After I was diagnosed with a mild form of epilepsy earlier this year, I went onto Google to do the usual search for statistics, symptoms and outcomes. Not long after reading the medical information, I did what people with a particular disorder usually end up doing: I began to research famous people with epilepsy in order to make myself feel less abnormal. The list of ‘celebrity epileptics’, like ‘celebrities with depression’ and ‘celebrity schizophrenics’, is made up of an eclectic mix of people, including Hugo Weaving, Danny Glover, the late Rik Mayall, Neil Young, and Prince, among others.

It turns out that my coping method is not out of the ordinary, since the relationship between celebrity and public health has been well established. Neurologist Francesco Brigo argues that previous studies on illnesses such as cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis concluded that a celebrity diagnosis significantly influences public health awareness as well as public interest in the diagnosis and prevention of disease. Despite the apparent differences between the lives of celebrities and ordinary individuals, people’s conceptions of normality are often validated by the inclusion of a celebrity in the mix. Sociologist Erving Goffman discussed this in terms of what he called ‘commercial realism’: the notion that advertisements present a version of reality that should look strange to us, but is in fact generally accepted as a normalised form of reality. Celebrities function in a similar manner, in that they elevate out conceptions of normality and, by extension, ourselves.

As Daniel J Boorstin writes in his famous 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, we love celebrities not for their apparent superiority, but for their ‘common touch’ and reflection of ourselves. He explains:

We revere [celebrities], not because they possess charisma, divine favour, a grace or talent granted them by God, but because they embody popular virtues. We admire them not because they reveal god, but because they reveal and elevate ourselves.

This has most recently been witnessed with Angelina Jolie’s preventative double-mastectomy and oophorectomy. Jolie has been praised for breaking the taboo on these surgeries and for making these health issues easier for ordinary women to deal with. Dubbed ‘The Angelina Effect’ by Time magazine, Jolie has had an unprecedented impact on these health issues, inspiring at-risk women to go through with the procedures themselves under the wisdom that if someone as high-profile as Angelina Jolie can do it, so can they.

Although, as Barrie Gunter writes in Celebrity Capital, celebrities who engage in heath causes can ‘attract disdain from media commentators who question their motives’, they nevertheless have the potential to make it easier for people with illnesses. Two notable examples include Michael J Fox and the awareness of Parkinson’s disease, and Olivia Newton-John’s role in breast cancer awareness. Although a celebrity’s involvement in health campaigns is a fairly recent phenomenon, history shows a notable trend of illness being aligned with famous figures.

In the seventeenth century, a physician by the name of Jean Taxil comprised a list of ‘famous epileptics’ which included Socrates, Plato, and Hercules. In Plato’s work Apology of Socrates, Socrates claimed that he was affected by what he called daimonion, a ‘divine something’ that acted as a warning. More recent speculation suggests that these were actually simple partial seizures or ‘auras’. Because of the varied symptoms of auras – including deja vu, jamais vu, detachment, nausea, and disorientation – misdiagnosis is quite common. While symptoms are currently confused with anxiety attacks, in the past, people were left to make their own conclusions, some plausible, others irrational.

Socrates’ somewhat mythological deduction is hardly surprising, given the lack of understanding about epilepsy and its causes, even today. The mystery that surrounds the brain often compels people to search for answers outside of the medical field: religion, mythology, magic, and in recent years, celebrity. As ridiculous as it sounds, for certain people these alternatives offer more security than the medical profession simply because they are more attractive and much less clinical. Medical lingo can be confronting and confusing, but people’s fears are often alleviated when they hear that a popular personality or famous figure has experienced the same thing.

It’s strange but hardly surprising that people look to exterior elements and places, such as celebrity culture, to normalise their illnesses, simply because in ordinary society many disorders have an unfortunate stigma attached to them, particularly in low socio-economic countries where a disorder such as epilepsy is still aligned with religious curses and demonic spirits. One of the earliest cases of epilepsy is chronicled in a Babylonian text that sees the disorder as an invasion of the body by evil spirits. Professor Edward Reynolds notes that ‘this supernatural view has dominated thinking about epilepsy until quite recently and even now remains a deeply rooted negative social influence in some parts of the world.’

Looking to famous figures, therefore, can not only make a disorder seem comparatively normal, but it can also be flattering for some people when their own brain and cognitive (dis)abilities are compared to those of great historical figures. In his work The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginnings of Modern Neurology, Professor Owsei Temkin states that ‘the knowledge that even great men might suffer from epilepsy culminated paradoxically in the belief that most epileptics were men of great intelligence. This was an extension of the [pseudo]-Aristotelian thesis that melancholy and genius went together.’

