A New Book Retrospectively Diagnoses Famous People With Mental Disorders

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Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol.Photo: Jack Mitchell

Andy Warhol loved to shop and collect. What he really didn’t like, on the other hand, was throwing any of it away. In a recent interview with NPR, science journalist Claudia Kalb discusses Warhol’s predilections along with the behaviors of other celebrities, collected in the new book Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities. In it, Kalb explores the mental states of some of history’s most memorable figures, by researching old journals and interviewing mental-health experts about symptoms to retrospectively diagnose people ranging from the book’s titular artist to Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and more.

Warhol, for example, “had this intense desire to shop and collect,” she told NPR, pointing to his 600-plus time capsules documenting everything from receipts and junk mail to even pizza crusts. Warhol’s goal was to sell them eventually as artifacts of his work, but he also felt a strong attachment to the objects: In his journals, Warhol wrote, “I can’t throw anything out”; in another entry, he wrote, “I’d love to have a really clean space.” But, as Kalb notes, “He could never do it.” Or take Charles Darwin, who left behind personal writings in journals and letters; his scribbles included descriptions of stomachaches, headaches, and other symptoms that doctors today would describe as anxiety, Kalb said. 

Kalb isn’t the first to look into the minds of creative geniuses. Autism has long attracted the magnifying glass of retrospective medical detectives; psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald has written many books turning his academic lens to history, suggesting that more than 30 notable thought leaders were on the autism spectrum, from Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen to even Warhol and Darwin. The 1996 best seller Touched With Fire, which explores manic depression and creativity, is being made into an upcoming movie starring Katie Holmes that argues Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf were brilliant creatives whose work was driven by their manic episodes. And just this past Saturday, Dr. Bennet Omalu — the neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy and inspired Will Smith’s character in the recent biopic Concussiontold ABC News that he’d “bet his medical license” that O.J. Simpson is a victim of the disease, arguing that Simpson displays the “tell-tale” signs of CTE, including explosive bursts of anger and impaired judgment.

But retrospective diagnoses have also been roundly criticized, and understandably so. It is nearly impossible to confirm whether someone suffered from mental illness without direct testing and discussion with the patient. Omalu’s diagnosis of Simpson has been called “irresponsible” and is null unless he examined the former football player’s brain. And, obviously, dead celebrities can’t be interviewed. And Fitzgerald’s retrospective autism diagnoses led to an op-ed in the British Journal of Psychiatry that argued his diagnoses were “shaky”: “Statements that he makes, such as ‘another important point emerging from this book is that the autistic spectrum is very wide and this book widens it still further’ seem as absurd as arbitrarily altering the definition of fever to fit a hypothesis that there is a link between pyrexia and genius.”

Kalb’s book — which also chronicles what is retrospectively diagnosed as borderline personality disorder in Marilyn Monroe and tackles classic arguments ranging from whether Albert Einstein was autistic to considering Frank Lloyd Wright’s potential narcissism — treads this line carefully. She emphasizes that these diagnoses are all “speculative,” purely based on the “theories and thoughts of medical experts” through journals and letters. And though she is aware that trying to dig in and figure out what made historical figures click might be seen as crass and voyeuristic, she hopes it turns out to be an educational, empathetic experience.

“My goal, I hope, is that by reading about these people, there’ll be some less stigmatization of mental-health disorders,” she said. “We all struggle with all sorts … of things in our mind[s]. I found this a way to maybe relieve people a little bit — that if they are struggling, they are not alone.”