Image: Library Siesta – supplied.
I wrote ‘Psycho/Genius’ about a psychotic episode I had 10 years ago where I hallucinated for about 24 hours before being hospitalised. It was horrific. Not only could I see and hear things that weren’t there, I could smell things that weren’t there. I could feel people touching me who weren’t there. All of my senses were engaged in a world that only existed inside my mind, and I had no way of knowing that none of it was actually happening.
At the hospital they sedated me and I woke the following afternoon groggy, but completely lucid in an isolation room in Emergency. Upon being discharged, the hospital referred me to an early psychosis intervention program. Over the years I saw psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs and a social worker, but no-one could explain why this had happened to me. I hadn’t taken any drugs, I wasn’t on any medications that could have caused this, and I had no ongoing symptoms of psychosis. They carried out CAT scans and EEG tests on my brain and they all came back normal. By all accounts I was fine.
Except I wasn’t. Depression and anxiety took hold of me. There were long periods where I didn’t leave the house unless absolutely necessary. On the rare occasions when I did go out, I would lock myself in bathrooms and spend extended periods crying and shaking and trying to work out a way to leave the social situation I was in. I had reoccurring nightmares where I was a serial killer and everyone I loved was frightened of me. I felt like a monster. For years I kept asking myself over and over, am I crazy?
But what does crazy actually mean? It’s hardly a medical term. In order to gain any sense of closure, I had to confront the fact that I had deep-seated prejudices about mental illness. I had assumed the world could be divided into two types of people: those who were sane, and those who were insane. My prejudices weren’t random. I was raised in a culture which promotes black and white thinking, where the world is understood through binary opposites and everything is defined against what it is not. In order for stories to have heroes, there have to be villains. We are taught that to be a good person is to not be a bad person, to be strong is to not be weak, to be masculine is to not be feminine, and so on. One side of each binary is always perceived as better and by default stigma is always assigned to the other side.
Our culture loves black and white thinking so much that it even creates binaries inside binaries. For example, girls get pigeonholed as either chaste ‘good-girls’ or as ‘whores’ and ‘sluts’. If the latter, they’re either seen as empowered or exploited. Even within the sex industry, research has found that short-term sex workers often deflect the negative stigma of sex work onto long-term career workers, seeing themselves as having a ‘more legitimate’ reason for engaging in sex work, such as a means to pay for education. We live in goddamn binaryception.
Mental illness is no exception to the phenomenon of stigma deflection. Within the binary of sane/insane, an invisible line appears to have been drawn between the more palatable illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and those which are more difficult to swallow – the ‘truly crazy’ – such as psychosis and schizophrenia. And on another level still, the negative stigma of mental illness gets deflected again. Some ‘crazy people’ are seen as psychos: a danger to society, something to be feared, and needing to be locked up. Meanwhile other ‘crazies’ are celebrated and revered for their difference. It’s believed that the torture of their illness and the suffering they endure is an essential part of what makes them special. We call this kind of person a genius.
I feared people would see me as a psycho. I had been violent during my episode. In my hallucinations, people were harming me. I did my best to fight them off, but I later learned that in reality I had been the bad guy, repeatedly hurting someone who was trying to help me. Someone I loved. To this day the guilt crushes me. The worst part is realising that my brain has the capacity to make my body hurt other people’s bodies. If I lost control of my mind again, what else could I be capable of? It’s a horrible thing, to be scared of your own brain.
One of my other symptoms was ‘hypergraphia’, an apparently rare condition characterised by an obsessive compulsion to write. In the days leading up to my hallucinations, I was writing down everything that was happening throughout my day in notebooks and Word documents. I became euphoric and the compulsion was so overpowering that I was soon writing on myself, on other people, on objects, on walls. I didn’t know how to stop. I couldn’t sleep. I probably forgot to eat. I wrote and wrote and wrote until my mind had unravelled to the point where I lost control of my body and couldn’t write any longer.
As far back as I can remember, people always described me as creative. In primary school my favourite lesson was writing. When I was six years old, once a week on Mondays we were told to get out our notebooks and write about our weekend. Instead, I spent those lessons working on a fractured fairy tale about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, always picking up where I left off from the previous week, and only stopping once my notebook was full. In high school I had the same kind of passion for drama and visual art. I had overwhelming urges to create and I always went above and beyond the confines of the task. So when I found myself sleep deprived, euphoric and unable to stop writing for a second time – eight years after my first psychotic episode and on the verge of my second – I started to wonder if people would ever think of me as the ‘good’ type of crazy. Would people ever call me a genius?
Let’s face it, my odds aren’t great. It is widely understood in academia that the link between mental illness and ‘genius’ was invented by psychiatry during the Enlightenment and in the couple hundred years since then, scientists still haven’t provided any evidence of, or objective measures to determine, genius. The late psychiatrist Thomas Szasz explains it well:
“Genius and madness are vague terms. The only thing clear about them is that, by definition, each term refers to a type of psychological abnormality, a deviation from a behavioural-social norm. Genius and madness are value terms, not medical or scientific terms”.
Genius as a ‘value term’ is not a fact of nature but a fact of culture, and how our culture understands creativity is bound up in ideas about how our culture thinks about gender. Kurt Cobain, for example, is often lauded as being an exceptional musician and songwriter. His drug addiction which landed him in rehab; his battle with depression which lead to his suicide; his struggle with celebrity which saw him make death threats to journalists; and his difficulty parenting in this context which saw Child Welfare Services intervene in the care of his child; is well documented and known among fans. But no matter how awful or inappropriate his behaviour, it was always excused. His actions were explained as being part and parcel of being a tortured creative genius.
