Autumn Phillips: Unstable creativity |

Autumn Phillips: Unstable creativity

Autumn Phillips

Why do all the people I admire die in insane asylums?

That’s how I began my journal that year. And it was mostly true.

Most of my heroes are writers and most of them went crazy.

Antonin Artaud, the surrealist playwright, spent years in the asylum suffering from hallucinations.

Zelda Fitzgerald, who some credit as the true author of her husband’s books, died in an asylum fire in 1948.

Ernest Hemingway was paralyzed by paranoia in the last years of his life before committing suicide. He called depression “The Artist’s Reward.”

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Some of Vincent Van Gogh’s most interesting work was painted in an insane asylum. Treatment never helped him, and he spent the last years of his life battling psychotic episodes. He died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds at the age of 37.

Jackson Pollack, Robert Schumann, Emily Dickinson.

The list would never end, if I kept thinking about it.

And I have been for too many days now, ever since the body of writer/performer Spalding Gray was pulled from the East River.

Since then, I’ve thought about the link that ties creativity to psychological instability.

I’ve thought about Spalding Gray’s visit to Steamboat Springs last winter. I’ve torn that week apart, shredding moments. Repeating things he said.


We expect it of them, our artists. From the creative people of this world, we accept eccentricity, depression, addiction and self-destructive behavior. We idealize these things. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen it. From these encounters, I’ve come to see angst wallowing as an affectation of the struggling artist. Contrived.

And that’s why I was annoyed that day when I walked into Spalding Gray’s hotel room and saw him sitting in the dark, in his bathrobe, moody as hell.

Everyone in the room was uncomfortable — his wife, his children, the guy from Colorado Springs who had organized his trip to Steamboat. And me.

He was in Steamboat to perform his latest monologue, and I was there to write about him. More than ever, I was the psychologist with my notepad. He told me all his problems. His depression and anger at the drunken driver who ruined his life three years ago. His was not a “triumph of the human spirit” story.

Meeting him this way was such a disappointment to me. I’d admired his writing for years, and all I saw in that hotel room was a man who wanted to die.

I didn’t reach out to help him. I didn’t go to his performance. I didn’t want to see him again.

But as I was leaving his hotel room, I stopped at the door and invited him for a beer at the Old Town Pub the next night. I’m not sure why.

Not in a million years, did I think he would show up.

But the next night, he was there. We stood at the bar and didn’t say much. That day, I’d written in the paper that our meeting was a disappointment. We didn’t talk about any of that. He just looked at me.

The entire time, I wanted to leave. Finally, I squeezed his arm and walked away.