This is similar to Aristotle’s argument as presented in his Melancholics. Aristotle noted that those who were heavily engaged in philosophy, politics and the arts were more often than not of an unstable temperament. And this line of thinking has gained momentum in the last few decades, with figures such as Vincent van Gogh, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Sylvia Plath being continually referenced in the media and in studies of the ‘tragic artist’ or ‘melancholy genius’.

By attaching a romantic, intellectual narrative or well-known figure to an illness, it softens the blow of its impact – slightly. It doesn’t relieve the sufferer of their symptoms, but it makes the sufferer feel part of a long, historical narrative that culminates in greatness. While this obviously is rarely, if ever, the case, since not all epileptics are destined for greatness, it allows the sufferer to engage in a fairly innocuous illusion that offers respite from their illness.

Not all people are fans of this link, however. In his paper ‘Bipolar Disorder and Poetic Genius’, Ahmed Hankir looks at Lord Byron as the original ‘tragic artist’, whose influence to date is ‘almost without peer’. The very term ‘Byronic’ seems to refer to a state at once psychologically compromised and artistically blessed. And yet Hankir argues that such a conclusion undermines the integrity of Byron’s complexity as an artist, and that to casually align psychological woes with artistic prowess is to make a mockery of Byron’s vast imagination.

In an interview in Bernard de Toffol and Pierre Genton’s book How Proust Can Improve Your Practice of Epileptology, photographer Marc Beaussart is asked: ‘Who is your favourite famous person with epilepsy, and why?’ Beaussart responds: ‘I am not too fond of the “epileptic genius”. No one can doubt the immense talent of Dostoevsky, of Van Gogh and of other great men we can find at the Museum of Epilepsy, but I find it outdated to use them to speak of the epileptic illnesses to the public or to the patients.’

What should also be noticeable is that discussions of epilepsy are blatantly Euro- and androcentric. Epilepsy is often theorised with distinctly western examples and with reference to ‘great men’, rather than great women. As Temkin explains: ‘The lists of “great epileptics” compiled during the Renaissance contained names famous in the history of the west. So strong was the tradition that even in the nineteenth century, when new names were added, they were rarely chosen from among epileptics in other parts of the world.’

Ignored are the likes of Margaux Hemingway, a model and actress, or Minakata Kumagusu, a Japanese writer and naturalist. This is where the ‘famous epileptics’ cliché runs into trouble, since it reinforces fairly one-dimensional conceptions about great thinkers and omits other marginalised groups. Having a romantic rhetoric attached to an illness – whether it is epilepsy, bipolar, or depression – can potentially trivialise the illness itself. Well-known people become unwilling spokespersons for the illnesses they have, seldom associated with anything other than a particular disorder, and their careers may be eclipsed or even defined by this.

People – famous or otherwise – don’t want to be defined by their illnesses. There is a difference between saying: ‘I have epilepsy’ and ‘I am epileptic’; the former distinguishes between the self and the illness, while the latter has the illness sutured into one’s very identity. So it is important to remember that while phrases such as ‘famous epileptics’ helps to normalise, even celebrate to an extent, illnesses such as epilepsy, depression and bipolar, it also reinforces a problematic link between a person’s sense of self and their disorder, prioritising certain individuals while excluding others that don’t promote the romanticised view.

Illness unfortunately emphasises difference in spite of its ubiquity, whereas celebrities tend to embody a heightened sense of reality, and even normality, despite their lives often being very unconventional. So when we see famous figures – historical and contemporary – with very real health problems, the burden of illness for the average person is partially alleviated. It is when we start linking the celebrity, the person, entirely with the disease alone that this trend becomes problematic.

Siobhan Lyons

Siobhan Lyons is a writer and media scholar in media and cultural studies, having earned by PhD from Macquarie University in 2017. Her My work has appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, The Conversation and New Philosopher, among others.

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  1. “We admire them (celebrities) not because they reveal god, but because they reveal and elevate ourselves.”

    i’d argue too that the revelation and elevation celebrities provide is mostly short lived, as in the end we are not there celebrities, it’s the celebrities who are there for us – to do with them as we will – when they have had their 15 minutes (or less) of fame

    so celebrity illness is linked also to fear of rejection, maybe?

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