De Valera, Asperger’s and psychiatry

An article by Dr Tony Humphries in The Irish Examiner on autism provoked a furore in the Irish media and online. There are some troubling assertions in the article, and the author does not seem to have a very sophisticated grasp of the issues that he would seem to claim an expertise in. However, as I have previously chronicled in this blog, unscientific claims are not unknown to the medical or psychiatric professions, and often seem to coincide, in a most serendipidous fashion, with political expediency. And, as I noted in this blog post, Irish doctors are always on hand to assist in targeting the disabled. Having a need to procrastinate this evening, I’m going to write about an attitude to Asperger’s Syndrome that is influenced by 90-year old political propaganda and the mental health stigmas that it exploited.

A few years ago, Dr Michael Fitzgerald, who is a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin and has a private practice in Blackrock, wrote a book in which he claimed that certain figures in Irish cultural and political life bore all the signs of having had Asperger’s Syndrome. Entitled Unstoppable Brilliance: Irish Geniuses and Asperger’s Syndrome, the book’s list of Irish “Aspies” includes Robert Emmet, Patrick Pearse, Éamon de Valera, Robert Boyle, William Rowan Hamilton, Daisy Bates, WB Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Fitzgerald wrote that he wished, in connecting Asperger’s with achievement, to gain some social acceptance for eccentricity. So far, so noble, but while the book provoked complaints about the sheer number of such posthumous “diagnoses”, for me it raises a few serious questions about Dr Fitzgerald’s attitude to Asperger’s.

One of these issues is relatively minor in the scheme of things, but important nevertheless. When promoting the book, Fitzgerald said on more than one occasion that his hypotheses about the famous people in question were in fact positive diagnoses. This is similar to saying that you can prove how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – it is no doubt enjoyable to speculate thus, and may even serve a purpose, but it is impossible to verify. More serious, however, are the strange and ambivalent attitudes he displays towards AS, and these are nowhere clearer than in his writings on Éamon de Valera, so I will expand a little on these.

Diarmuid Ferriter, in his book Judging Dev, argued strongly against the idea that de Valera had a developmental disorder. I do not agree with this position: I think that Dr Fitzgerald’s instincts may have been right, but his methods questionable, as I will explain below. (Although one person I know who has AS argued that he couldn’t imagine anyone with the condition voluntarily engaging in political life, which is probably the strongest argument against the theory.) But I believe Ferriter argued in that manner as a reflexive response to a position I will argue is implicit in Fitzgerald’s argument – that de Valera’s Asperger’s Syndrome is indivisible from his defective character. Therefore, to have Asperger’s is essentially to be a bad person. Tim Pat Coogan, in his review of Judging Dev in October 2007, said precisely this, citing Fitzgerald’s theory about de Valera. Coogan’s insulting and discriminatory jibe about people with Asperger’s never seemed to trouble the media at the time. (The article, published in the Irish Independent, is not available online.)

Fitzgerald first published his hypothesis about de Valera in the Journal of Medical Biography in 2001. He went on to reference it a number of times (such as in Asperger syndrome: a gift or a curse? (2005) and in a presentation at TCD in 2006 – the powerpoint file illustrates his views on de Valera quite starkly) before publishing a new version of the essay in Unstoppable Brilliance in 2008. What is curious about the 2001 article that it is based entirely on two sources, namely Tim Pat Coogan’s hostile biography and Desmond Ryan’s Unique Dictator (1936). Ryan’s is one of many de Valera biographies that I have not read, but I gather that it is not complimentary. By contrast, Fitzgerald’s 2002 article on the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan had four major biographical sources. It is probable that Terry de Valera’s defence of his father in his 2007 memoir against those who had portrayed him as cold, unloving, emotionless and lacking a sense of humour was inspired in part by Fitzgerald’s characterisation. (Interestingly, in 2008 Fitzgerald cited Terry de Valera’s book, not to revise his opinion in any way, but to claim that de Valera once inventing a nonsense rhyme for his wife’s amusement was indicative of Asperger’s.)

