To think, that which makes me great

Sitting here waiting for my dinner date, I was thumbing through a copy of the latest edition of Vanity Fair when I came across an article about The Washington Post called "Post Modern." While thumbing through the well-written could-this-be-the-one-newspaper-that-survives stories because of my interest in journalism, I stumbled across this passage that made me think that Michael Wolff, the author, at least sort of got the tempo and the upsides and downside of the days untreated bipolar disorder (née manic depressive illness). Unparrelled productivity, energy, ideas and risk-taking that pays off, followed by psychotic paranoia and sad consequences:

He’s also seriously bipolar. He turns the paper into a powerhouse, consolidating its position by buying the morning competitor, the Washington Times-Herald, in 1954, trouncing the afternoon Washington Star, and adding Newsweek to the stable in 1961, as well as a group of high-profit TV stations, before turning on his father-in-law and family with anti-Semitic rage, and then killing himself, in 1963. - "Post Modern" - Michael Wolff in the October 2009 Vanity Fair

It did not hurt that Wolff, as he described how Phil Graham miraculously built a media empire in such a short amount of time, summed all of Graham's successes and descent into one manic-sentence following the phrase "He's also seriously bipolar." It would be easy to view what happened to Graham as successes and then a descent into madness. But what we know from great researchers like Kay Redfield Jamison is that the success was probably just as much a part of the madness as the decent was. Just two different versions. One was admired and socially acceptable; one just wasn't and had great destructive potential. It's also easy to understand why Graham may not have been taken aback by his friends who tried to warn him off of the anti-Semetic views he later developed. After all, those were probably the same types of things he was hearing when he was coming up with some of the most risky, yet successful, business ideas for The Post a few years earlier.

Although manic depression and these types of dramatic, mind-binding and obstacle-clobbering rises are most often associated with artists, we have seen this story before with captains of industry who have been bipolar. Phillip Merrill, the former publisher of The Annalopis Capital, former head of Capital-Gazette Communications and the namesake for the University of Maryland Phillip Merill College of Journalism, is another example. The philanthropist, owner of the Washingtonian, former counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense and former head of the Export-Import Bank, committed suicide by tying a small anchor around his ankles and shooting himself with a shotgun while standing at the edge his boat in the Chesapeake Bay. He fell in the water and was not found for more than a week. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, former Turner Broadcasting owner, former Atlanta Braves owner, former husband to Jane Fonda, former husband of two other women, former vice chairman of AOL Time Warner and buffalo rancher and buffalo restaurateur, is a living example. I wonder, with no true evidence, whether captains of industry with bipolar are attracted to the more creative side of the business world.

This notion of the thing that makes you great becoming and being your Achilles heal is what I call the Virginia Woolf syndrome -- the same thing that makes you so great at what you do contributes to the madness that attempts to consume you. Ms. Wolff's suicide note provides a powerful glimpse at what its like to be on the tail end of that which makes your mind do great things turning on you. John Nash, the Nobel-prize winning mathematician whose diagnosis lands somewhere between bipolar and schizophrenia, according to his biographer Slyvia Nasar, sums it up in the opening pages to her biography of him A Beautiful Mind:

[George] Mackey, [a friend of John Nash and a Harvard professor] finally could contain himself no longer. His voice was slightly querulous, but he strained to be gentle. "How could you," began Mackey, "how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world? How could you...?"

Nash looked up at last and fixed Mackey with an unblinking stare as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake. "Because," Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, "the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."

So, devastating to think, that which could make you so great could also undermine you. What cruel a trick, one that deceives you by using the certainty of your goodness to make you believe in the certainty of your madness.

Popular Posts