‘A Magical Orange Grove in a Nightmare’

kay redfield jamison on art and madness

Acclaimed author and researcher Kay Redfield Jamison gave the 2014 Morgan Lecture on the links between creativity and mood disorders. Photo by Kathryn Davison '16.

Kay Redfield Jamison discourses on art and madness

by Martin de Bourmont ’14

There are two kinds of madness—one obscure and another incandescent. One is squalid and shameful, the other tragic and beautiful. One we identify with the homeless and infirm, the other with genius. But are they so different? Kay Redfield Jamison, the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and this year’s Morgan lecturer, does not think so.

Jamison is perhaps best known for her books, of which An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness is considered a classic. Recounting her own struggles with severe mania and depression, Jamison provides a compelling example of how mood disorders can be tamed and channeled into art. Her lecture on mood disorders and creativity on Feb. 27 in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter auditorium addressed the complex relationship between art and madness, as well as the dangers of romanticizing mental illness. 

Named for James Henry Morgan, class of 1878, professor of Greek and dean and president of Dickinson, the lectureship invites scholars-in-residence to meet informally with individuals and class groups and to deliver a lecture on a topic in the social sciences or humanities. Recent scholars include Jorge Luis Borges, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, Samantha Power, Art Spiegelman and Sandra Steingraber. 

Jamison’s lecture was sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues and co-sponsored by the Student Senate Public Affairs Committee, the Office of Student Development, the Wellness Center and the departments of American studies, psychology, art & art history, sociology and health studies.

Prior to Jamison’s lecture, a group of students and faculty—many of whom had not only read her book but considered Jamison a personal hero—talked with her over a light dinner. “She really changed the way I look at life,” said music major Nicholas Cardelia ’16, who first read An Unquiet Mind in high school. “She describes depression and mania in ways that those experiencing them often can’t.” Cardelia was interested in the evening’s focus on the connections between mood disorders and artistic expression, a trope familiar to anyone passably acquainted with the history of music. 

Adam Laird ’14, a double major in history and economics, came to hear Jamison speak as part of his independent study on social entrepreneurship, noting that “divergent thinking is the key to successful entrepreneurship.”

“Memoirs like Jamison’s help combat the stigma surrounding mental illness,” added Allison Charles ’14, an English major writing a thesis on the power of memoirs. “After Jamison gave her memoir to her mother, she came back and said, ‘I understand what you went through.’ ” 

“The number of students who told me her book had a transformative impact on their lives is unprecedented,” said Harry Pohlman, executive director of the Clarke Forum, professor of political science and A. Lee Fritschler Professor of Public Policy. “Although I’ve been at the Clarke Forum for six years, this speaker is the first to have a reaction of this kind.”

Jamison began her lecture by outlining the genetic factors responsible for mood disorders, or what she refers to as their “infrastructure.” According to Jamison, “people with mania combine things in unusual ways,” which is the basis for creativity. Modern studies, she said, demonstrate the disproportionate rate of mood disorders in groups of highly creative people.

Jamison went on to discuss the dangers of romanticizing mental illness. “Byron traveled with doctors,” she said, pointing out that many other artists spent their lives looking for ways to escape their depression. Those suffering from mood disorders today have access to a wider range of medicines and psychotherapies than ever before, she noted.

Quoting the poet Robert Lowell, who described his mania as a “magical orange grove in a nightmare,” Jamison concluded that art informed by madness is a lonely refuge in the midst of desolation. For her, “it’s not a choice between medicine and creativity.” 

Published March 4, 2014