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Hemingway, the FBI, Paranoia, & the Concept of “Mental Illness”

A recent New York Times article revealed that Ernest Hemingway spent the last year of his life fearing that the FBI was after him, snooping into details of his life…..and they really were doing that. But, as in many cases, they weren’t doing as much as he suspected they were; he even ended up suspecting close friends of being against him, which of course drove the friends away, leaving him more depressed and alone.

Someone I know, reacting to the story, wondered how much of Hemingway’s fears were due to the FBI being actually after him, and how much due to “mental illness.” I didn’t think that was a helpful way to try to understand what happened, and I wrote the following in response:

I think one reason a lot of people don’t like the term “mental illness” is the way it obscures the way people’s behavior can often be an understandable reaction to difficult life events.

If we look at Hemingway in terms of “mental illness” we would say that the “mental illness” made him be overly suspicious of his friends and of random strangers. If we think of “mental illness” as being the cause, we might think less about the role the FBI played, or less about how some of Hemingway’s personal strengths might have actually led him to be more vulnerable in some ways to the paranoia that engulfed him – for example if he had been less vigilant to start out with, and so have missed seeing that someone seemed to be “after” him, then he might never have nurtured the suspicions that grew into paranoia.

If we look at it in terms of life story, we might say that various life stresses, including the FBI secretly intruding into his life, created some challenges for him, and he made some mistakes in the way he reacted to them, tipping him into a state of being overly suspicious etc. In this case we have an interaction between a talented if imperfect human being and some difficult circumstances, with “mental illness” playing no causal role.

Of course, some would still say that while there perhaps was no “biological mental illness” that caused the problem in the first place, that Hemingway became mentally ill as a result of what happened and then the mental illness was a cause of future events that occurred. Certainly it is true that once a person starts experiencing things and reacting in a problematic way, that style of thinking and reacting then influences the future, but I think the danger of calling this all a “mental illness” is that it makes it easy to forget that the thoughts and reactions emerged out of a history of events, and that the problematic pattern of thinking and reacting could again change given the right sequence of corrective events. “Illness” is just not a great metaphor to describe these patterns and possibilities.

Overall, I am opposed to using the term “illness” for mental and emotional difficulties that cannot be diagnosed by physical tests. I think this typically results in over-simplification of the issues and over-privileges medical approaches.

4 comments… add one
  • Well, as the expression goes, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get me!” This seems to be appropriate in Hemmingway’s case.

  • That’s not true schizophrenia. True Schizophrenia is when a person correlates disparate events and facts, and ties them into a story or pattern of which only they can see the logic. Hemmingway may have been paranoid, depressed, and otherwise out of his mind, but unless he was spouting gibberish and postulating theories that only he understood, then he was not schizophrenic.

    To this end this article is misleading, and that’s putting it mildly.

    • I’m not sure how “Ghost of Hemmingway” read the above post to be suggesting that Hemingway was diagnosed with “schizophrenia,” since it didn’t make that claim, as I doubt he fit the pattern to get that label.

      Also, readers might want to note there are a variety of ways to end up with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia” based on DSM criteria, and not just the sort of pattern “Ghost” refers to.

    • This is really interesting! If spouting gibberish and postulating theories that can’t be understood other than by the person who spouts the gibberish and postulates the theories are what justifies a label of “schizophrenia”, then “schizophrenia” indeed doesn’t exist.