America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built A Nation, by Joshua Kendall
I must admit that when it comes to mental health that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is not the disease I have the most knowledge of. It must also be admitted that I was not very familiar with most of the personal lives of the people discussed in this book, although the tales are in general very tragic and the author does not in any way downplay or minimize the negative results of the obsessiveness spoken of here, or of the ways in which it was immensely problematic for the people in this book. Moreover, the fact that obsessiveness was so important in the building of the United States (in contrast to other qualities being important to build other nations) suggests that there are some problems with mental health in the very makeup of our culture, which ought to prompt Americans, at least those who read this and the author’s other books, to suggest some of the consequences of having so much notable effort coming from people who are not strictly sane and who suffer a great deal for the insights and focus that are provided through their illness. To celebrate in such a situation is also to mourn and to reflect.
The author begins this book by discussing the obsessive innovator and discussing the qualities of the archetypical super achiever. After that there are three parts of the book that are divided into seven biographical essays that take up a bit more than 250 pages of text. The author begins with a discussion of founding fathers and factoid finders, including chapters on the omniscient political organization of Thomas Jefferson (even exploring the inequality of his relationship with Sally Hemmings as representing a key aspect of the obsessive love of control) (1) and the obsessive marketing of Henry Heinz who succeeded in taking and holding a predominant position in ketchup sales (2). After that there are three biographical essays on sex maniacs, with a discussion of the sexual rapacity of Melvil Dewey, whose interest in decimals included a fondness for female librarians who he saw as perfect tens (3), a discussion of Alfred Kinsey and his obsessive orgasm counting (4), and a discussion of Charles Lindbergh and his four families (5). The third part of the book looks at celebrity obsessives in the field of beauty and sports with a discussion of Estée Lauder and her obsessive touching of faces (6) as well as Ted Williams (7). The book then looks at future obsessives and the fact that creating obsessives is difficult, chancy, and abusive.
Reading this book was a rather melancholy experience. For the most part, the people written about here lived unhappy lives despite being immensely successful at what they did. When one combines the high degree of focus and the trouble that obsessive people tend to have in reflecting about their actions and in seeing others as equal partners or appreciating what others do for them. This, of course, means that the achievements of these people are highly colored by often disastrous personal lives. Jefferson’s reputation has suffered much in recent years thanks to the discovery that he had a family with a slave mistress. Dewey and Kinsey suffered greatly because of their own sexual perversions and the way that they abused their position to seek sensual pleasure. And on it goes. The greatness of these people in various fields came with it broken relationships and a great deal of personal heartache and drama. The author also notes that obsessive-compulsive disorder tends to come from abusive childhoods, making it a difficult and improper thing to cultivate in future generations, even if it can be convenient in other ways.