Geniuses Who Quit

By Temma Ehrenfeld 11/02/16

“Most of us can’t write like our heroes, but nearly every one of us can try to drink like them.”

Geniuses Who Quit
You're probably not actually the next Dostoyevsky, but like him, you can still quit.

Many an American high school contains a crowd of tortured geniuses who like to disable their superior brains. “Tortured geniuses”—just to be clear—believe that they’re especially intelligent, creative and open, and that those qualities make them more likely to suffer. When they do heroin, they see themselves in an elite club with Kurt Cobain. Sadly, this adolescent idea can persist into adulthood.

There are, in fact, studies linking high “IQ” to drug use. “IQ,” which I’ll define loosely as analytical problem-solving, isn’t the same as “EQ,” or maturity, which has to do with managing emotions. I don’t see much research on how analytical ability plays into recovery, though emotional self-management is clearly required. Talent of all kinds ought to feed drive as well as arrogance, and some of the most talented people do go clean, if only in spells, to produce. Addiction doesn’t make you a genius. That said, if you like identifying with a genius, pick a genius who quit. Among many examples, here are four writers who broke free.

Dostoyevsky’s novels are known for their precise portrayal of extreme psychological states. He himself began overspending in his twenties, and accumulated devastating debt. When he first played roulette at the age of 40, he scored the equivalent of $2,000. Roulette is a game of pure chance, yet Dostoevsky believed he had a foolproof betting system—a chilling example of how compulsion can darken intelligence, a genius thinking just like any addict.

His gambling sank him further into debt over the next five years. In a high-stakes wager, Dostoyevsky bet with a publisher that he would complete a new novel within 30 days, or else give up all the publishing rights of all of his past and future works. In one month in 1866, he wrote The Gambler, demonstrating his close observation of the problem.

The details of The Gambler apply to other addictions as well. Craving is triggered by associations: “Even on my way to the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the clink of the scattered money I almost go into convulsions.” Using is a temporary ego boost: “The same evening I went to roulette. Oh how my heart beat! No, it was not money that I wanted. All that I wanted then was that next day all these … magnificent Baden ladies—that they might be all talking about me, repeating my story, wondering at me, admiring me, praising me, and doing homage to my new success.” Risk-taking is tied to rebellion: “At that point I ought to have gone away, but a strange sensation rose up in me, a sort of defiance of fate, a desire to challenge it, to put out my tongue at it.” Bad consequences apply only to others: “And why should gambling be worse than any other means of making money—for instance, commerce? It is true that only one out of a hundred wins, but what is that to me?”

It may seem that Dostoyevsky merely recorded his own crazy thinking, but the author clearly sees the trouble. He has another character tell his gambling hero, “You have not only given up life, all your interests, private and public, the duties of a man and a citizen, your friends (and you really had friends)—you have not only given up your objects, such as they were, all but gambling—you have even given up your memories.”

Writing the book wasn’t an immediate cure. But he married the adoring young woman who had come to work with him on the novel as an amanuensis. Soon after their marriage, he wrote her sad, guilty letters further describing his compulsion. About four years later, in what sounds like the classic “hitting bottom,” after a bout of nightmares and fears of losing Anna, he gave up gambling for good, and lived another decade. Surely his insight helped him escape.

Sigmund Freud, a story-teller as well as a scientist, undeniably had a huge imagination. In 1884, he proposed cocaine as a cure for morphine addiction, in one of the first papers to suggest substituting one drug for another.

In that paper, he describes swallowing cocaine about 12 times to study the effects, without experiencing a craving after the experiments were over. He reported short-lived exhilaration, losing interest in food and sleep, and an increase in a feeling of self-control and vigor, but well within “normal.” Essentially, he described his small dose of oral coke as a fast acting and powerful anti-depressant.

Freud appreciated the way coke made him talk freely, and, according to medical historian Howard Markel, his interest in free association in therapy may have been inspired by coked-up monologues. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud describes a guilty dream of his own, prompted by a disastrous operation in which he nearly killed a patient. At the time, he was depressed, suffering from chest pain and needed surgery to open up his congested nose.

The day after his father’s funeral in 1896, Freud declared that he would no longer use cocaine, apparently frightened off by the close call with his patient. His infatuation with cocaine had lasted 12 years.

By now, we’ve heard of many drugs lauded as miracle cures, followed by disillusioning revelations about their limitations. But at the time, the very idea of a miracle drug was also new. I like to think that Freud’s imagination helped him make the switch, re-imagining the miracle cure as a danger.

