Friday, April 14, 2017

Q&A with Claudia Kalb

Claudia Kalb, photo by Hilmar Meyer-Bosse
Claudia Kalb is the author of Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History's Great Personalities. She was a senior writer for Newsweek for many years, and her work has also appeared in Smithsonian and Scientific American. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Q: How did you select the 12 people you profile in your book?

A: It was both an exciting and challenging process. I looked for a compelling mix of individuals whose talents and livelihoods varied, and who inhabited a wide swath of history.

Among the 12, there is a president (Lincoln), a scientist (Darwin), a Russian novelist (Dostoevsky), an artist (Warhol), a composer (Gershwin), an actress (Marilyn Monroe), and a British princess (Diana).

I also sought cases in which there was ample autobiographical and biographical material about the person, as well as reliable medical studies and expert analysis of behaviors and mental health conditions.

Q: You start the book with Marilyn Monroe. Why did you choose her as the focus of the first chapter, and what do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about her?

A: I wrote the chapters without a specific lineup in mind. Once they were complete, I arranged them in a way that made sense in terms of narrative flow.

Monroe was a natural opener. She continues to captivate people more than 50 years after her death. She was Hollywood’s glamour girl. She had the look, the lure—that mysterious quality that draws people in. She also appears briefly in later chapters, so it also made logical sense to place her first.

There are so many common perceptions and misperceptions about Marilyn Monroe. That things came easy, that she was empty-headed, that she was manufactured by Hollywood.

The reality is that Monroe struggled with deep feelings of emptiness, loneliness and vulnerability. Insecure about her intellect, she took art classes and collected books by Dostoevsky and Hemingway.

People who knew her well talked about her innocence. She talked about the burden of fame. Her life was a struggle—and often a very painful one—from start to finish.

Q: Why was Andy Warhol selected as the person to include in the title, and what did you learn about him that particularly surprised you?

A: Warhol and hoarding jumped out as a winning title combination. Like Monroe, Warhol is a cultural icon who will always fascinate the public. And hoarding, for its part, has become a cultural spectacle through reality TV. It’s also a condition many people can relate to.

Hoarding has also earned new status in the psychiatric world. Formerly viewed as a subtype or symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, “hoarding disorder” earned stand-alone status as a new diagnosis in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in 2013.

Warhol surprised me in so many ways. I had no idea that he was such a rabid collector of low-end and high-end items—from five-and-dime junk to artwork by Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein.

His 610 time capsules, filled with everything from junk mail to photographs, pizza dough, and even overdue invoices from the surgeon who saved his life after he was shot in 1968, are astounding. And yet he yearned for clean space.

I’m very familiar with Warhol’s famous pieces (the celebrity portraits, the Campbell’s Soup Cans), but one of my most delightful discoveries was his earlier art, which he created for fashion magazines in the 1950s. I fell in love with the artist’s colorful and whimsical illustrations of shoes!

Q: Of all the people you researched, were there some that you developed a particular fondness for? What about a particular dislike?

A: I was particularly drawn to Charles Darwin, who struggled with headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and more while writing On the Origin of Species. I sympathized with his struggles—including the difficult task of writing—and I admired his ethical character.

I was also enormously impressed with Betty Ford’s forthrightness about her battle with addiction. Here was a first lady who fought her way through rehab and then went on to help thousands of people recognize and address their own substance use disorders. She was remarkable.

I struggled most with liking Frank Lloyd Wright’s narcissistic traits—his overwhelming sense of entitlement and superiority. I have huge admiration for his aesthetic vision and architectural creations, but not the way he treated other people.

Q: Are there any figures you considered writing about but rejected? 

A: Yes, I considered quite a number of individuals who didn’t make it into the book, often because I felt that the combination of science, biographical material and expert opinion was not strong enough.

In other cases, I simply had to make a choice. Many famous people have struggled with depression, for example, but Lincoln stood out for so many reasons: his childhood, his presidency, his gift for storytelling and humor amidst the melancholy. Above all, there was so much rich material to mine about his life.

