PsycCRITIQUES Spotlight

Robert Reiser on Creativity and Bipolar Disorder
PsycCRITIQUES Spotlight

October 25, 2017

The Fire Within: Robert Reiser on Creativity and Bipolar Disorder

fountain pen on top of stack of very old booksRobert Reiser critiques Kay Redfield Jamison's new book, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character

Robert Reiser is a bona fide expert on bipolar disorder, and the coauthor of the book Bipolar Disorder in the Society of Clinical Psychology (APA Division 12) series on Evidence Based Practice.

I was delighted when Dr. Reiser agreed to review Kay Redfield Jamison's biography of Robert Lowell (PDF, 38KB).

Jamison is a clinical psychologist and one of the finest writers in psychology, perhaps best known for two previous books, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament and her memoir, An Unquiet Mind. She is one of the world's leading authorities on bipolar disorder, and her expertise is both academic and personal.

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, is Jamison's most recent book.

Reiser writes,

Who in the world could be more qualified than Kay Redfield Jamison to review the life and work of Robert Lowell from a psychological perspective? It is hard to imagine a more qualified biographer of a poet whose life and work publicly reflected his struggles with bipolar disorder. It is also hard not to draw parallels between the biographer and her subject, with Jamison herself having triumphed over repeated episodes of psychotic mania and depression to heroically write one of the most comprehensive textbooks on bipolar disorder (Goodwin & Jamison, 2007). This magnificent, breathtaking encyclopedic narrative of Robert Lowell's life and work tackles profound problems of identity, character, creativity, and illness with almost hypomanic energy, and the reader is taken through a relentless, passionate, and highly engaging account.

One feature sets this biography apart from others:

...Jamison was given permission to access Lowell's medical records, and she gives us detailed accounts of his hospitalizations and treatment. This account of repeated hospitalizations typically for severe mania with psychotic features (more than 15 in his lifetime) and attempts at treatment will be of great interest to mental health practitioners. There are hard, important, and humbling lessons here in terms of recognizing the limitations of our knowledge and ability to predict the course of mental illness.

Jamison believes there is a link between Lowell's bipolar disorder and his creative genius; others aren't so sure about this connection, and the issue remains controversial. Several years ago, a query on the PsycCRITIQUES Blog noted

Seneca wrote, "There is no great genius without a tincture of madness," and William Wordsworth noted, "We poets in our youth begin in gladness, but thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Shakespeare wrote, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact." Most notably, in 1681, John Dryden wrote a phrase that is often quoted today: "Great wits are sure to madness near ally'd, and thin partitions do their bounds divide."

The blog post generated numerous spirited responses debating the relationship between mental illness and creativity.

PsycCRITIQUES readers interested in bipolar disorder, creativity, or the relationship between the two will want to read Reiser's review and, most likely, Jamison's book. They may also be interested in Shelley Carson's review of a new book (PDF, 85KB) by Gregory Feist, Roni Reiter-Palmon, and James Kaufman, The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity and Personality Research, which appeared in the September 11, 2017 release.

Note: This review is in the Clinical Psychology topic area. View more reviews in the Clinical Psychology topic area.

Read the Review


  • Carson, S. H. (2017). "They who dream by day". [Review of the book The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity and Personality Research. edited by G. J. Feist, R. Reiter-Palmon & J. C. Kaufman]. PsycCRITIQUES, 62(36).