In His New Book, Johns Hopkins Psychologist John D. Gartner Delivers a Surprising Diagnosis to the Whole Country: The American Spirit is Actually a Mental Disorder
Gartner, a assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, expounds on his theory over coffee. A dark-haired prep with the happy enthusiasm of a kid about to be excused for recess, he’s clearly jazzed about his thesis—namely, that all Americans are reaping both the benefits and detriments of our ancestors’ hypomanic frenzy.
“Americans work more than other people, which has been documented,” Gartner says. “They say, ‘Oh, it’s the Protestant work ethic’ or ‘the Puritan work ethic.’ Well, first of all, not everyone in America is a Protestant. Very few people in America are in any way connected to the Puritans. But we have this drive. What I think it is, is a biological component. We have inherited these genes, these restless, energetic genes.”
As he puts it in The Hypomanic Edge’s introduction, “Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial and religious zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism, and arrogance—these traits have long been attributed to an ‘American character.’ But given how closely they overlap with the hypomanic profile, they might be better understood as expressions of an American temperament, shaped in large part by our rich concentration of hypomanic genes.”
According to Gartner’s book, most studies show there are more bipolar people in the United States than anywhere else. (Conversely, the nations with the lowest numbers of immigrants, like Japan, have the least bipolar populations.) Gartner’s hypothesis is that the wide-open American frontier was an open casting call for the world’s hypomanics, a self-selected experiment to weed the cautious from the daring.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, don’t people immigrate because they’re desperate?’” Gartner says. “Of course . . . but they didn’t all come. [There’s] a difference between people who make this momentous choice to immigrate vs. those who don’t. It takes a certain amount of energy. It takes a certain amount of risk tolerance. It maybe takes even a certain amount of confidence. . . . In fact, if you were a little more sober, and reasonable, and cautious, or less energized, you might not make that decision.”
Plus, he adds, it helps if you’ve got an indefatigable restlessness, which hypomanics do. Hypomanics have more drive, more energy, more confidence, and more impulsivity than the average person, Gartner claims, above that of a coffee drinker, but just barely below a motivational speaker on crystal meth. They’re always in a hurry, they spend more money, they’re convinced of the excellence of their ideas, and they don’t think about consequences. As he describes it, “These are people who ‘just do it’ all the time. They don’t need Nike to tell them to just do it. They’ll just do it whether you like it or not.”
Since bipolar disorder is one of the most inheritable mental illnesses—some studies cite a retention rate to the next generation up to 75 percent—Gartner posits that the American experiment paved the way for the most manic population on the planet, a tireless group of imaginative self-starters with unfailing optimism, a near-psychotic attraction to work, an inexhaustible appetite to consume, and an inability to think before acting or stop once we’ve started. As Gartner puts it, “If America were a person, we would say he was hypomanic.”
As a means to illustrating this tendency, Gartner pored over American history for larger-than-life figures whose accomplishments were inexorably linked to other, less constructive tendencies—like Alexander Hamilton’s sexual promiscuity, or Hollywood producer David Selznick’s abusive, contradictory stream-of-consciousness novellas masquerading as business memos. He took these behavioral markers as clues pointing to more-than-normal ambition or drive, marking them as likely hypomanics. After narrowing down his subjects from 25 to six (“There were a lot of American hypomanics to choose from,” he says with a laugh), he wrote psychological profiles of each. Since all but one of his subjects (human genome safecracker Craig Venter) were deceased, he relied for research on historical texts, expert biographers’ opinions, and oral histories of people who knew his subjects. These portraits provide a snapshot of America at the beginning of each century, a different phase of our national evolution embodied by one hypomanic figure after another at the center of change.
Take Christopher Columbus. Anyone who passed third grade knows Columbus as the explorer who proved the earth is round. But the sordid details about Columbus’ mental state are not common knowledge, and nor were they to Gartner. Only after doing his research did he discover that Columbus—like most of the other examples in his book—was, shall we say, a piece of work. His motivation to sail the globe was less inspired by scientific inquiry as it was by megalomaniacism, Gartner says. Columbus believed he was the Messiah, and it was his destiny to raid the New World for massive amounts of gold that would bankroll a new crusade and retake the Holy Land. He penned a book citing 82 biblical prophecies that he believed he had personally fulfilled, proving that he was God’s specially appointed agent destined to spark the Apocalypse and usher in heaven on earth. Gartner points to this as proof of his hypomanic tendencies, describing his ideas as “crystallized into an elaborate messianic delusional system.”
But is that fair, to peg someone as delusional, when the culture around them supports such religious fervor?
“We don’t really know,” points out Carl W. Lejuez, assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s clinical psychology department. “Is it their symptom profile, or did their environment make their symptom profile? With anything, it’s most prudent to consider the gene-environment interactions.”
Desiring to conquer nations for the glory of God might sound reasonable in Inquisition-era Spain, in other words, but less so in Glen Burnie today. Lejuez admits that Gartner’s theory sounds intriguing, but he stresses how debilitating bipolar disorder can be at the far reaches of its broad and shaded continuum—a sentiment that Gartner echoes.
“Oftentimes for the individual [bipolar disorder can be] very destructive,” he cautions. “It’s sort of a crapshoot. It’s like, yes, maybe you’ll be Craig Venter and discover the human genome. Or maybe you’ll just be some grandiose drunk.”
If this assessment seems a bit cavalier, you might find Gartner to be entitled to his opinion. His impetus to write this book was personal, he says, because he’s bipolar himself and understands its bittersweet gifts. Growing up, he says he realized being bipolar “was almost a little like being Spider-Man. In the sense that Spider-Man was this figure who was sort of alienated and a little depressed and alone and misunderstood, but he had this secret power.”
Like deaf people who have declared their condition the foundation of a new, separate culture, Gartner would like to see bipolar people less thought of as suffering from mental illness and more as uniquely gifted—of course, in their sometimes self-destructive and larger-than-life way. And with his book, Gartner argues that the condition and the culture are, in fact, one in the same.
“If you have odd or creative ideas, and you put them into forceful action without reflection, there’s a very high probability that you’re going to get hurt,” Gartner says with a grin. “But there’s a small probability that you’ll discover America.”
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