Book Review: A First-Rate Madness
A First-Rate Madness
Uncovering the Links Between leadership and Mental Illness
Penguin Press, New York, 2011
Many brilliant human minds defy the stigma of mental illness and perform quite well, just as an injured NFL player performs through pain. Furthermore, recovering from the often-episodic travails of some forms of mental illness can obviously leave beneficial effects, such as resilience, realism, and empathy, even enhanced creativity.
Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi not only shatters the stigma of mental illness in A First Rate Madness, he also makes a convincing case that human leadership usually benefits from mental illness, that as a people in times of crisis it would be much better if we were led by someone who fits the profile of once experiencing manic-depressive illness, or at least has an “abnormal” mental profile that serves crisis leadership very well.
Ghaemi examines the histories of classic manic-depressives who nonetheless performed extraordinary leadership and creativity feats: Sherman, Turner, Lincoln, Gandhi. “Abnormal” leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy shined and thrived with aberrant behaviors and personality profiles, with fascinating aspects to their various treatment strategies.
“Normal” leaders like McClellan and Chamberlain with good mental health histories flopped when the ruthless spear of leadership was thrust into their lives. Crisis leadership often performs much better with a history of mental illness, this is plainly shown.
A First Rate Madness may have a daring and controversial thesis, yes, but it’s psychiatry and history are surprisingly first-rate and engaging, any reader remotely interested in history or psychology will find its content relevant, written in a caring, cautious-enough voice I did not expect. A good read regardless of the thesis, in other words, buy it.
As a little-people truck-driving populist liberal I can never sell this. I cannot and will not go to my people or voters and state vote for my guy, his history of serious manic-depression will come through for us when we need it! Ghaemi can make a convincing case to historians, psychiatrists and political geeks that such a phenomena is worthy of pursuit, but never to the audience of American low-information Fox News electorate, no disrespect, it would just never work. Manic-depressives like my guy have a classic record of sexual dalliance, no worries! Right.
Ghaemi mainly writes what he knows, which is all well and good, but what about alcoholism and chemical dependency? What about George Bush? Is that a mental illness trait we should look for in future leadership? After eight years of easily one of the top five worst presidents ever to squat in the oval office that one empirical example should yield the screaming answer of No!
I was always extremely uneasy—still am—at the ludicrous casual acceptance that George Bush was an alcoholic but isn’t anymore, no worries. What?
When one gets to the place of self-proclaimed alcoholism one has gone to a deeply dark place of the human mind, and incredible damage can occur depending how long one was actively in it. George Bush says he recovered, what childish poppycock. He may honestly mean it, but no one should ever assign any value to self-proclaimed recovery. The evolution can often makes things much worse, the alcoholic proclaims recovery while of course still being very ill. It’s all good!
George Bush was a lazy, incurious, mean, un-caring non-empathetic fool. You really recovered from that whiskey and coke, son, yessir.
So perhaps we can state that in times of crisis we can hope to get lucky in having leadership that in the past was inflicted with serious mental illness like manic-depression, “healthy” leaders often flop in times of crisis. From what we know of the mental illness of alcoholism, well, as a people we should never, ever accept that history in a President again.
As always when reading psychology and psychiatry I am deeply uneasy at the firm confidence of conclusion and diagnosis by the author. Ghaemi is a brilliant man, rigorously adhering to science and empirical sourcing, all of his statements are vigorously backed up with excellent science and history but…he is not an oracle of truth.
Incredible pain and damage has been inflicted upon the race by quack psychology and psychiatry, and those qualified like Ghaemi wield vastly potent power with a seemingly casual cloak of nonchalance. Ghaemi is cautious, empathetic and caring, well aware of the horrible results that could come about from a mistake in his profession, I can tell. Arrogant enough to tell a real story with good science and empiricism, yet professionally and humanly cautious, with adequate humility. Please make sure the publication of such a good book doesn’t shift that professional and personal worldview, Mr. Ghaemi.