Person of Interest: The Driving Furies of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Were personal demons a key factor in MLK's charismatic and transformational leadership?

By Nassir Ghaemi M.D., published January 1, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

From 1955—when, as a 26-year-old, he found himself the leader of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama—to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the charge that ended a system of segregation more than a century old.

For this, we justly honor Dr. King every January. But the man, and leader, was complex, and in some ways, he remains unknown today.

As King himself put it: "I am conscious of two Martin Luther Kings. I am a wonder to myself." The public King put morality at the center of his politics: He took seriously the Christian injunction to love your enemies and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. His politics of radical empathy and nonviolent change were broad: Besides championing racial equality, in his final years he focused on ending poverty and opposing war, especially the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. This latter King—the antiwar, semisocialist King—was less popular, so at the time of his death in 1968, most Americans had a negative opinion of him.

The deeper attitude behind his philosophy was his view that we should be "creatively maladjusted." King was explicit in a sermon: "Everybody pasionately seeks to be well-adjusted," he said.

"But there are some things... to which men of good will must be maladjusted."

Psychiatrists and psychologists see being "adjusted" as fitting in, being accepted, "functioning" well. We tend to be rewarded for being well-adjusted, but King realized that to solve life's problems, especially the most profound—racism, poverty, and war—we have to become, in a sense, abnormal. We have to stop accepting what everyone else believes. We have to become maladjusted if we are to be creative, and then we may find that insoluble dilemmas are masks for unrecognized problems with simple solutions.

King may have known what it meant to be maladjusted psychologically because he wasn't normal psychiatrically. Prior historians, such as David Garrow in his authoritative biography Bearing the Cross, have noted that King was repeatedly hospitalized for exhaustion, but the frequency and meaning of those hospitalizations hasn't been appreciated. Based on interviews with King's friends and a review of his medical records in the King archives in Atlanta, I've determined that King was hospitalized on average once or twice yearly, usually for days to weeks, with exhaustion despite receiving basically normal medical workups.

Such mental and physical exhaustion, in the face of normal physical health, can reflect depression. This adult course of repeated brief depressive episodes is consistent with the fact that the preadolescent King reacted impulsively to his grandmother's death, twice jumping out of a second-story window in apparent suicide attempts. In his last year, he was deeply depressed, a personality change noted by dozens of friends. His New York-based physician, Arthur Logan, who was very close to King, recommended psychiatric treatment. King and his closest advisers considered Logan's advice carefully but decided that King could not follow it.

When he wasn't in his brief exhausted states, King was an unusually active man. As Andrew Young once said, King conducted "a war on sleep." Despite sleeping only about four hours nightly, he had boundless energy. He traveled for more than half of most months, giving four or five sermons or speeches a day, in city after city, for up to a week.

Bernard Lafayette, a former staffer, told me that a young aide would accompany King on each trip, with another waiting to take his place once the first became too worn out. King would just keep going.

He was also very talkative; aides joked that it took King two hours to walk a block because he'd stop and converse at length with anyone on the way. He was a viciously funny mimic, and had a ribald and sexually explicit comedic style. His friend Ralph Abernathy said that if King had chosen another career, he would have been an incredible stand-up comic. He not only had high physical energy, he also had high sexual energy, a fact that has been well-documented by Garrow and other historians based on FBI surveillance and the admissions of his friends. King apparently had many sexual liasons, including both one-time trysts and long-term affairs.

King scholars have struggled with reconciling his private immorality with his moral politics. Yet if his high sexual energy is seen in the context of his high physical energy, as well as his marked talkativeness and sense of humor, a picture emerges of traits indicative of mania.

When present as part of one's personality, such manic traits are called "hyperthymic temperament." It could well be that King had repeated depressive episodes, and that in between, his personality was hyperthymic.

Some won't like the notion that King suffered from manic symptoms and depressive episodes. It would be ironic if those who admire his valiant fight against racism showed a bias against psychiatric illnesses, especially since illness may have contributed to his accomplishments.

Studies show that depression enhances empathy toward others, as well as realism in assessment of one's own circumstances. King's nonviolent resistance can be understood as a politics of radical empathy, an acceptance of one's enemies as part and parcel of advancing one's own agenda. The goal was not to defeat them but to change their attitudes: Racism was not a political problem to be outlawed; it was a psychological disease to be cured.

Manic symptoms, meanwhile, are associated with productivity, creativity, and resilience to trauma. King was committed and courageous. His courage had roots in his spiritual background, family support, and personal convictions. But although others shared this kind of background and sense of purpose, an added factor in King's unique persona may have been his naturally manic temperament.

If it is true that King was familiar with mood illness, then his condition may have helped him to become so empathic and courageous that today we honor him with a national holiday.

A saint is typically also a sinner, and behavior that seems most brave may have roots that are biologically prosaic even as they are psychologically profound. Let us appreciate, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, what the man we honor knew from painful personal experience: "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."