Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Plath, Poe, and Prozac. The Myth. The Madness.


Today was interesting.

Today was interesting because of two people.

Nassim N. Taleb and Andrew Shaffer.

If I were more ambitious, I would have sold tickets to the event. If you missed it, too bad. It's buried in the annals of the twitterverse.

It started with this review of the book Antifragile.

As with all things internet and twitter it devolved into humorous blustering on the part of Mr. Taleb. At least, I found it humorous. He on the other hand, probably didn't.

But I digress. You missed it. I was there. I, unfortunately, didn't buy the T-Shirt. I should have. It would have been epic.

I will also say that this whole post will sound more humorous (seems to be the word of the day!) if you imagine me saying this with a snooty, fake English/French accent with a subtle Midwestern United States twang. Trust me, it sounds awesome in my head.

The real content of this post is on quotes posted by Andrew Shaffer on Mr. Taleb's suggestion that Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe would have had their creative abilities stifled with Prozac. I can only assume (insert ass joke here), that Mr. Taleb is suggesting that both of these poets would have also benefited from the administration of said medication. This is an assumption, on my part, as I haven't bothered to read all 500 pages of his work (Andrew Shaffer has). Also, according to Mr. Taleb, I have an amateur grasp of psychology.

Exhibit A
This was his response after I suggested that his aggression toward Mr. Shaffer was actually anger at the supposed slight. Now, if by "Amateur" he's indicating my lack of schooling on the subject, I will have to agree. I have a degree in Music Theory. Of course, I do have a superior IQ (I was tested), so I'm sure I can use that to adequately come to an educated understanding of psychology with a little bit of research. I mean, it's not like I haven't spent the majority of my life in therapy discussing such topics as anger and aggression or have done research on how to live with those two issues.

But I digress...again...

So, these thoughts rattled around in my head on the way home and I begin to wonder what treatment Plath and Poe would undergo (I'm rhyming and alliterating!) if they were alive today.

I did research. Google is awesome for that.

I found this article in the Journal of Royal Science of Medicine specifically about Ms. Plath. It's a fascinating read. I'll admit, I skimmed it, but I'm preparing for NaNoWriMo and its Halloween (kid's gotta get candy!). I'm a bit busy. And honestly, I doubt Mr. Taleb read it at all.

In short, this article states that Ms. Plath suffered from Bipolar II disorder as laid out by the DSM-IV. Now, here's the problem with Mr. Taleb's assertions. Bipolar Disorder is very complex and cannot be solely controlled with antidepressants, such as Prozac. In fact, if a person with Bipolar is given only antidepressants, it can cause severe mood swings. This is exactly what happened to Sylvia Plath. Her doctor gave her an antidepressant. Her brain went into overdrive and she ultimately committed suicide. And yes, I have research bipolar disorder. I also no several people undergoing treatment for it. I know how many different meds are required to maintain a stable life with bipolar disorder.

On to Poe. Pretty much the same. Do a Google search. He suffered from BiPolar as well as substance abuse.

Prozac alone won't "fix" their problem. If anything, it will make it worse.

Now onto the other half of his "argument". That being the Prozac "silencing" Plath and Poe.

This one, I'm going to have fun with. I'm normally not one to being this aggressive, but this is complete BS. Seriously. Know how I know? I'm living it. I don't have bipolar disorder, but I do have a form chronic depression called Dysthymia. I take a very small, and thankfully, inexpensive pill called Citalopram. It works. I'm not depressed to the point of being curled up in a ball. I'm not a "vegetable" as Mr. Taleb suggests would happen when I take it.

I am fully functional. I'm writing. I'm writing darker, and more intense things than I have EVER written. Why? Because I don't have the depression gumming up the system to the point I can't think. I have to feel what my characters are feeling. If I'm depressed, I can't do that. Dark writing doesn't have to come out of mental illness.

Imagination is more important than knowledge -- Albert Einstein

So, Mr. Taleb. If you have managed to get this far, I'm impressed. Somehow I doubt it. Even if you have, your ego would already dismiss me as "amateur" and "unintelligent". Frankly, I find that sad. You see, as a writer, I have to be able to handle criticism of my work. It's part of being out there in the world.

I realize this may feel like an attack against your person. I assure, it isn't. It's an attack against your logic, specifically in regards to Poe and Plath. A PhD, in whatever subject you hold one in, doesn't make you an intelligent person. It means you are a persistent person. You might be an expert in being uncertain, but I'm an expert at being a smart-ass. Just ask people on twitter.

So I leave you with the words of one James Hetfield, poet and musician.
Then it all crashes down
And you break your crown
And you point your finger
But there's no one around
Just want one thing
Just to play the king
But the castle's crumbled
And you're left with just a name

Where's your crown, King Nothing?

'Till next time.

p.s. Please, Mr. Taleb, comment. I won't be offended. I might get "aggressive" with your "sophistry", but I won't call you stupid, moronic, unintelligent, frivolous, ego-centric, or any other slew of words that can be easily found in a thesaurus (you might call it, the anti-dictionary).


  1. The only person who would say that someone who suffers from depression would be stifled creatively by taking an antidepressant is someone who has never suffered from clinical depression. (Or *possibly* someone who was on the very wrong meds *for them.*)

    I suffer from depression and insomnia. Fortunately, my doctor found an medication that helps me with both. (Yay for combination cure!) Prior to being treated, I could still write... sometimes, when the depression wasn't out of control and I was getting something close to 4 hours or more of sleep a night (5-6 was like heaven in those days). Once I started treatment, I suffered markedly less "fuzzy brain syndrome" from the insomnia and the paralyzing depression didn't hit as often or as hard.

