There has been too much untimely death in my periphery the past couple of years. This past week has been difficult, and my mind has been turning over ruminations on death, life, mortality, and age. That’s all I wish to say about it, but I will share this beautiful poem by Sylvia Plath.
The month of flowering’s finished. The fruit’s in, Eaten or rotten. I am all mouth. October’s the month for storage.
The shed’s fusty as a mummy’s stomach: Old tools, handles and rusty tusks. I am at home here among the dead heads.
Let me sit in a flowerpot, The spiders won’t notice. My heart is a stopped geranium.
If only the wind would leave my lungs alone. Dogsbody noses the petals. They bloom upside down. They rattle like hydrangea bushes.
Mouldering heads console me, Nailed to the rafters yesterday: Inmates who don’t hibernate.
Cabbageheads: wormy purple, silver-glaze, A dressing of mule ears, mothy pelts, but green-hearted, Their veins white as porkfat.
O the beauty of usage! The orange pumpkins have no eyes. These halls are full of women who think they are birds.
This is a dull school. I am a root, a stone, an owl pellet, Without dreams of any sort.
Mother, you are the one mouth I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.
I said: I must remember this, being small. There were such enormous flowers, Purple and red mouths, utterly lovely.
The hoops of blackberry stems made me cry. Now they light me up like an electric bulb. For weeks I can remember nothing at all.
It’s spring, and I’ve been thinking about the myth of Persephone and Demeter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, I’ll tell it here.
According to Greek mythology, Persephone (also called Kore, “the maiden”) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Persephone was a beautiful young girl with many suitors, including Hades, the god of the underworld (and Zeus’ brother–her own uncle!). Demeter was very protective of Persephone and refused to consider Hades’ desire to have her for his bride. Demeter didn’t want her lovely young daughter married off to a middle-aged man surrounded by death. Hades was determined to get his way, so one day while the maiden was playing and picking flowers with her friends, he caused the earth to suddenly open up under Persephone’s feet when she stopped to admire a beautiful narcissus flower. Hades grabbed the maiden before she could call for help and took her with him into his underworld kingdom. Although Zeus and Helios, the sun god, saw the abduction happen, they decided not to tell Demeter, as Zeus didn’t want to cause problems with his brother, Hades.
Demeter was overcome with grief when her daughter went missing and asked her friend Hecate, goddess of the wilderness and childbirth, for help; Hecate advised Demeter to ask Helios if he’d seen anything, and Demeter convinced Helios to tell her what he’d witnessed. Helios revealed that Hades has abducted Persephone, causing Demeter to become enraged with Hades and with Zeus for not telling her he knew what had happened to their daughter. To punish the gods and express her grief, Demeter refused to continue with her duties as the goddess of harvest and fertility, causing great devastation to the earth: The ground dried up, crops withered, animals starved, and famine and death spread across the world.
Zeus heard the cries of the suffering people and decided to do something to appease Demeter and save humanity. He told Demeter that he would ask Persephone if she preferred to stay in the underworld with her “husband,” Hades, or return to Olympus with her mother: If Persephone said she wanted to remain with Hades, Demeter would have to accept this and go back to her duties as the harvest and fertility goddess. Demeter agreed. However, Hades tricked Persephone, who was distraught at having been kidnapped and forced to remain with him. Persephone was lured into eating a pomegranate seed–anyone who ate any food of the underworld would be cursed to miss the underworld if they ever left it. When Persephone was brought to Olympus to tell her father what her wishes were, she said that she wanted to return to be with Hades. Demeter was infuriated by this response, assuming that Hades had somehow deceived Persephone into answering this way. Demeter declared she would never bring life back to the earth. Zeus proposed a compromise in which Persephone would spend 6 months a year with Hades and 6 months with Demeter, a plan that pleased no one; however, all had to adhere to Zeus’ will.
The Greeks used this myth to explain the seasons: In the fall and winter when Persephone is with her husband, Hades, ruling as queen of the underworld, Demeter mourns and allows life on earth to die and decay. In the spring and summer, Demeter rejoices at having her daughter return to her and makes the world fertile, then fruitful again.
