132 of 136 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 1999
Touched With Fire is by far the most life changing book I have ever read. Having suffered with Cyclothymia as long as I can remember, and also being an extremely creative person, I thought I was losing my mind...then I read this book. Kay Jamison explores the relationship between creativity and manic depressive illness in an amazing way. The excerpts of letters, etc., of great artists, writers and composers of the past are enlightening, inspiring, and devastating to read. They open up a new understanding of these individuals and what they lived with. This is a must read not only for those suffering from forms of manic depressive illness, but also those who are associated with them. Wonderful reading. INFORMATIVE, ENLIGHTENING, AND AMAZING.
265 of 289 people found the following review helpful
Ok...let's get some things straight right off the bat. This book by Jamison is NOT a book meant for the easy reading of those who are trying to find out more about bipolar disease (whether or not they are merely curious or actually have been diagnosed with it themselves!). This book is an excellent qualitative case studies argument for professionals and peers (in education, in psychology, in neuroscience, in the art world, etc.) who would like to further delve into the long-circulated theory that those blessed with creative abilities are often cursed with manic-depressive (bipolar disorder). Those lay people who merely want confirmation of their illness (or that of a family member) are going to be in for an incredible disappointment if they 'get' this book. It was never intended to be a self-help diary, no matter what Jamison's previous books on bipolar have been like.
Next...Jamison makes an excellent case for the link between bipolar disorder and creativity. The methodology she uses tends to be dependent upon case studies of particular artists and the information available from their own writings as well as their family backgrounds and family lineage. It is a well-known fact that many of the psychiatric disorders have both a genetic and an environmental component. Jamison obviously is learned enough and has enough background in neuroscience and psychiatry, to be able to tie the information often gleaned separately in these fields, together in a more comprehensive whole. No, Jamison does not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the concept that many writers/artists are plagued by bipolararity...but she sure makes a heck of a case for the previously surmised existence of a link! Her science information is impeccable, given what is known now at this particular time concerning manic-depression and the brain. In spite of having to use historical accounts and letters of family members, the artists themselves, and those in direct contact with these people...Jamison's analysis of their work and art, in conjunction with that historical writing, and using what is known now about this particular disorder in the brain is an phenomenal act of intelligent and scholarly writing. And it is well-written and not typical-boring textbook (or 'let's-slap-ourselves-on-the-back-in-congratulatory' professorial type) either! That's high praise on my part, since I cannot abide professors who pander their own writing (whether textbooks or journals) or write to their colleagues in as hard-to-understand professional jargon as possible, and then demand their poor students attempt to make sense of it (as well as line the professors pockets!) Cynical, aren't I?
I had seen and heard of Jamison's work before, but this was the first opportunity I had had to pick up one of her books. Since having not only two artistic grandfathers (one of whom fit the mold of those in this book) as well as having a good per cent of my own family history done (and being linked to some very famous depressives and manic depressives on both sides like Mary Todd Lincoln)...my interest has always been piqued by this theory. My first three years in college gave me a great background in British and American literature, and I remember reading William Blake and thinking 'this guy straddles the world between being one of the major prophetic poets, and being stark-raving loonie'!
Jamison really confirmed what I had previously thought by giving more background into the lives of these men and women. Plus she ties in the what is known about their placement into insane asylums and into their deaths at their own hands (as well as dependence upon alcohol or other drugs to relieve their depression...they rarely wanted to ease their mania which in itself is another confirmation of their own recognizance of their problems).
Jamison watches the speculation, that I find abhorent in historical research. She makes no claims that this is the final word on these people...she cannot. She knows and admits this. But her immense work in this area provides significant input into the lives and works of these men. It makes all of us, whether in the medical world, the educational world, or the artistic world appreciate the art and writings of these men even more because of the knowledge of what they went through.
Karen L. Sadler,
University of Pittsburgh
48 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2000
Kay Redfield Jamison writes with a strong knowledge of the subject. In this book, she researches the question of artistic talent, creativity, and it's relationship to manic depressive illness. The facts are stunning. I was unaware that such a strong link existed, but it does make sense. Famous authors, poets, and painters are explored, and their struggle with this very debilitating disease is illuminated in these pages. Manic depressive illness is portrayed as a double edged sword, one that destroys even as it creates. Ms. Jamison researches the question of treatment, and whether or not treating/eradicating manic depressive illness does not also involve the stifling of creativity. Some famous authors are even known to have said that their suffering is a part of who they are, and without it, they could not create. The forms of treatment are also explored, and the pros and cons of Lithium and other medication discussed. This author has done her homework, and this book will inform and delight anyone interested in this subject. The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five is because the statistics (though necessary) get boring.
