Authors are by their very nature an intellectual bunch. Filled to the brim with stories fighting to get out; or their mind a desert, empty and fretting; searching desperately for that life sustaining thought that will kick start their writing muscles into work mode once again. So it’s no wonder that some fell foul of their own minds, after all, when one has so many characters running around in one’s head it must become increasingly difficult to keep one’s own psyche intact. To that end, here are the stories of nine authors who spent time in mental institutions, psychiatric hospitals or asylums (as per your preference).
Sylvia Plath 27/10/1932-11/02-1963
Sylvia was an American novelist, poet and short story writer, born in Boston she married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956, moved to England and had two children. She was clinically depressed for most of her adult life and was prescribed electro-convulsive shock therapy in July 1953, nevertheless by August she had attempted suicide and was admitted to McLean’s Mental Institution in Belmont. For six months she endured further electro-convulsive shock therapies and insulin shock treatments all to no avail and she famously ended her life by gassing herself with her oven, having first placed wet towels under the doors of her children’s bedrooms to keep them safe from the toxic fumes.
Paulo Coelho 24/08/1947-
Paulo is a Brazilian novelist and lyricist, his most famous novel The Alchemist has been translated into over 80 languages and has sold over 190 million copies worldwide. When researching what it meant to become a writer, the teenaged Coelho decided that a writer “Always wears glasses and never combs his hair” and “has a duty and an obligation never to be understood by his own generation,”
At 17 his refusal to follow a traditional path (I don’t know, but his father was an engineer so perhaps engineering?), his introversion and other unspecified issues led his parents to have Paulo committed to a mental institution from which he escaped on three separate occasions before finally being released at the age of 20.
Upon his release he agreed to go to law school but soon dropped out and lived a subversive hippy lifestyle resulting in his arrest in 1974. In 1986 Coelho walked the Road of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain; at over 500 miles he described the journey as a turning point in his life. He left his lucrative career as a songwriter and pursued writing as a full time career.
Anne Sexton 09/11/1928-04/10/1974
An American poet, Anne was known best for her Confessional Poetry and in 1967 won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Live or Die. She had suffered from severe mental illness almost all of her life and had several manic episodes, her first in 1954 and a second in ’55 which resulted in a stay at Glenside Hospital where a Doctor Martin Orne became her long term therapist. His methodologies and his competence were called into question after Anne’s death when it was revealed he’d used hypno-therapy, regression and Sodium Pentothal in order to recover alleged repressed memories of paternal abuse. He is said to have used suggestion during questioning and the alleged abuse Anne suffered could never be corroborated.
Anne suffered many manic and depressive episodes throughout her adult life and attempted suicide on many occasions, sadly succeeding when, after a lunch date with Maxine Kumin (close friend and critique) she put on her mother’s old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage, and started the engine of her car, committing suicide by method of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ezra Pound 30/10/1885- 01/11/1972
Outraged by the carnage of WW1, Ezra lost faith in the country of his birth, blaming international capitalism and usury for the war. He moved to Italy and became a Hitler supporter, embracing Mussolini’s fascism and writing for Oswald Mosley. He made hundreds of radio broadcasts, paid for by the Italian government during WW2, criticising the US, Jews and Franklin D. Roosevelt; resulting in his arrest and incarceration on charges of treason. He spent months in detention at a US military camp in Pisa, including three weeks in a six foot square steel box on which he blamed his breakdown.
Declared unfit to stand trial he was sent to St Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington D.C for over 12 years. His work The Pisan Cantos, which he’d partially written whilst in custody, received the Bollingen Prize in 1949 which caused enormous controversy and upon the demands of several fellow writers, the controversy was compounded when he was released in 1958, to return to Italy and live out his remaining years, unrepentant.
Zelda Fitzgerald 24/07/1900 -10/03/1948
Wife of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda was an author in her own right. A much sought after debutante, Zelda was pursued single mindedly by F. Scott after they’d met at a country club dance. She was unimpressed by both him and his inability to provide financially for her and any family they may have. Eventually he was able to prove his solvency and Zelda became Mrs Fitzgerald.