The same justification is rarely extended to his wife Courtney Love who is also an exceptional musician and songwriter, and who endured a similarly well-documented struggle. Instead, she has been painted as a “psycho” and has famously been the target of a conspiracy theory that she is responsible for Kurt’s death. This is not an isolated example. Throughout history musicians struggles have always, and continue to be, written in ways which are highly gendered. Pitchfork published an article illustrating this phenomenon, focusing particularly on the appalling treatment Amy Winehouse received by the media in the reporting of her death, while also drawing on numerous examples throughout history of how men’s struggles with addiction and celebrity are continually “whispered about or written around”, while women are publically shamed and humiliated.
So why does our culture treat male and female artists who struggle with mental illness so differently? A recent study investigating the way lay theories about creativity impact people’s judgement of genius may go some way to providing the answer. The researchers drew upon two different metaphors for creative ideas: lightbulbs and seeds. While the lightbulb metaphor represents a ‘Eureka moment’, implying that good ideas are the result of natural ability which only a select few possess, the seed metaphor describes how good ideas are planted, and then cultivated over time through hard work and effort. Participants were given texts about male and female inventors to read and were then asked to judge the genius and exceptionality of the inventor and their work. The same information was presented either using the lightbulb metaphor, the seed metaphor, or neutrally without metaphors. When the inventor was male, the seed metaphor decreased the likelihood of participants rating the inventor as a genius, however the inverse was true when the inventor was female. The results suggest that people tend to be more comfortable with the idea that a man’s creativity is a God-given gift, while women’s creativity is achieved through hard work.
Another study exploring children’s perceptions of gender and genius produced similar results. The researchers presented a gender-neutral story about a genius to children, showed them pictures of two men and two women then asked the children to indicate which person they thought the story was about. Children as young as six were more likely to select a picture of a man. The researchers also presented the children with two games and told them one was for “children who are really, really smart” and the other for “children who try really, really hard”. Girls were more likely to select the game described as being for those who work hard. The two studies illustrate that culturally ingrained ideas associating women’s excellence with hard work and men’s excellence with natural ability not only shape our perceptions of others at a young age, they also shape the choices we make for ourselves: what games we play, what interests we develop and inevitably which careers we pursue later in life.
From my experience as a woman working in music, I’ve found you have to work hard. That’s not to say that men don’t, but if you’re a woman, and certainly if you’re trans or non-binary, then you don’t have a choice. You have to work harder. A recent study reviewing existing research into the state of the Australian music industry has found that professional male artists earn an average 88% more than their female counterparts from their core creative practice. The same study also found radio and streaming services are unsurprisingly dominated by men. Most airplay is given to male-only acts on both commercial radio and Triple J, while Spotify reported that in 2016 no women featured in the top 10 most streamed songs, and only 21 female artists were in the top 100. The research also revealed women are grossly underrepresented on festival line-ups with analysis of the largest festivals throughout 2015-2016 consisting of 74% male-only acts at best, with some major festivals excluding women, trans or non-binary musicians entirely.
It’s worth noting that genius is not only highly gendered but also highly racialised. Most historical figures described in this way tend to be European men, such as Einstein, Shakespeare and da Vinci. In a documentary presented by the BBC titled ‘What Makes A Genius?’, the introduction outlines eight examples of geniuses throughout history, all of whom are men, and only one of which is a person of colour. Looking specifically at music, the brilliance and ingenuity of many African American musicians whose work preceded and inspired 1950s rock ‘n’ roll were for a long time expunged from popular music history books, including many female musicians such as Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elizabeth Cotton. I’ve heard countless stories from friends and peers who are women of colour currently working in music attesting not only to the way gender and race intersect with stereotypes about creativity, but also to the broader ongoing systemic and casual racism that continues in the industry today – but that’s a whole other essay and those aren’t my stories to tell.
While there is well-documented evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness, with significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among those working in creative industries compared to the general population, not all creatives experience mental illness and not all people with mental illness create. Care needs to be taken not to assume a causal relationship between the two. It’s unhealthy, dangerous and misleading to perpetuate the idea that in order to make exceptional art you need to be mentally ill. I believe a cultural shift is needed in the way we think about creativity. It’s been suggested that attempts to understand works of genius should focus less on the individual who created the work, and more on the broader forces at play which created the context and circumstances for that work to have been produced. There is no denying that exceptional and ground-breaking art exists, but it’s important to put great art in context.
In case you’re wondering, I have made peace with my weird brain. A couple of years ago I saw a psychiatrist who said something that brought me a lot of closure. She told me this: Absolutely everybody is capable of psychosis, it’s just that we all have different thresholds for it. Some people may have a lower threshold, often because of factors such as past trauma or a family history of mental illness, while other peoples are higher. But it is something that could happen to anyone, if put under the right circumstances.
Everybody is capable of psychosis.
Library Siesta Shows:
Friday 17th of November – Psycho/Genius Melbourne single launch – The Tote – w/ Mannequin Death Squad & Black Bats – $10 entry
Friday 24th of November – Psycho/Genius Sydney single launch – The Botany View – w/ The Nah & Team Vom – Free entry
Thursday 30th of November – Brighton Up Bar, Sydney – Supporting Slow Turismo w/ Waterford & Briscoe – $10 entry