There are other version of this myth in older and later cultures, as well as similar stories of death and rebirth. One could surmise that such stories are related to celebrations of spring (such as Easter, in which Christians honor Jesus’ resurrection after death and secular people celebrate new life in spring through symbols like eggs, baby chicks, and rabbits; and Ostara, a pagan celebration of the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring).
With my view rooted in the contemporary world, it’s hard to remember to consider the Persephone story from within the context of antiquity and how people in that time viewed family, marriage, the rights of women, and freedom. From a modern perspective, the story evokes thoughts of rape, trauma, pedophilia, and incest. It’s hard to see it as anything but a terrible tragedy and difficult not to focus on the story being about a young girl whose freedom and innocence were taken by her uncle. From a more psychological view, one can also interpret the myth as exploring the struggle of a mother to allow her daughter to grow up and leave home, or a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and budding sexuality (thus, Demeter’s hiding Persephone away from her suitors and not allowing Hades to marry her). Along the same lines, one could interpret the story as depicting the struggle of the old (embodied by Demeter) to pass on the torch to the young (Persephone)–the nostalgia and pain of growing older, seeing the world change, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.
I choose to focus on the hopeful and affirming part of the story–the fact that growth and rebirth are a natural part of the cycle. Acknowledging that death and decay are also a part of life, we can use the reminder of spring and the myth of Persephone to spur us on to appreciate the life we have and to take advantage of renewed energy, new beginnings, and second chances during this time of the year.
A lot of people believe that it’s just a given that artists are “crazy,” that being mentally ill makes you more creative and able to “think outside of the box.” Is this true? It’s something I have wondered about many times. The short answer is probably not, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
There have certainly been a lot of high-profile artists with mental health issues (including substance use issues): comedian Margaret Cho (who had an eating disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction), painter Edvard Munch (who had depression and agoraphobia, as well as hallucinations), painter Georgia O’Keeffe (who dealt with anxiety and depression), poet Sylvia Plath (who had depression and ultimately killed herself), Vincent van Gogh (who probably had depression or bipolar disorder and, like Plath, killed himself), novelist David Foster Wallace (who dealt with depression and also killed himself), street and neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (who suffered from heroin addiction and paranoia), actress and writer Carrie Fisher (who had bipolar disorder and also was addicted to drugs and alcohol) … The list could go on and on. But, does having a mental illness or addiction play a direct role in being creative?
In a 2013 study, Kyaga and colleagues looked at a huge sample of Swedes–more than 1 million–and found that people with a mental health issue (including psychosis, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, and completed suicide) were no more likely to work in a creative profession (defined as artistic or scientific careers) than those without a mental disorder. However, in this and previous studies, these authors did find that people with psychotic disorders or bipolar disorder were more likely to work creatively and that authors were more likely to have certain mental health problems. Interestingly, Kyaga and associates also found that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Scott Barry Kaufman, in a blog post for Scientific American, postulates: “Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating?” This makes some sense, since a number of traits associated with some mental health conditions may be more conducive to creativity, whereas full-blown mental illness typically would make a person too dysfunctional to succeed in their profession or creative pursuit.
Some researchers have found that a few of the traits associated with schizotypal personality (specifically, unusual perceptual experiences, such as “magical thinking,” visual or physical illusions, and superstitions, and impulsive nonconformity–a tendency toward unstable mood and behavior, especially around rules and social norms), often found in first-degree relatives of people with schizophrenia, fit with a creative personality. Similarly, people with an “overinclusive” way of thinking (trouble thinking precisely and selectively), who thus allow many thoughts and stimuli to enter their consciousness–a trait associated with schizotypy but also with psychosis–but who are also intelligent, with good executive functioning skills (e.g., organization, memory, and direction–traits typically absent or impaired in those with psychosis) tend to think more creatively and also have the ability to succeed in their work.
It’s a fascinating and complicated topic. I leave you with some examples of work by artists who had a mental illness. Given some of the research, one might consider these artists to be the exceptions–whether their mental illness contributed to their creative thought process or not, they were able to overcome the struggles and challenges that come with mental illness to produce amazing work.
