Hunter S. Thompson was notorious for heavy drinking and drug use, habits widely viewed as part of his “gonzo journalist” legend. Mr. Thompson’s suicide two months ago, at age 67, highlighted how often famed writers are troubled by substance abuse and mental illness.
“Madness and creativity are related, but neither is sufficient to produce the other,” said Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles.
In his 1971 book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
“Clearly, [Mr. Thompson] felt some pain in how he interacted with the world, so he needed some sort of buffer between himself and the world,” said Michael Phillips, critic and lecturer at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Other writers known for their drinking habits include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe.
Mr. Thompson, Mr. Hemingway and Mr. London, as well as Sylvia Path, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf, committed suicide.
Researchers have documented higher rates of mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, among creative writers. A 1992 study noted that alcoholism seemed to be a greater problem for 20th-century American writers, concluding: “It is easy to think of reasons why writers drink. It is more difficult to explain why so many drank in this country during this century.”
Mr. Fischoff suggested there may be a relationship between bipolar disorder — also known as manic depression — and alcoholism among writers.
Writers may drink because, when they are depressed, they cannot get themselves to do their work, and when they are manic, they cannot harness their writing, Mr. Fischoff said. Alcohol, then, can be used either to stimulate the flow of ideas or as a therapeutic intervention to calm the writers enough to produce, he said.
The solitary nature of the writer’s craft may partly explain the problem, said Steve Thurston, short-story writer and professional-writing coordinator at Montgomery College in Rockville.
“If you’re not willing to be alone, you might never be a writer,” Mr. Thurston said.
“When you’re writing, you live with yourself and your ideas. You’re in your head a lot,” Mr. Fischoff said. “You end up taking your own counsel and reinforcing your own ideas, which may be deluded. You don’t have any reality testing.”
Although writers work alone for hours, they also are public figures.
“You have to compromise your privacy in order to increase your … worth as a celebrity,” said Charles Figley, a professor of social work at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
The result can be a disparity between how writers see themselves and how the public sees them, Mr. Figley said, which can distort a writer’s self-esteem.
“In the case of writers, there’s a certain degree of maintaining the reputation as a writer that is more challenging,” Mr. Figley said.
Another factor may be the emotions involved in writing.
“Madness comes, in part, from emotional instability,” Mr. Fischoff said.
Creative people need intense emotions to inspire their work, he said, and without these emotions, what they produce could sell millions but never be truly creative.
“They are technicians at this point. They write a lot. They churn it out, but there’s nothing creative about it,” he said. “Emotions liberate us to see the world in different ways and to reach deep in our unconsciousness and souls.”
Mr. Thurston agreed, saying writers must be able to “feel other people’s anxieties or their conflicts within them.”
“At some level, you’re probably a little bit more emotional and more prone to sympathy and empathy than other people,” he said.
Writers must turn their material into a form acceptable to the public, sometimes making compromises along the way, Mr. Figley said. The compromises can prove to be stressful for the writer, and to manage that stress, some writers may turn to substance abuse as self-medication, he said.
In the case of Mr. Thompson, he “created these alternative realities and visions of the world, and in order to access that, he created these alternative characters, so his writing could access the world,” Mr. Phillips said. “The substance abuse might have been a way he could blunt aspects of himself he found troubling, so he could access the world and explain it.”
Mr. Thompson’s work helped perpetuate the myth of the American writer as drinker, Mr. Thurston said.
“In some ways that is a myth, and sometimes it’s true,” he said. “You probably could say the same thing about golfers or politicians — the good old boys’ club.”
As Mr. Figley said, “There is this unfortunate envy bias, to increase the urban legend that famous people are more troubled.”