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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness:


I just don't know what to make of this book. It's interesting and filled with all sorts of delectable detail, but as far as the major premise goes, I remain skeptical. The author's assumption is that because melancholy and depression change your focus on how you see the world and because Lincoln suffered from what seems to be perpetual gloom, that this enabled him to become the great man he became, moving through stages of fear and on to insight and creativity. Well, maybe.I have to admit that my crap detector went into overdrive on several occasions while reading this book.

Frankly, given the multiple tragedies in Lincoln's life he had every reason to be gloomy. Death was an ever present reality. (More on the barbaric medical practices of the time later.) Secondly, the 19th century seems to wallow in gloom. Just read some of Hawthorne, Poe, and others of the early 19th and you'll feel gloomy by osmosis.

Now for some of the really juicier and fun parts of this book. I laughed out loud at the passages on studies on depression and the realization that "happiness" is really a mental disorder: "Abramson and Alloy termed the benefit that depressed people showed in the experiment the "Depressive Realism" or the "Sadder but Wiser" effect. . . For example, one standard definition of mental health is the ability to maintain close and accurate contact with reality. . .But research shows that by this definition, happiness itself should be considered a mental disorder." (Priceless) "In fact,'much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events." The lesson? Get Gloomy, folks. Happiness psychologist Richard Bentall suggested (only half-facetiously) should be classified as a psychiatric disorder: "major affective disorder (pleasant type.)"

Lincoln's "hypochondriasis" as it was known was treated in his day according to Dr. Benjamin Rush's Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, the stand text. This included "drastic interferences" with the body. Starting by bleeding (usually 12.5 pints in two months - we are really talking about a total flush here), then "blistering" by applying "small heated cups at the temples, behind the ears, and at the nape of the neck." Of course, leeches could also be used. Next, drugs were given to induce vomiting and diarrhea, all the while, requiring that the patients fast, Rush noting that elephant tamers make their charges more docile by starving them. Following this regimen was a diet of stimulants including quinine and black pepper in large doses. Mercury was used to purge the stomach (also arsenic and strychnine. Of course, mercury also causes depression, anxiety and irritability.) Green stools were a positive sign, indicating the "black bile" cause of the illness was leaving. Apparently the more the patient suffered the better as it was evidence the body was being cleaned out. Whether Lincoln underwent all of these treatments is unclear, although we know that Dr. Henry, his physician was an advocate of Rush's treatments.

Shenck appears to approve of Nietzsche's (and probably Frankel would approve, too) remark "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Well, maybe.

Occasionally, I felt that the author might have done better to write a long journal article to make his point. Long digressions on the Missouri Compromise and other historical niceties while fascinating (and they were, I really enjoyed his lucid presentations of all sorts of historical facts) seemed unnecessary to his thesis. BUT, I really did enjoy the read and would recommend it.



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