• Review: A First-Rate Madness

    January 19, 2015

    first rateI’m not finished yet, but I’m so enthusiastic about what I’ve read so far, that I wanted to go ahead and recommend A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

    According to the publisher’s description, the book argues that,

    “… The very qualities that mark those with mood disorders—creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis.”

    To make his case, Nassir brings to bear biographies of some of history’s most important and effectual leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. His chapter on Lincoln is fascinating. I knew ol’ Abe had struggled; I had no idea how much. Nassir quotes Lincoln:

    “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

    Nassir beautifully illustrates how Lincoln’s pain may have been the very thing that provided him with the necessary realism and empathy to successfully lead a fractured country through a brutal Civil War.

    It almost doesn’t matter whether Nassir’s main thesis is correct, that a little crazy in our leaders may be better than none. Readers who know the pain of a severe mood disorder will find plenty of solace and, I think, profound hope in the life stories told here: what if our suffering will in some way make us better, and better for the world, than if we’d been well?

    Readers without mental illness may walk away wishing they had a touch! And they’ll certainly walk away better understanding and appreciating the many among us who have struggled this way. A First-Rate Madness offers one of the best symptomatic descriptions of depression and mania I’ve ever read and explains why these maladies are so much more than simply elevated sadness or happiness. I remember writing my own book on depression, Losing God, and thinking, “How in the world do I describe this for people who’ve never felt it?” Nassir finds a way over and over again. Quoting a patient of his, Nassir says,

    “Depression is a terrifying experience … knowing that somebody is going to kill you, and that person is you.”

    I highly recommend this book, both for those who just want to understand mental illness better, and for those who understand it all too well.


    Posted in: Book Reviews, General

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