so Disney makes their dreams come true. Using the simplest plot device (killing Mom), Disney both brings forth a darling Daddy and allows a nearly impossible quest to take over the narrative.
In Sarah Boxer’s musings on the high mortality rate of cartoon mothers, she correctly identifies this interesting fact, but completely misunderstands why it is so. She describes cartoons as “reality-denying” for leaning on the device of a capable, caring father to advance the story, while offing the mothers. Does she really think cartoons are intended to be reality-affirming? What these motherless stories represent is the novelty of the capable and present Dad. By her own statistics, fathers are exclusively in charge of only 8 percent of U.S. households. In the real world of kids, the primary ruler is almost always Mom. So how can you have kids find the courage to face peril—the hallmark of cartoons—if Mom is there to make everything all right? She has to be done in! This is not “misogyny made cute.” This is coming-of-age Storytelling 101, and a recognition of the central role mothers play in real life.
If you’re looking for an archetypal story of the absent-mother plot, look no further than the Bible, often referred to as the greatest story ever told. The Christian religion is based on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—not a divine mother in sight. We learned centuries ago that mothers are not essential. Even holy ghosts carry more weight than mothers.
Sarah Boxer replies:
The first two letters, both written by men, are lovely examples of what is now popularly known as mansplaining. (See Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me). Both drip with condescension; both damn with faint praise (using interesting as an accolade); and both employ declarative sentences to tell me how it really is. What’s more, both use faulty logic: Though the elimination of mothers may be “a disguised compliment to motherhood,” that doesn’t mean that’s all it is. (By the way, if mother-killing is a compliment, I don’t want to see an insult!) And just because the elimination of mothers is one of the basics of Storytelling 101 (as I myself suggested), that does not mean it’s not also misogynistic. As the third letter writer points out, such narratives are as old as the Bible.
ADVICE AND CONSENT
In the July/August issue, Michael Gorra examined a discarded passage from The Sun Also Rises, which he referred to as Ernest Hemingway’s first novel.
I enjoyed this issue very much. One small thing: The Sun Also Rises wasn’t Hemingway’s first novel. The Torrents of Spring was published in 1926 by Scribner’s, before The Sun Also Rises.
Michael Gorra replies:
Eleanor Erskine is correct about the dates of publication. Both books were published in 1926, with The Torrents of Spring coming out first. But the history of their composition is more complicated. Hemingway had finished the first draft and begun revisions of The Sun Also Rises when he started Torrents. The latter was written as a way to get out of a contract with Boni and Liveright, who in 1925 published Hemingway’s short-story collection In Our Time and had an option on his next book. He was unhappy with them and wanted to move to Scribner’s, where he could work with the great editor Maxwell Perkins. Torrents—a novella, not a novel—was written very quickly in November 1925 and is a parody of the work of Sherwood Anderson, Boni and Liveright’s best-selling writer. Hemingway submitted Torrents knowing that they wouldn’t be able to accept it. Their rejection broke his contract and left him free to go to Scribner’s.