This past summer, I read a book that touched me deeply: Home by Marilynne Robinson. I was surprised how emotional I felt reading it and especially finishing it. I completed the book on a flight home from a summer vacation, and I literally cried for a half an hour. It’s a little hard to explain why this story hit me so hard, since I can’t say I strongly related to any of the main characters. For those who haven’t read the book (and I highly recommend it!), it’s the story of a family in a small Iowa town in the 1950s that is shaken by several events. First, the patriarch of the family, a retired minister, is failing in his health. Because of this and a broken relationship, his youngest daughter, Glory, returns home to help care for him. Soon after, the “prodigal son” of the family, Jack, a son who, despite his checkered past and estrangement from the family, is the most beloved by the father, also returns home and stays with his sister and father. The tale of his life gradually unfolds as his sister (the narrator of the story) observes his attempts to come to terms with himself, his past, and his shaky relationships with his family and close family friends (including another minister, his father’s best friend). Jack also attempts to see if his past would preclude him from returning home to live a new life and whether his home has evolved into a place that would be safe for him and his loved ones. While Jack does receive grace and sometimes forgiveness from others, he remains a profoundly lonely and estranged man stuck between a past that he is unsure he can overcome and a present that may not allow Jack to live the sort of life he feels is right. Themes of family duty, religion, spirituality, race relations, and morality permeate the stories, with forgiveness and people’s ability to change and transform being central.
Home is a retelling of some of the same story told in Robinson’s Gilead (another amazing novel) from a different perspective. One of the reasons both novels, and especially Home, are so poignant to me is Robinson’s mastery of writing. I’ve read few authors who have such a quiet and subtle power. I think that the themes Robinson tackles are the other reason these stories struck a chord: At midlife, the idea of change is more fraught than it was in my younger days. There are seemingly fewer doors open because of the choices I have made; habits I have formed; and the limits of time, money, and energy. Yet, as a therapist, the possibility that people can change is central to my work and my ability to hold hope for my clients and for myself as I live through my own ups and downs. While the doubts and regrets of my life are not the same as those of the prodigal son, Jack, in Home and by most standards are not as troubling, they still cross (and at times haunt) my mind. I found Jack’s question in Home “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” rather heartbreaking. It brought to mind all the times I’ve struggled with things about myself that I wish were different and times I’ve tried to help and counsel others who were up against some very difficult circumstances, including their own entrenched patterns that make it hard for them to move forward. Without spoiling the end of Home for those of you who might read it, I’ll just say that for me, it was unclear at the end of the book to what degree individuals and their world were able to change, and some of the characters certainly suffered for the uncertainties of their own transformation, the transformation of others, and that of society.
Surprisingly, some of the same feelings stirred in me by Home and Gilead (which I just read in December) came up when I was recently watching Manhunt: Unabomber, an eight-episode series on the FBI’s search for the Unabomber. Manhunt is entertaining and fairly well done, but it’s no masterpiece of writing or (with the exception of Paul Bettany, who played Kaczynski) acting. Still, I felt a stab of emotion when the series took the point of view of Ted Kaczynski in his tortured struggle to live both in and apart from a world he saw as destroying people’s basic freedom and humanity. Tragically, Kaczynski chose to act on these struggles by killing innocent people. However, in the TV show when Kaczynski plaintively speculated about whether he could stop killing if he wanted to but ultimately could not, it triggered some of the same emotion I felt pondering the souls of the characters in Gilead and Home. Granted, it was hard to feel much empathy for Kaczynski given the terror and destruction he caused, but the writers of the series slyly made it easy for the viewer to identify at least to some degree with Kaczynski’s alienation and used this theme to critique our confusing and dehumanizing world.
So, where does all this pondering and emotion leave me today? It leaves me with a great deal of admiration for Marilynne Robinson’s talent and gratitude that I have the chance to be touched by these and other stories. It also leaves me continuing to ponder the ideas of morality and change. Really, these are themes that will take a lifetime to explore. Some days, I feel OK with where I’m at in my pondering. Other days, not so much. In the end, it’s the journey and the questions that make us human.