There are other individuals who didn’t make it in, but continue to fascinate me. I’m intrigued by Vincent van Gogh, for example, because there’s such conflicting information about what ailed him. Was it bipolar? Schizophrenia? Maybe syphilis?

Just a few months ago, a group of experts meeting at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam held a very lively debate about this very subject. They concluded that the artist suffered from psychosis, though they could not agree on the underlying cause of his mental illness—further evidence that mental health conditions can be so complex and difficult to diagnose.

Q: Looking at Abraham Lincoln, so much has been written about him. How did you research your Lincoln chapter, and what did you find that especially surprised you?

A: Much has been written about Lincoln’s dark state of mind, the sadness of his face, the melancholy that “dripped from him as he walked,” as his law partner, William Herndon recalled.

I read biographies, newspaper and magazine stories, and medical studies. I interviewed mental health experts who specialize in depression and I delved into historical documents, including reminiscences from Herndon and Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who worked as Mary Lincoln’s assistant and dressmaker.

I especially loved reading the work of the great muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, who wrote extensively about Lincoln for McClure’s magazine in the late 1800s.

Ultimately, I was most surprised by the depth of Lincoln’s suffering during the depressive episodes he experienced in early adulthood. As one of his contemporaries described it, “he became plunged in despair” and even contemplated suicide.

Q: Another person you examine is Christine Jorgensen. Why did you decide to include her, and what did you learn about her life?

A: Transgender issues have leapt into the headlines as individuals have gone public with their stories and their battles for human rights. I wanted to write about the history of transgender men and women through a personal story.

Christine Jorgensen, the first widely known transgender individual in the United States, was the ideal choice. There was ample material to draw from, including Jorgensen’s own autobiography, medical reports published by her doctors, and newspaper and magazine accounts of her life.

As I researched her story, Jorgensen’s bravery and persistence stood out. Her journey began in the 1930s, when there was little to no appreciation of transgender issues. With few resources and little support early on, Jorgensen managed to seek treatment and successfully transition to her new life—one that was fulfilling, even with its challenges.

I was struck, ultimately, by Jorgensen’s honesty. Accused of masquerading as a woman, she responded that “the real masquerade would have been to continue in my former state…I found the oldest gift of heaven—to be myself.”

Q: How have readers responded to the book?

A: I’ve received wonderful feedback from readers both in the U.S. and abroad.

Mental health experts tell me they’re using the book to better understand their patients and the mental health conditions they treat.

One high school counselor wrote to say that the book changed her views on clinical depression. She’s using material from the Lincoln chapter to counsel students who are depressed. Her goal: to show them how much potential each person has and to help them see the full value of their lives.

Readers have also found solace in these stories. Knowing that they are not alone in their struggles with ADHD, OCD, anxiety or any other mental health condition is reassuring. One young woman said that reading about Marilyn Monroe led her to seek therapy for the first time so that her own symptoms don’t worsen.

I’m profoundly grateful that this book has not only appealed to readers, but also enriched their lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at that wonderful stage where I get to emerge from the writing cave and set the book free into the hands of readers. I’m sifting through material that I couldn’t fit into the book and shaping some of it into pieces that I hope to publish. I’m thinking about next writing assignments, next books, next adventures.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My goal in writing this book was to put a face on the complexities of the mind. I unraveled hypotheses put forth by medical experts based on the best evidence available.

In certain cases, the individuals spoke openly about their own diagnoses—Betty Ford and addiction; Princess Diana and bulimia nervosa. In others, including both Einstein and Darwin, I intentionally left room for questions. Even with wonderful advances in science, the brain is still a mystery in so many ways.

My overarching hope is that this book will help chip away at stigma by humanizing the mental health conditions that affect so many people.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Claudia Kalb is my cousin! She will be speaking at the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22, 2017. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

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