Eugene O’Neill’s understanding of alcoholism pervades his last four complete plays, including the most famous, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The son of a continuous alcoholic, he began drinking hard young, getting himself suspended from Princeton when he threw a beer bottle through the president’s window. 

At the age of 37, he volunteered to participate in a study of human sexuality. After six weeks of sessions with a psychoanalyst who told him that he drank to solve “oedipal issues” (the theory that we’re all wracked with guilt because we want to have sex with the parent of the opposite gender), O’Neill quit drinking. He didn’t relapse for nearly 30 years, but may have returned to alcohol near the end of his life when he was struggling to write despite a debilitating Parkinson’s-like disease.

But unlike his father, from the beginning of his career, O’Neill would sober up periodically in order to write.

Beating any addiction is an achievement. To American short-story writer Raymond Carver, six years after he quit drinking in 1977, it was the most significant. “If you want the truth, I'm prouder of that, that I've quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life. I'm a recovered alcoholic. I'll always be an alcoholic, but I'm no longer a practicing alcoholic,” he told the Paris Review. He flatly denies that alcohol ever inspired him, or even that writers drink more than “any other group of professionals.”

Carver had four spells in a hospital or recovery center in his last drinking year. He turned to alcohol when disappointed in his life. Drinking interfered with writing. He and John Cheever, another famous drunk who quit, binged together while teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They managed to conduct classes—and otherwise drank. “I don't think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters. We made trips to a liquor store twice a week in my car,” Carver said. “I was dying from it, plain and simple, and I'm not exaggerating.” But in the spring of 1977, he began going to AA meetings once and sometimes twice a day for a month, and he pulled out of the pit.

Cheever also left Iowa and went dry. Why do we hear so much more about their drinking than their turn-around? 

The addiction story of a writer who wasn’t a genius makes the point a different way. For years, my parents rented a house on a lake in Vermont named “Lost Weekend.” I used to wonder if the owners had actually read the depressing 1944 book of that name, or seen the movie. It describes a 33-year-old wandering drunkenly around New York City looking for money to buy more alcohol. He begs a stranger for a loan, tries to steal a purse, and carries his typewriter for several miles looking for an open pawn shop only to realize that they are all closed. In one weekend, he has hangovers, tremors, hallucinations, and falls down the stairs, landing overnight in a hospital. Not quite a respite at a lake.

The writer-hero of The Lost Weekend is in a spell of drinking rather than writing. Many people noted that the author, Charles Jackson, had to go sober before he could write the book that made his career. He became a model of recovery, the man who told the truth about alcohol and writing.

But Jackson began drinking again, and his new dark period included several hospitalizations. In 1953, newly clean, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and became a tireless speaker about alcoholism. Eventually he confessed switching alcohol for Seconal. The drug killed him while he was writing a sequel to The Lost Weekend. According to one biographer, the underlying problem was his hidden attraction to men, and Jackson died soon after he become estranged from his wife and children and began living with a male lover.

It’s worth listening to his most famous 1959 speech. Over and over, Jackson attributes his lapses to arrogance, the belief that he was smarter than other people. He called himself “too self-absorbed, too self-infatuated,” and credits Alcohol Anonymous for helping him get “outside myself.” Along the way, he needed to make sure his speeches weren’t another way to show off, but to help people. The cures he sought were humility and love.

The glamor around alcoholic writers and junkie musicians is similar in spirit, though alcohol isn’t a rebel drug. Aspirants long for a short cut. As New Yorker writer Ian Crouch puts it, “Most of us can’t write like our heroes, but nearly every one of us can try to drink like them.” (Personally, I’m not even tempted to drink like them.)

Crouch goes on to say that the drug doesn’t do the work: “It is a poor tribute if Dorothy Parker’s wit, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholy, or John Cheever’s despair comes to be seen, finally, having emerged, already fermented, out of a bottle. Great writing, even from the legendary drinkers, was most surely done in spite of drinking rather than because of it; nearly all great writing is done in the light of sobriety.“

Arrogance is a consolation prize that never satisfies. The people who accomplish the most, in my experience, are humbled by the work they see needs to be done. 

Temma Ehrenfeld blogs at Psychology Today and has written for The New York Times, Reuters, Fortune, WebMD, Dr. Oz, The Weekly Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bottom Line Health, and others. Reach her through her website.

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Temma Ehrenfeld covers health and psychology. You can see more of her work at her website and follow her blog at Psychology Today. You can also find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.