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Judith Schlesinger on Creative Genius and the Insanity Hoax

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Judith Schlesinger

EM: You’ve written a book called The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius. What were your intentions with that book and your top findings?

JS: I wrote HOAX to examine the unjust yet widely popular notion that there can be no great talent without great suffering. Advocates of this “mad genius” myth like to diagnose long-dead artists as mentally disordered, relying on the “clinical evidence” of ancient gossip and citing modern pseudoscientific literature that too many professionals consider as “proof” without even reading.

Fed by romantic fantasies about genius and madness, and powered by society’s eagerness to pull its icons off their pedestals, the myth derives additional energy from those who need to make their own bipolar diagnoses into a sign of creative superiority.

After thirty years of analyzing such claims, it’s clear that the mad genius is about as scientific as Bigfoot, but with more tragic consequences: not only does it pathologize humanity’s greatest talents, but it utterly negates the courage, hard work, and rational determination that are the true essence of genius. HOAX finally sets the record straight, tracing the myth back to the continuing misunderstanding of Plato’s “divine madness,” and explaining how and why it traveled through the centuries to inspire today’s wobbly research.

Despite being self-published, and without any social networking to propel it along, HOAX has become a textbook both here and abroad; most gratifying was my invited participation in “Creativity and Mental Illness,” the definitive tome from Cambridge University Press (2014), which comes to the same conclusion: that the mad genius myth is primarily and precisely just that.

EM: Your book stands in contrast to a book like Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. Can you describe some of those contrasts and differences?

JS: Jamison’s autobiography about her bipolar disorder, An Unquiet Mind, has a self-congratulatory tone that has irked any number of readers, including one who said the book should be called “manic-depression for the charmed life.” Jamison’s money and connections insulated her from the horrific repercussions typically associated with this diagnosis. And since she was safely tenured at Johns Hopkins, her public disclosure did not create occupational suicide – it actually became her career, a prolific fount of interviews and writings that cemented the alleged link between bipolar disorder and genius in the public mind.

In fact, UNQUIET reads like an advertisement for mania, which Jamison paints as being far sexier and more exciting than normal life. Worst of all is the book’s ecstatic epilogue in which she claims she has loved more and been more loved because of her disorder, etc., etc., and that, given the choice, she would have chosen to have it.

In contrast, my book cautions against romanticizing a condition that causes such profound suffering and broken lives for those who do not have her advantages. Curiously, Jamison has begun some recent public appearances with a brief, robotic recitation of this caveat, just before she proceeds to do the opposite.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?

JS: The recent controversial construction of the DSM-5 finally exposed the world to the political and financial considerations behind the allegedly scientific diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. The situation is so dire that Thomas Insel, chief psychiatrist of the NIMH, publicly revealed his organization’s ten-year quest for a DSM alternative that actually has some genuine validity to it.

The sad fact is that most diagnostic categories are ambiguous and intangible inventions that shed little useful light on problematic behavior and its modification, while enabling Big Pharm to peddle all kinds of powerful, lucrative, yet unproven medications to trusting and unsuspecting consumers. The introduction of “spectrum disorders” virtually ensures that everyone can get a pathological label and a prescription, no matter how mild their difficulty may be. Today the self-serving alliance between psychiatry and the drug companies drives both diagnosis and treatment, which does a huge disservice to people in need of real psychological help.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

JS: I would suggest my distressed dear one find a well-referred and respected therapist who clicks with them, and go from there. Studies keep indicating that the therapeutic relationship matters more than a professional’s initials or theoretical approach.

I believe people should shop for someone they’re comfortable with, rather than being intimidated by the haughty professional who tells them they’re “resisting” when they’re too uncomfortable to share intimate details with this particular person. Clients have the right to act on their gut feelings with something this important – so long as it doesn’t eliminate every therapist they meet!


Judith Schlesinger is a writer, musician, and PhD psychologist. Her hats have included university professor, crisis counselor, and therapist (inpatient and out); she is also a jazz critic, bandleader, CD producer, and columnist for as well as Author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius (2012), and invited contributor to the definitive Creativity and Mental Illness (2014), Judith believes that genius should be celebrated, rather than diagnosed.

Judith Schlesinger article


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

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