The mental illness of Lucia Joyce

James R. MERIKANGAS

Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, USA

 

The link between creative genius and mental illness has been widely discussed both in popular and scientific literature. Whereas literary talent was long believed to be a beneficial effect of schizophrenia, systematic reviews of the lives of gifted artists by numerous scholars have concluded that the bipolar affective disorder was far more strongly associated with literary, artistic and musical achievement than schizophrenia or any of the other major mental disorders. Evidence for the beneficial effects of the genetic diathesis underlying genius emerges from systematic studies of the relatives of probands with bipolar illness who demonstrate far greater artistic ability and productivity than relatives of schizophrenic patients, or the population as a whole. The increase in creativity may be attributable to fuller experience of the depths of human emotion fluctuating between the extremes of emotional despair and heightened feelings of energy and pleasure, enhanced specific abilities required for particular artistic endeavors such as verbal or musical talent, greater intuition into the human experience among those with affective disorders, as well as environmental enrichment allowing fuller development of native skills and talents.

The devastating mental illness of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, who is often acknowledged as a linguistic genius and perhaps the most influential writer of the 20th century, provides an interesting illustration of the theory that the genetic diathesis underlying affective illness may include enhanced artistic ability. Although she was diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia for most of her adult life, descriptions of her symptoms and course by historians, acquaintances and relatives, perhaps most poignantly expressed in her father's poems, suggest that she may have indeed suffered from bipolar affective disorder. Characteristic symptoms in these descriptions include recurrent episodes of increased motor and sexual activity, racing thoughts, and decreased sleep for days at a time. James Joyce himself did not appear to suffer from major mental illness as illustrated by his continuous productivity and inspiration throughout life. However, his wife Nora did report that he tended to experience recurrent minor bouts of anergia and mild depression at variable levels of clinical significance which are characteristic of relatives of individuals with bipolar affective disorder. Tragically, this family could avail themselves of the contemporary treatments that are increasingly effective in minimizing the disability of mental illness, leaving a permanent scar in the life of this great literary genius.

 

Panel 4C   (Degeneration)  (Zurich James Joyce Lecture)
Wednesday, 15 September 1999
09.00

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999