70 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2000
It's long been considered a fact of life that seems to go with the territory that creative people are not only "abnormal" or "outside the mainstream"--but that many of them are just plain loopy. Doubtless, some of that kind of thinking owes a big debt to the narrowing--and often stereotypical--definitions of "normal" in American society. However, the gradual merging of biology and psychology over the last two decades shows a scientifically verifiable correlation between the "artistic temperament" and "manic-depressive illness."
Want to know more about what psychological researchers have been discovering about this long-acknowledged link since the Prozac Revolution? Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins, presents as "evidence" a series of recent statistical studies of creative men and women that reveal a definite relationship between the long-ellusive and hard-to-diagnose illness and the personality traits researchers suspect are inherent in successful creative activity. While that's not anything particularly new or groundbreaking--the dry opening chapters are perhaps a little too technical for the information Jamison seeks to convey to a general audience--"Touched With Fire" may help to dispel some of the confusion among "normal" family members and friends who are often too quick to label the artists and writers among them as "messed up" or "weird" or "skitzy."
Once Jamison gets down to the brass tacks and begins to present details from specific cases--Byron, Van Gogh, Melville and Woolf--the book presents a fascinating gathering of poems, notes, letters and testimonies that could shatter the idea that history's most creative people were also exceptionally well-behaved and mannerly. The fact they weren't is testimony, of course, to art's ability to sculpt an illusion around its creator, but the revelation does more than that. After all, still-murky distinctions between the artistic temperament and insanity bring up ethical questions regarding the ultimate meaning and direction of normality in America--who is to be included in the "Pantheon of the Normal" and who is to be barred at the door--but Jamison merely glosses over this area. Since social morays often change the meaning of "normality" over time--and since what we consider "normal" today was by no means "normal" 200 years ago--studies of this relationship that limit themselves to diagnostic criteria and subjective symptoms are bound to be far too limited to provide even the most superficial understanding of how creativity interacts with madness and other discomfiting developments.
One of the book's quirks is that Jamison--doubtless due to scant information--limits the subject's medicinal applications to the effects of lithium on creativity and creative individuals with bipolar illness. What she doesn't tell her readers is that the discovery of Prozac and other SSRIs has advented a new age in the treatment and understanding of all forms of depression. In fact, depression seems to have distinct components in many cases that psychologists never understood until the unintended effects of Prozac revealed them. Prozac has been found to have a positive effect on obsessive/compulsive behavior, Tourette's Syndrome and even in cases that had previously been misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. Depression has been found to cut a far wider swath through the psyche than researchers have previously acknowledged--even to themselves.
Furthermore, Jamison completely omits--perhaps due to a dearth of research--possible linkages between the creative activities of writers and artists that may someday be found to precipitate mania and depression. Writing and art supposedly clear the mind. What happens to the artist, poet or writer who inadvertantly clears--or, to put it into the technical vernacular, "kindles"--the mind a little too much? How do the stresses of the craft mitigate the illnesses we associate with creator/victims? How does the impression of a powerful stimuli--a trauma, drug or alchol use, or the "high" of creating a powerful poem or painting--set up patterns in psychic response and in the process of how we relate to less-powerful stimuli? Needless to say, we've got a long way to go before we completely understand manic-depressive illness and its strange tendency to appear in the psyches of creative individuals. Jamison's book might be entertaining and comforting to those of us who have to live with the disease--even if parts of it parse like a research paper--but we're only scratching the surface of something that deserves much more in-depth investigation than we've undertaken.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Who is this, who is this in the night of the heart?
It is the thing that is not reached,
the ghost seen by the soul...
Touched with Fire reveals its secrets in startling revelations and comforting commentary. Throughout this brilliant work, Kay Redfield Jamison exhibits an insightful and calmly observant approach in the midst of manic-depressive complexity.
She explores the reasons artists, writers, and composers are often fearful of the dampening of creativity through the use of chemicals like lithium. Although she often notes the tendency towards various addictions artists use to escape the erratic nature of mood disorders.
The creative temperament seems to feed off emotional turmoil and often in the works of great poets we can feel the soul's turbulence. The reality of heightened imaginative powers, depression, insomnia, fatigue, rapid thoughts, inflated self-esteem, panic attacks, rage and emotional intensity of various varieties can all swim about in an ocean of ever changing periods of heightened creativity and suicidal tendencies. Within this ocean, brilliance is often born and fed by the storms raging in artist's minds.
For the most part the author explains how many can life a normal life, yet as we read the descriptions and excerpts, we soon realize many danced too close to the cliff of despair and became a danger to themselves. Kay Redfield Jamison presents sweeping overviews of many authors and then delves into individual experience. She uncovers the lives of Robert Schumann, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
According to the author and extensive analysis of current research, moody musicians, volatile poets and troubled artists may in fact be bipolar. This theory is explored in depth with over one-third of the book dedicated to cataloging the researcher's sources.