In the powerpoint presentation already referred to, Fitzgerald lists characteristics pertaining to de Valera, most of which are gleaned from Ryan, Coogan or T. Ryle Dwyer, which he believes indicate Asperger’s Syndrome. However, the vast majority  have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject at hand, but are solely indicative of what appears to be a profound dislike of de Valera. With no regard whatsoever for potential bias in the very narrow range of sources he refers to, nor for the polarising effects of politics, De Valera’s Asperger’s is given as responsible for civil and economic war and Ireland’s much-derided isolationism is called “autistic”.  Fitzgerald accuses de Valera of misogyny, despotism, lack of empathy, extremism, arrogance, deviousness, of being undemocratic and of having no humanity, to cite just a few examples. There is nothing remotely positive in his analysis. In fact, it is difficult not to infer that having Asperger’s is equivalent to having a defective personality; also that the wrong political position as defined by oppostion to British interests – de Valera’s obstinacy towards David Lloyd George and James Craig are listed among his faults – is an autistic, and hence faulty, characteristic. This impression is uncomfortably present throughout the slides in de Valera’s section of the presentation. There is a clear implication here: de Valera’s political position was novel and unexpected, which Fitzgerald attributes to autistic creativity. He was a problem and a challenge to Britain; therefore he was psychotic; therefore creatvity expressed by someone with Asperger’s in a political way is threatening and inherently wrong. Fitzgerald carried this logic further when he claimed that Hitler had Asperger’s.

That de Valera was almost inhuman has been a preoccupation of T. Ryle Dwyer and Tim Pat Coogan in particular, and their need to assert it stems from partisanship for Michael Collins. It is influenced more insidiously by Free State propaganda, which has been the mainstay of Collins’s advocates ever since his death, and which ghastly spectre Coogan and Dwyer have only succeeded in reanimating. Opposition to the 1921 treaty was early on given the character of criminal, and not long afterwards, anti-treatyties were also deemed insane. Kevin O’Higgins’s comment about the “wild men screaming at the keyhole” was entirely consistent with this rhetoric. Implied proof of the insanity of anti-treatyites was the fact that among their number were the majority of the female TDs. Studies of the misogynist character of pro-treaty rhetoric have been made, but there still exists a widespread assumption that the women’s position was, by default, irrational, ill-informed and undemocratic, neatly representing the very Victorian vision of the interconnectedness of women, mental incapacity and the unfitness to make rational choices (hence the justification for political patriarchy). Micheál Ó Cuinneagáin’s On the Arm of Time reproduces a memorable cartoon printed in an English newspaper immediately after Michael Collins’s death of de Valera as a shrieking banshee. Shortly afterwards, rumours were circulated that de Valera was insane.

An interesting twist on the link between de Valera and the autistic spectrum is the fact that Fitzgerald quotes Tim Pat Coogan as  saying of de Valera’s mother that there was “coldness in her psychological makeup”. This has the distinct echo of the “refrigerator mother” theory of autism which sought to pin the “blame” on the mother’s emotional distance, not a dissimilar notion to that of Dr Tony Humphries. Coogan’s is a remarkably negative assessment to make on such scanty evidence. We only know that she was very clever, had an excellent memory and took the young de Valera home to her family and did not take him back even after she married a few years later. The last fact is not proof of a lack of affection for her son, but rather common practice at the time for widows and widowers who remarried. It is also interesting that Coogan (echoed by Fitzgerald) calls de Valera a misogynist, but ignores or disparages the women who were closest to him – his wife, mother and personal secretaries, Kathleen O’Connell and Máire Ní Cheallaigh. It is probably accurate to say that de Valera overworked and undercompensated O’Connell and Ní Cheallaigh.

Dr Fitzgerald overlooks the best evidence that de Valera may have had Asperger’s – not the observations of political rivals, but the recollections of the people who knew him best. Longford and O’Neill’s biography and Terry de Valera’s memoir as well as Jim Maher’s and David Fitzpatrick’s biographies of Harry Boland are the best sources for this, but perhaps I will write a blog post on this issue another time. One incident in particular stands out for me, and it is from a book about Sinéad de Valera by Caitlín Uí Thallamhain, in which she describes Sinéad’s puzzled perspective on an agitated response from de Valera to the theft of his bicycle. Terry de Valera confirmed that his father could get very emotional about small domestic matters but also display an enviable calm when dealing with vital matters of state. The anxious response to the petty and unexpected is something that many with Asperger’s and their relatives will recognise, but also the stoicism in the immediate face of crisis. There were undoubtedly negatives associated with de Valera’s legacy, but while Fitzgerald’s theory could, when disassociated from political bias, potentially add depth to our understanding of his character, it does not define him or his actions, good and bad. The same can be said of Pearse and Emmet, both of whom Fitzgerald has also “diagnosed” and whose mental fitness has also been questioned by those hostile to their political ideology.

Perhaps what some psychiatrists need is a little more empathy.


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