9 Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions


Everyone knows that all authors are totally crazy, right? After all, that’s what makes so many of them so brilliant. But today, on the anniversary of Ezra Pound’s federally mandated release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane, where he had been held for 13 years following his arrest on charges of treason, we celebrate those authors who have actually been institutionalized for their mental illnesses (or, in some cases, for what others thought was mental illness).

Ezra Pound

In 1945, following his arrest in Italy for treason, Pound was transferred to the United States, where he was promptly installed in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, DC. He was, whether correctly or not, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and retained there for 13 years. During that time, he settled in, working on his translations of Sophocles’s Women of Trachis and Electra, as well as The Cantos, and entertaining many visitors. Though Pound was relatively happy, his friends tried to get him released — in 1954, after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Hemingway remarked to Time magazine that “this would be a good year to release poets.” On April 18, 1958, a federal court ruled that he should no longer be held, and Pound was free.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When Nietzsche went mad in 1889, he sent short, nonsensical letters to his friends; he (supposedly) ran up to a horse being beaten and wrapped his arms around its neck; he collapsed in the street. His friends safely installed him in a mental health clinic in Jena for a year, where doctors and at least one pushy art historian attempted to cure him. At the time, his condition was diagnosed as tertiary syphilis, but more recent studies have suggested bipolar disorder, various kinds of dementia, or CADASIL syndrome. But of course, the sudden, undiagnosable madness of a genius is the most romantic.

Sylvia Plath

Plath’s mental illness has been much discussed and documented, not least by the poet herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Clinically depressed for much of her life, she was prescribed electroshock therapy and began treatments in July of 1953. By August of that year, she had attempted suicide, and soon thereafter was admitted to McLean Hospital’s mental institution at Belmont, where she spent the next six months, receiving more electric and insulin shock treatment. Eventually, of course, Plath’s depression would end her life.

Anne Sexton

Another tragic female poet, Sexton was in and out of mental institutions (including the aforementioned and famous McLean) for much of her life, plagued by bipolar and suicidal tendencies. In fact, she arrived at poetry as a means of therapy suggested to her by Dr. Martin Orne, her therapist at Glenside Hospital. It makes sense, then, how much of her work is tied up in themes of madness and anguish. Like Plath, Sexton would eventually take her own life.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Like Sexton, Fitzgerald had stints in several mental institutions during her short life, including one 15-month stay at the Prangins Clinic in Switzerland, and was variously diagnosed as being bipolar, schizophrenic, or otherwise. She was constantly relapsing, ever unstable, permanently tortured, and she eventually died in 1948 in a fire at a mental hospital in Asheville, where she was receiving insulin shock treatments. Read her husband’s letters to her doctor here.

Paulo Coelho

In his late teens, Paulo Coelho’s parents sent him to a mental institution. When he escaped, they sent him again. He escaped twice more before finally being released at age 20. Of the experience, he wrote: “The reasons in my medical files are banal. It was said that I was isolated, hostile and miserable at school. I was not crazy but I was rather just a 17-year-old who really wanted to become a writer. Because no one understood this, I was locked up for months and fed with tranquilizers. The therapy merely consisted of giving me electroshocks. I promised to myself that one day I would write about this experience, so young people will understand that we have to fight for our own dreams from a very early stage of our lives.”

Robert Lowell

Like some of the other poets on this list, Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder for much of his life, and was hospitalized several times, including after the death of his mother in 1954, when he did the obligatory poet’s stint at the notorious McLean. His experiences figured heavily into some of his greatest poems, particularly in Life Studies, but he eventually began taking lithium to control his illness. According to the editor of Lowell’s Letters, the drug “relieved him from suffering the idea that he was morally and emotionally responsible for the fact that he relapsed. However, it did not entirely prevent relapses… And he was troubled and anxious about the impact of his relapses on his family and friends until the end of his life.”

Richard Brautigan

In 1955, Richard Brautigan decided that he was crazy. One high-tension night, he walked into the local police station and asked them to arrest him. They wouldn’t, so he threw a rock through the station window. After serving seven days of the resultant ten-day jail sentence and being examined by a physician, Brautigan was indeed ordered committed to the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, where he stayed for nearly three months, submitting to electric shock treatments and medication. By the time he was released, he rather regretted his rash decision, later telling his daughter: “I realized I made a big fucking mistake. So I did my best to get out of there as fast as I could. I became a model patient.”

David Foster Wallace

Another notoriously depressive literary celebrity to be treated at McLean, Wallace spent four weeks in the hospital in 1989, a stay that, according to recent biographer D.T. Max, “changed his life… Wallace was placed in a facility for alcoholics and depressives, with a large room for twelve-step meetings. The medical staff interviewed Wallace and told him that he was a hard-core alcohol and drug user and that if he didn’t stop abusing both he would be dead by thirty. Wallace in turn reported the news to his college roommate and close friend Mark Costello, who came the next day. ‘I’m a depressive, and guess what?’ Wallace said. ‘Alcohol is a depressant!’ He smiled through his tears, as if, Costello remembers, he ‘was unveiling a fun surprise to a five-year-old.’ It was of course information Wallace knew already. The program was meant to shake up the addict, and, with Wallace, it succeeded. Pulling him out of his old life and keeping him away from its temptations and habits helped. In the end, though, what mattered most was probably that the intoxicated Wallace was no longer writing successfully, which left open the hope that a sober one might.”