J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Betsy Ross and the Historiography of Bipolar Disorder

On Tuesday I caught Prof. Marla R. Miller at the American Antiquarian Society speaking about her biography Betsy Ross. I know Marla from the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife [now seeking papers on “New England in the Civil War”], but I hadn’t heard her lecture for a while. She’s a really good speaker, offering lots of content in a personable way.

Marla spoke in detail about the challenges of writing about Betsy Ross: cutting through the legends, and building up a portrait from family experiences to make up for lack of direct sources. Academics have largely dismissed Ross as (a) famous only because of a total myth which (b) reflects a retrograde, sentimental image of women in the 1700s. So picking her as a topic brings the risk of being perceived as a less than serious scholar. On the other hand, members of the public most eager to read about Betsy Ross might also be least interested in dispelling their illusions about her.

Toward the end of her talk, Marla mentioned that she had made a personal choice to note hints of how some of Ross’s relatives experienced mental illnesses. That topic also intrigues me—not that I’m drawn to study insanity or its treatment in history (which sounds dreary). But I keep my eyes open for evidence of psychiatric conditions, considering them part of human life in any era. And I may be a little bolder than academic historians in suggesting that modern diagnoses such as Asperger syndrome might apply.

By the U.S. Civil War, people had started to use the word “depressed” as we understand it today, so it’s not an anachronism for that period. Furthermore, psychiatrists have found that bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder and schizophrenia occur across many populations at about the same rate, suggesting they’re rooted in human biology, not particular human cultures. We don’t discuss smallpox today without drawing on modern virology, so should we rule out well established brain science in discussing episodes of insanity or eccentricity?

Nevertheless, writers coming from outside the academy seem to be most open to applying modern psychiatric labels. A couple of years ago I attended an Organization of American Historians panel that included a discussion of whether Gen. William T. Sherman was manic-depressive. Though Prof. Michael Fellman had considered that possibility while writing his biography of Sherman, he didn’t feel up to raising it explicitly. It took Mount Auburn psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi to read Fellman’s book and propose the possibility in an article.

Similarly, a National Park Service ranger, Jason Emerson, wrote the first book to suggest that Abraham Lincoln’s wife suffered from bipolar disorder: The Madness of Mary Lincoln (reviewed here on H-Net). Matthew Karp’s H-Net review of a collection of essays on John Brown titled Terrible Swift Sword says:

Probably the two most provocative and memorable essays…come from the scholars working farthest afield from history. Kenneth R. Carroll, a practicing clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania, uses a variety of remote psychological tests to “diagnose” Brown with bipolar disorder.

For Carroll, Brown’s family history of mental illness, his checkered personal life and business career, and the primary-source testimony of friends and neighbors exhibit a “remarkable consistency” that forms “a coherent picture” (p. 125). Brown’s grandiosity, mania, and “relentless drive toward self-aggrandizement” fit modern psychology’s standard diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder (p. 128).

Carroll argues that the diagnosis is clinched by his study, in which three John Brown experts completed “an objective psychological test, as if responding on behalf of John Brown.” The composite results yield a computer-generated “Interpretive Report” that suggests that “the possibility of a Bipolar Affective Disorder” should be evaluated (pp. 132-134).

Carroll’s diagnosis is hardly conclusive, of course, but he, along with [editors] Russo and Finkelman, are to be commended for their creative approach to the question of Brown’s mental state. His essay, at the very least, should provide the basis for a larger argument about the possibility of Brown being bipolar—a debate that can and should be joined by historians and psychologists alike.
There’s far less evidence about Betsy Ross’s family than about Sherman, Lincoln, or Brown. But what there is suggests that she had to worry about the mental health of certain relations, and perhaps about the possibility of becoming mentally ill herself—again, a part of life.

Betsy Ross is a big book and so far I’ve read bits, but now I’m even more eager to be able to sit and read it all the way through.


Caleb McDaniel said...

Robert McGlone's new biography of John Brown also delves into this issue of how and whether historians should apply diagnostic categories to past actors. If you're interested in that question, you'd probably enjoy his discussion, though ultimately McGlone eschews the ability to make definite diagnoses.

George Lovely said...

While I wasn't completely satisfied with Jill Lapore's recent "The Whites of Their Eyes", it does offer some interesting references to the apparent strain of mental illness that affected Franklin's brother-in-law and nephew, particularly the insight into the sadly inadequate options for coping with it, options that have only improved significantly in the past 30 years.

AD said...

Psychologists do not make diagnoses about living persons that they have not met and examined at length. For historians to make diagnoses about the deceased seems, well, odd. It also strikes me as a rather pointless endeavor. What is gained by concluding that Mr. X had, say, bipolar disorder? Doesn't that simply entail sticking a label onto a set of eccentric behaviors? The label may be evocative, but I don't see that it adds much to one's understanding of Mr. X. Worth keeping in mind is that for most forms of mental illness, the individual with the condition behaves quite normally most of the time and in most situations. Thus, knowing that Mr. X behaved oddly in one instance hardly means we can say with any certainty how he behaved in some other instance.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there are both intellectual and ethical problems with suggesting a diagnosis for a person one hasn’t examined and can never examine. But historians already make many judgments about what remote historical figures were thinking. Using the available evidence, they make their best guesses about motivations, priorities, and desires. They analyze how individuals get along (or don’t), and why people’s behavior changes in ways that don’t seem to serve their best interests.

What’s the value of suggesting a psychological condition rather than simply describing the behavior? Let’s take the choices of Massachusetts attorney general Jonathan Sewall in 1770. He did little on the Boston Massacre cases. He offered no explanation of his choice; he just stayed home.

Some authors state that Sewall refused to prosecute as a matter of principle. I posit that he entered a depressive period—possibly related to or exacerbated by the pressure of the Massacre cases, but produced at least as much by brain chemistry as by politics. (Sewall went through other periods of inactivity, and suffered a long, serious depression later in life, as did one of his sons.) Obviously, there’s a big difference between those two interpretations of Sewall’s known behavior in 1770.

Without considering the possibility of bipolar disorder, we might be limiting our ability to understand Sewall. Granted, an easy or erroneous label could also get in the way of understanding.