Their lives were a tangled web of jealousy, lies, opulence and acrimony, with F. Scott stealing much of his wife’s life (even private diary entries) and ascribing them to his heroines. Eventually their tempestuous relationship, F. Scott’s alcoholism and her ever growing instability led to her being diagnosed schizophrenic and being admitted to the Sheppard Pratt Sanatorium in Towsen Maryland. She moved to the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at John Hopkins University and whilst there, in 1932 she finished her semi-autobiographical novel Save me The Waltz. F.Scott was furious that she’d dared use material from their own lives for her novel and had then sent the finished manuscript to Scribners before he had chance to review it for himself.
F.Scott died 1940, his last years spent blaming Zelda for his and their daughter Scottie’s failures (Scottie was expelled) and he never saw his wife for the last two years of his life.
Sent to Highland Mental Hospital in North Carolina in 1936, Zelda died alongside eight other women during a fire at the institute in 1948.
Robert Lowell 01/03/1917- 12/09/1977
Robert Lowell is best known as a poet, born into a Boston Brahmin family who could trace their history back to the Mayflower his family, past and present were important subjects in his poetry. Growing up in Boston, he admits he was a bullying and violent child, describing himself as “thick-witted, narcissistic, thuggish” and as a teenager his friends nicknamed him Cal after Shakespeare’s Caliban and Caligula.
Lowell suffered from Manic Depression and was often hospitalised during his adult life. On multiple occasions, Lowell was admitted to Mclean Hospital, in Belmont, Massachusetts, and one of his poems refers to a stay there. Although Lowell’s manic depression was often a great burden (for himself and his family), the subject of that mental illness led to some of his most important poetry, particularly as it manifested itself in his book Life Studies. At the age of 50 he began taking Lithium to treat his mental illness and although it provided some relief it did not entirely prevent relapses and mental illness was something he had to cope with for the rest of his life.
Lowell suffered a heart attack whilst in a cab in New York City and died in September of 1977.
David Foster Wallace 21/02/1962-12/09/2008
An author of novels, short stories and essays. A Professor of English and Creative Writing David Foster is best known for his novel Infinite Jest and his Pulitzer Prize finalist, unfinished novel The Pale King.
Born in New York David was a precocious youngster, a regionally ranked tennis player, a beautiful singer and an all-round high achiever. A lover of dogs, he talked about opening a shelter and according to friends he had a predilection for un-adoptable dogs that had suffered dreadful abuse, giving them time and patience that was unsurpassed.
Foster had suffered from depression for over twenty years and been prescribed phenelzine to control his illness. When the medication’s side effects halted his ability to write, Foster attempted to self-wean and on his doctor’s advice, ceased taking it altogether. When that failed and his depression returned, Foster underwent electro-convulsive therapy alongside other therapies and eventually returned to phenelzine in order to control his depression; however it was no longer effective and despite his wife keeping an anxious eye on him, Foster hanged himself on September 12th.
Richard Brautigan 30/01/1935- ca 16/09/1984
An American novelist, poet and short story writer, known for his use of black comedy, parody and satire and his 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America. Born in Tacoma Washington Brautigan never met his biological father for almost five decades, he was brought up by his mother and her partner with Brautigan believing he was his biological father. His childhood was one of poverty and he recounted memories of his mother sifting rat droppings from flour in order to make flour and water pancakes. Aged 20 Brautigan was arrested for throwing a rock through a store window, allegedly so that he would be warm and fed over the Christmas period, instead he was committed to Oregon State Hospital after police noticed patterns of erratic behaviour. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression Richard underwent 12 separate sessions of electro-convulsive shock therapy and whilst institutionalised he began writing The Gods of the Martians which was rejected by two publishers and remains unpublished to this day (a copy was recently found with the last of these). In 1956 he was released from hospital and after a brief stay with his parents, he moved to San Francisco where he would spend most of the rest of his life.
An alcoholic, Brautigan spent most of his adult life either drunk or despairing and often mentioned suicide (according to a daughter) and in 1984, he shot himself in the head. Living alone in a large, old house, it was a month before his remains were found.
Although widely reported, the note “Messy isn’t it?” left at the scene of his suicide, is apocryphal and his daughter states no such message was ever found.
I began this blog with the thought I might find some humorous anecdotes. Temperamental writers chucking their typewriters out of hotel windows, or insisting on writing in their own blood, or excrement. Instead I found tragedy but a tragedy worth remembering. Writers pour their souls into their books, their poems and their essays. Sometimes it’s not enough, sometimes nothing is enough.