Tags: Andy Kaufman, artists and addiction, connection between artists and self-destruction, Genius and Heroin, Kurt Cobain, L.M. Montgomery, Michael Largo, self-destructive behavior of the rich and famous
Earlier this fall we learned that author L.M. Montgomery committed suicide. Previously, her family did not release this information. It was only when her granddaughter felt that the truth should be known that this was publicized. Although I’ve not read much of Montgomery’s work, it saddened me that she, like so many other artists, had a mental illness that could not be taken care of in any other way. Just a month later, I received a copy of Genius and Heroin, a book that explores how artists and creative people of all types have been done in by their mental illnesses, addictions, and excessive behaviors. From the moment it arrived, I could not put it down.
Michael Largo organized Genius and Heroin in alphabetical order by the artists’ last names. For each individual, there is a brief biographical sketch that describes them as people and attempts to explain how the mental illness, addiction, or over-indulgent behavior became a part of their lives. There is a great deal of information about each individual, yet interspersed between biographies there are often sections that talk about a specific predilection for death in generally, but in more detail. For example, after discussing Andy Kaufman, Largo wrote a section about faking death. Although I found the stories about each person fascinating, it was those generalized sections that really made the book for me. Truly, these people lived and died in the spotlight, but their Achilles heals by no means made them unique. They are a part of the human condition to which all people are susceptible.
Modern society is drawn to the sensational. As technology makes access to what’s happening closer and closer to our fingertips, tragedies become water cooler discussion almost instantaneously. What the rich and the famous do today is already tomorrow’s hottest trend. Speculation is quickly fact while the actual truth, when it is uncovered, is buried because we’re already focused on the next rumor. I honestly admit to following pop culture and entertainment “news.” The idea of this book initially tweaked the interest of that part of me that I wish was less pervasive. Largo, however, did not write this book simply to cater to this cultural fascination. He quickly dispels the notion that there is anything glamorous about these people or what they ultimately did to themselves.
There is no genuflection or chest-thumping mea culpas before the altar of artists. From my 20 year stint at “field research,” as it was for those in this book, I found it difficult to start once started, and ultimately acquired an unsympathetic outlook toward any preconceived romanticism attached to dying and self-destruction. To create remains noble; to kill oneself while doing it – questionable, at best.
Far from backing up the romantic notions people have about being famous or being an artist, this book reads almost like a cautionary tale for anyone interested in such pursuits. Although Kurt Cobain is featured on the front cover, you will not find adulation here. Largo just provides an honest look at where Cobain’s talent took him and the mess made by his self-destructive streak. Largo doesn’t hold a candle for a single one of his subjects.
Genius and Heroin is a well written and well executed book. Clearly the author has invested a lot time and research. Largo does not glamorize the famously self-destructive, but this book is by no means a sermon against the seven deadly sins and stardom either. What kept me reading was that the stories are coupled with a wry sense of humor and illustrations to match. The combination of its subject matter and its structure makes this book is incredibly readable. It can be read from cover to cover, by skipping from individual by individual, or even read aloud within a group without lessening the experience. This book would make an excellent gift this holiday season that is sure to generate a great deal of conversation.
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