The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius

By James T. Webb, Ph.D.
September 12, 2012

A Book Review of
The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius
by Judith Schlesinger, Ph.D. (2012) Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Shrinktunes Media. $24.95.


Sometimes what you think you know just isn’t so. A persistent belief, fueled by media, is that creative people more often suffer bipolar disorder or other mental illness. In The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius , Judith Schlesinger builds a strong argument that there is “no compelling proof that creative people have more psychological problems than members of any other vocation group.”

A musician herself, as well as a psychologist, Schlesinger clearly wants to defend her artistic compatriots from what she views as unfair attacks.

From her data, “it’s just as easy – and much better documented – to view the creative process as healthy and life affirming,” and “only one characteristic of personality and orientation to life and work is… present in ALL creative people: motivation.” In fact, creative people are “…actually complicated, not crazy; they are disciplined and committed, happy to take on hard projects and work hard at them; and they are intensely focused, with a ‘rage to master’ their chosen domain.”

Simultaneously, she assembles compelling information about the arbitrariness and unreliability of mental diagnoses in general, which she highlights as a major problem in the supposed link between creativity and mental illness. Schlesinger’s scathing critique of the DSM should be required reading for all mental health professionals.

She asserts that the term “mental illness” does not in any way meet the criteria to qualify it as a valid medical entity, and in fact “…the DSM can only offer an assort- ment of theoretical categories and labels for every human quirk…such that the diagnostic process is highly vulnerable to subjective value judgments and agendas.” She then documents the proliferation of diagnoses with each DSM revision (from 60 in 1952, to 374 in 2000 in DSM-IV), along with the close financial ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatrists involved in developing the DSM.

Throughout, Schlesinger is certainly not shy in her opinions. For example, she says, “Let me show my hand from the jump: I detest the patronizing caricatures of the mad creative and how it devalues the artistic product.” Especially does she essentially demolish the popular work of psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., and Arnold Ludwig, M.D., and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., whose work she calls “pseudoscience” with regard to a supposed link between creativity and various mood disorders.

These authors build on the1891 work on Cesare Lombroso, M.D., which is a slippery foundation at best. Schlesinger notes that even “Lombroso’s peers called his scholarship ‘shoddy’ and his ‘colossal mass of anec- dotal data’ only ‘superficially persuasive,’ ” and she contends that these works of Andreasen, Ludwig and Jamison are similarly slipshod.

Andreasen concluded that “fully 80 percent of writers had mood disorders, compared with only 30 percent of non-writers.”

However, seldom mentioned is that this was based only on interviews of 30 writers from Iowa, all of whom were known personally to Andreasen, and all of whom were white, middle-aged and male and that the differences between the two groups were not sta- tistically significant.

Jamison interviewed 47 “award-winning British creatives … whom she alone questioned about their mood states and psy- chiatric histories.” Again, all were male, white and mostly middle-aged. Jamison did not use a control group, yet concluded that 50 percent of poets suffered from depression or bipolar disorder, as did 12.5 percent of visual artists. This is less persuasive, though, when one realizes that the 50 percent reflects only nine people and the 12.5 percent represents only one person.

In particular, Schlesinger criticizes the “Bible of the mad genius movement, Jamison’s 1993 Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” which diagnosed the dead by examining “166 long-dead writers, artists and composers with probable cyclothymia, major depression or manic depression …,” though her list comes primarily from “gossip and circumstantial evidence” and Jamison selectively omits information that would strongly influence a diagnosis.

For example, Jamison failed to note that Cole Porter had both legs “crushed in a riding accident in 1937 and endured 30 operations in the next three decades, none of which relieved his pain” and that Gustav Mahler, labeled as agoraphobic and manic depressive, had “crippling anxiety and withdrawal” that “began after his beloved daughter died and he learned he had heart disease; nor it is ever mentioned that he had to bury 10 of his siblings.”

Her incisive language and sense of humor keeps this book from being dry, as does her frequent sprinkling of humanizing historical factoids. I strongly recommend this book. It is one that can be enjoyed by professionals and lay people alike.

James T. Webb, Ph.D., a former president of the Ohio Psychological Association, is president of Great Potential Press, an award-winning publisher of books for parents and teachers of gifted children. He may be reached at

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