In a cartoon from some time ago, Vincent Van Gogh hears a knock on the door and opens it to find a futuristic stranger bearing a vial of medicine that could cure mental illness. He hands Van Gough the antidepressant, and encouragingly states, “it is worth a try.” Van Gough downs the medicine at once and exclaims while throwing his hands up in the air, “I feel better already! I feel like painting happy paintings!” This cartoon pinpoints a critical discussion surrounding men endowed with great gifts of creativity, or simply put, the burdens of talent.
Children with unusual constitutional capacities often behave differently from their peers in some respects. For instance, a child might prefer playing privately (versus with groups of other children), or be identified as having a "deficit" due to some peculiarity of behavior. These behaviors might at first be viewed with skepticism. But the peculiarity is not necessarily a marker of deficit and may instead be a marker of potential talent. Furthermore, the talent must be fostered to allow the child to reach his or her full potential. A clinician is more likely to encounter creative individuals whose parents failed to solve the problems of raising a gifted child rather than parents who mastered it successfully. The most dramatic example I have seen in my own practice is that of a patient whose parents noted that something was amiss early on, with their son being difficult to respond to any type of soothing and even more difficult to communicate with. The parents eventually came to the conclusion that their son was intellectually disabled, and placed him in a school for kids with special needs.
Interestingly enough, we can find similar echoes of misunderstandings in the biographies of great men. For example, the poet and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was thought to be retarded by his parents due to a delay in his verbal abilities.(i) Albert Einstein was also slow to develop, with the family quickly jumping to a misdiagnosis of his condition.(ii) Of course, parents can hardly be blamed for being unable to see past seeming abnormalities, concluding developmental delay. In some instances, it is precisely this delay or an initial “handicap” in kids, especially in formative years, that permits the development of special skills that facilitate creative endeavors in the future. (iii)
The degree to which a child’s differences from his peers will affect his self-esteem depends largely on the parents’ ability to discern those differences as either advantageous or disadvantageous. This could be particularly difficult to do if a child is truly great. How could Einstein’s family have known that his delayed abilities would amount to an awe-striking capacity for abstract thought? Or that Nietzsche’s exceptionally broad talent would manifest itself in writings that would inspire millions for centuries to come? The defects inherent in these virtues are hard to dismiss and further supported by lives of other creative geniuses such as Marcel Proust, an eminent French novelist.
Proust was the older of two sons, educated at home, and eventually enrolled in one of the best schools in Paris–the Lycee Condorcet. Despite his spotty attendance, Proust showed extreme giftedness for language in his literature classes. Proust’s writings were often exemplified to the class, although they did strike other students as odd. Proust’s literature professor was astute enough, however, to recognize his peculiar manner of expression as a talent. The downside to Proust’s gifts was an almost negligible social circle, with peers often finding him to be aloof and excessively critical of others.(iv) It would seem, then, that many gifted children and young adults have the tendency to develop certain psychopathologies that are misunderstood by others.
So is psychopathology the burden of talent? The childhoods of the eminent are seldom benign. Parental misdiagnoses and other traumatic events can leave emotional scars that never fully heal. Even as adults, the great must continue taking risks and are often misunderstood and ostracized by others. They face frequent setbacks even when success and acclaim finally rain on their heads. They may be attacked by the wrong people for the wrong reasons, further pushing them into a life of loneliness. The pressure of ever-rising expectations can make even the strongest kneel before the next arduous day. I suspect that many of us would not survive the stresses that the luminaries went through without losing some inner peace and emotional tranquility. Perhaps talent is not always accompanied by psychopathology or eccentricities of a young age, but perhaps it is the unsought penalty of the creative mind.
Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide in the year 1890. However much we might mourn the loss of this great artist, there will always be a wish of a different scenario. Perhaps one such scenario would have included a psychiatrist who might have carefully increased the dosages of an antidepressant enough to leave Van Gogh inspired to continue creating and living. Maybe he would have even taken a new direction and pained images of clouds, sun, and open fields with happier undertones. Yet why lament? However heart-rending the burdens of greatness, it leaves the rest of us with artifacts and rarities that we will treasure for the rest of our lives.
Kaufman, W. 1968. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New York: Vintage Press.
Pais, A., ed. 2005. Subtle Is The Lord. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eissler, K.R. 1967. “Genius, Psychopathology, and Creativity,” American Imago, 24: 35-81.
Hayman, R. 1990. Proust. New York: Harper Collins.