There is much to learn here, like the difference between cyclothymia and manic-depressive illness. Some of the artists heal themselves through artistic expression, especially in May if they don't commit suicide in the same month. Others produce more writing in autumn.
Poetry led me by the hand out of madness. ~Anne Sexton
As the lives of numerous mercurial writers are explored, a common thread of creativity weaves itself into a blanket of madness which seems to seek to suffocate its victims with torturous emotions and dark nights of the soul.
This then becomes a fascinating and intellectual read for anyone who has an interest in writing, poetry, psychiatry or the artistic temperament. If you write poetry or enjoy writing in general, this book could be most revealing and will explain why at times you might stay awake for 24 hours writing like mad and then have absolutely no desire to write for weeks at a time. While the author focuses on more extreme cases of bipolar disorder, she does give hope to the world by explaining that many who have bipolar disorder do mostly live normal lives. If you can call being on an eternal rollercoaster of intense emotions normal or even bearable throughout an entire life.
While people who are bipolar may have periods when they feel absolutely fine, there is always the fear of the unknown, the dark night that is again fast approaching. After reading this book you will understand authors like Dorothy Parker and Virginia Woolf in a new light even though the author doesn't mention Parker.
~The Rebecca Review
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 1999
I don't think Dr. jamison did anything irresponsable here. Nor did I find her grasping at scientific straws as I've heard it implied. My sister who read the book brought up the concern that I read here several times, which is, how did Dr. Jamison know these ppl were bipolar? She never claimed absolutely that they were. She did however point out very suspicious and in my opinion serious patterns and events that matched what we now know of bipolar. The illness is not *that* hit and miss. I think the ethiccal questions she raised were important. No, every bipolar is not an artistic genius, though overall bipolars are *more* creative than non bipolars. What happens to this creativity when we cure bipolar disorder? It's a good question. And a good book. People's personal distaste for or fear of mental illness notwithstanding, any open mind will find it's not making false claims, or glorifying pain. It's just examining some questions that should be brought to light.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2002
Thankfully Jamison added a little culture into this book. For the artists and writers who are dealing with manic-depression, swimming through a barrage of scientific mumbo jumbo and left-brained analysis, I'd recommend this. For not only will it build your self-esteem when you discover the distinguished company you associate with, but it may lighten your fact-filled head with some beautiful poetry written by some of the greatest poets to have walked the fields.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2006
After finishing my senior independent study on creativity and mental illness, I still go back to this book in with fond memories. It's an accessible and even-minded introduction to the admittedly controversial theory of the link between mental illness and creativity. It was the inspiration for my research.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Being a simple laymen, I dare not pass judgement as to the scientific validity of this book. I will say though, that I did enjoy it. It certainly gives food for thought and those dealing with and working with those suffering from bi-polar disorder, or living with them, should give it a try, even if for no other reason than to consider the subject from a different angle. I note a number of reviewers have used terms such as "sloppy science," and "dangerous assumptions." Lighten up folks. This is not a college or medical school text. To be honest, if you are bright enough to read the thing, you are bright enough to see it's weaknesses and take them into consideration. Anyway, the book is well done, gives you something to think about and is fun. Enjoy.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2006
As mentioned by others, if you are looking for the actual process of how depression is seen to predispose certain people to be creative then this book is not for you. The fineline between madman and genius is still poorly understood. Jamisons book is a treatise on what information is known along with citing studies and statistical analysis. It is aimed more towards scientists etc. studying the phenomenon as opposed to individuals looking for answers as to why they are prone to depression and the creativity that depression brings about.
However, with the above in mind, Jamison has done a good job. I feel it to be incomplete as it doesn't really get in to the nitty gritty of what exactly is happening to cause the madman/genius scenario. Alas that isn't a failing of Jamison, more a case that currently no one knows with any certainty as to what is going on. Is it hereditary?, Genetics?, a social failing, artists taking advantage of societies perception of the madgenius-artist?, being predisposed to being more emotional and just feeling the highs and lows of the human condition to a greater degree? etc. etc. Hopefully one day soon the underlying causes may be know but not today. And in a way that is a plus for this book - Jamison for the most part appears to be impartial to the theories and merely collects them together for the reader to to review. There are some biographies of certain artists/writers/poets/musicians etc. with Lord Byron being the greatest study. They make for very interesting reading, along with the lists of well regarded artistic types and their battles with mental illness.
If you are someone looking for answers this book isn't for you. But if you are looking for the current state of affairs in this field then you will find much here to dwell on. My background is science so I found the delivery of the book to be standard scientific fare and had no problems reading it. It may come across as dry to a reader not so well versed in this manner of writing. As I am now a writer and an artist I found the book to be very interesting - I didn't learn much beyond what common sense will tell you but it was useful to have all the current studies in one tome. A book in a similar vein worth reading is Anthony Storr's "Churchill's Black Dog".