    The way I really know that the meds help is the simple fact that I am on as low a dose as I can take (because I hate meds and I have behavioral techniques that I use to help with the depression as well), which means that sometimes the depression still gets the best of me. When that happened last summer, it took me four months to write a 55,000 word book. Just a few months after that (when the depression was under control again), I wrote over 100,000 words on a novel in two months. A few months before the depression hit? I wrote an 80,000 word novel in 30 days.

    Depression is not genius. Depression is stifling. Depression is a dark pit wherein all you feel is the pain and despair. You can't write that while you're there because you're too damn busy trying to survive it. Yes, my depressed mind can create hells the likes of which would rock the literary world, but in that state I could never put them on paper.

    Do I when I'm doing well on my meds and behavioral therapy? To a degree, but I would *never* willingly force myself down that hole just to write a book. That's not a magical rabbit hole that will take me to Wonderland. It is a bottomless pit the likes of which I'd never throw my worst enemy down. The mad don't live there and that way is not where genius lies.

    1. Absolutely! Couldn't agree more. I was too busy fighting to keep moving to do anything else. I actually can't function off the meds. I tried and ended up curled in a ball crying. The internal mechanism that I built to handle it was no longer functional (it involved shutting down emotional responses...not healthy!). So, I'm on meds. I have a therapist that I see regularly.

      And yes, being mentally ill, does not make you a genius. It makes you ill. Genius, makes you a genius. To think otherwise, is uneducated and silly.

      And yes, it's a dark pit. I don't ever want to go back in there. Not for anything.

      Thanks for stopping by, Seleste. :D

  2. Seriously, I realize some people like to try to be special snowflakes and make up new words for things that already have words associated with them, and that's fine- English is a constantly evolving language- but there's a certain point at which it becomes nothing more than a gimmick. I looked at the sample of the book when you mentioned it earlier, and... It seemed pretentious.

    There are people for whom medication is an appropriate solution, and people for whom it's not. There are people who will find any excuse they can not to write, and those who will write on no matter what. My younger sister is completely intolerable without her meds. With them, she's much better (though still a pain sometimes, because, well, younger sister). *hugs*

    1. HAHAHA! You are a braver person than me, Leigh. I wouldn't have been able to sit through any of that man's writing. I feel sorry for Andrew Shaffer, he read the whole thing.

      And yes, Taleb is very pretentious. You have but to look at is his plain and badly formatted "web page" to see that. Buried in the morass of self-aggrandizing drivel, you find that he refuses to accept awards. No awards are listed, just that note. He also mentions having a PhD, but not which subject it is in.

      I feel sorry for him. He is completely deluded as to his own importance.

    2. Well, I make it a general rule not to judge without at least attempting to read whatever the book is. But I think what you'll find, in the long run? People like him are self-anointed kings of the rubbish pile. Those of us who know we're not perfect work to constantly improve, and will be the ones who really succeed. ;)

    3. Absolutely. I wasn't judging his whole work, just the two statements about Poe and Plath. Andrew Shaffer did read the whole thing.

  3. it's the same thing as saying that taking recreational drugs makes you more creative. being talented doesn't come from insanity left unchecked. think about how much more plath and poe could have given to the world if they hadn't been destroyed by their own diseases. many of us in the creative arts struggle with depression in its various forms. seeking help and getting treatment is far better than suffering in the darkness.

    1. Absolutely. It's a pretty common misunderstanding that artistic genius is only available to those who are crazy and untreated. I would have loved to see what Poe and Plath could have created if they had been healthy. I have a feeling it would have been more amazing than anything else they have done.

  4. Thank you so much for saying this. I wish I could make my family who is of the "Hey get over it" type response understand that this isn't something I'm doing on purpose, that medicine helps and it doesn't sometimes and that I'm just trying to get by. Without my medicine I am a waste of space. I can't get up the motivation to take care of my basic needs, let alone act on a "regular" social level.

    1. Yup. And I bet you are way more productive artistically because you aren't smothered by the depression.

      Thanks for stopping by, Gina! :D

  5. Happy to entertain you.

    Taleb's point (in "Antifragile", pg 61 of the ARC) is that Prozac and other modern treatments would have resulted in the "silencing" of Baudelaire, Poe, Plath, and countless other poets and creative types. He is not recommending that any of those authors should have been given Prozac specifically; in fact, he's arguing the opposite, that they "flowered" because they did not receive modern treatments.

    And he couldn't be more wrong in my opinion. Poe wrote one good poem and 10 good short stories. Plath wrote one book of poetry and one novel. Baudelaire was similarly stifled by alcoholism and depression, and his output suffered greatly. If anything, the specific authors he uses as examples were "silenced" by their depression and substance abuse. Prozac and other modern treatments could not have silenced them any more--if anything, their output would have increased. Of course, as you point out, giving certain antidepressants to bipolar patients is dangerous in its own right--but that's another discussion entirely.

    1. Thanks. It actually got me writing again. I had been in a slump for a couple days and getting a little frustrated and crazy. This helped immensely.

      And yes, treating depression does not stifle creativity. It's the other way around.

      I think it is funny he is still arguing with you. You must have touched on a nerve there. Maybe some latent fear of innadaquacy?

      Thanks for stopping by and giving your feedback. :D