A mild Facebook discussion broke out the other day as a result of a post about Nassir Ghaemi’s new book, First Rate Madness, a book that documents many influential historical figures who showed “signs of mental illness” and were better leaders because the “illness” enhanced creative thinking and empathy. I agree with the conclusion, but let’s say I am not crazy about the labels.
My block watch did a traffic study a few years back when one of us got it into her head (ok, it was not me) that people were driving too fast in our neighborhood. We petitioned the city (and that’s an endeavor that can make you feel crazy) numerous times, had speed counters, and took turns trying to get license plate numbers. It turns out that it only sounded like people were speeding because drivers accelerate coming out of the traffic circles (which the British call “calming devices”—don’t you love it?).
People do speed along the back of the cemetery that abuts my house, however, and barely miss the swerve that would prevent them crashing right into my studio. Someone did plow right through my fence and into a corner of my house one night when I was sitting with a student at the piano.
But the point of this little digression is to introduce you to William. He used to live three doors down from me and across the street from the cemetery. A war veteran, he was a character I could hear and smell half a block away. After his death when the men in Hazmat suits went into his house, we learned he had been living without plumbing.
William swept the street in the middle of most nights. On warm nights when I woke up and heard his broom making its way from his house to half a block past mine, it was comforting to know he was there. During the day, he walked in the neighborhood carrying on an animated conversation with himself. My neighbor at the time, Gretchen, was the one who modeled the ability to respond to him as though his behavior was nothing out of the ordinary. Occasionally she could carry on a little conversation with him. He had his own logic; I learned the trick of not insisting that it be the same as mine.
One day as I was yakking on my phone in my side yard, I saw William assembling several buckets of bright white paint. He painted a line across the street from his house to the cemetery. He suddenly put down his brush and started toward me. For all his seeming oblivion, he had seen me talking on the phone. He must have assumed I was talking about him and he wanted to make sure I had the correct information.
“Drive too fast down this street.”
I think that’s what he said. He didn’t have many teeth and his speech was garbled at best.
“You want it to be safe for people to cross the street.” I said.
“I want it safe for me.” He was indignant, that seemed clear. “I need to get to my rocks.”
It took him two weeks, but gradually a generous, official-looking crosswalk (the British call them “zebra crossings”—you gotta love it) appeared. It gave William safe passage from his front door to the other side of the street where a collection of large rocks cropped up like ancient standing stones except they were painted a garish yellow.
People stopped speeding on that stretch of road because they slowed down to see what the heck the riot of paint was all about. When I thought of the rest of us feverishly spying on each other and taking down license plate numbers, I had to wonder, who was the crazy one here?
The ancient typologies like astrology and enneagrams, have their limitations. But they are not guilty of what my friend Nancy, who can tell me every time I have deconstructed a thought, would call binary oppositions. They don’t encourage us to categorize people as sane or insane, mentally ill or healthy. Every personality “type” has value, has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone’s mind has its own logic.
For twenty-five years, I have had a poster above my desk where I see it every day. There’s a list of names: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Patty Duke, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Robert Schumann. So even though I am not enamored of the binary opposition it upholds, I do like the starkness of what it says in red letters:
People with mental illness enrich our lives.