You know how hard it is, when you’re sitting with the psychiatrist, to suss out the right diagnosis for your problem, or a loved one’s, so you can get the insurance company to cover the treatment?

Never happened to you? That comes as a surprise, because, as Michelle Obama recently wrote, “roughly one in fifive adults—more than 40 million Americans—suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition like depression or anxiety. These conditions affect people of every age and every background: our kids and grandparents, our friends and neighbors.”

That descriptor, “diagnosable,” is at the heart of Claudia Kalb’s delightfully mistitled new book, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities. The cartoonish title is an indirection, but one carried out with grace, to lead an unsuspecting reader to another truth about mental illness: it is treatable.

Claudia Kalb ’85
Claudia Kalb ’85 carefully negotiates the narrow path between sensationalism and skepticism. Photo by Megan Brown.

Belying the caricatures on the cover (of Princess Di, Einstein, Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe and the pop artist), Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder is neither poppsych nor mental-illness-of-the-moment memoir. A more poetic title might have been Chaos of Delight. Charles Darwin, one of the 12 historical personages Kalb reports on in the book, suffered from something that looks very much like a disorder we would call anxiety. He wrote that “the mind is a chaos of delight.”

Kalb also could have called her book Twelve Ways of Looking at Mental Illness, and an Equal or Greater Number of Ways to Heal and Help. But isn’t George Gershwin more entertaining than attention deficit disorder? Wouldn’t you rather read about Marilyn Monroe than about borderline personality disorder?

Andy Warhol Was A Hoarder
Andy Warhol was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History's Great Personalities by Claudia Kalb ’85, National Geographic

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes “Borderline Personality Disorder: 301.83.” Your insurance company insists on that number, 301.83, in order to pay for treatment. A number is abstract; Kalb reminds us, gently, that Norma Jeane Mortenson was woman of flesh (!) and blood, not just a number, a diagnosis or even the fabulous “MM” millions thought they knew.

Kalb humanizes the lives of celebrities as diverse as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Howard Hughes, Christine Jorgensen and Frank Lloyd Wright. Reading that list, Mrs. Obama might ask: Do only white people suffer mental anguish? The absence of people of color is unfortunate. Racism haunts American arts and culture, and an analysis of, say, Billie Holiday’s mental health would be fascinating. Careful as she is to consider nature (genetics) and nurture (family), Kalb pretty much avoids political or sociological explanations for her subjects’ sufferings.

Kalb is the best kind of inquisitive journalist. She writes with style. She gets opinions from all (reasonable) sources. Her skills sharpened by a long career at Newsweek, she carefully negotiates the narrow path between sensationalism and skepticism. There are plenty of honest questions, for instance, around Mrs. Obama’s one-in-fifi ve estimate, and Kalb notes that “diagnosing what might be nothing more than a troubling habit raises alarm bells.”

Some cultural critics might say of our fascination with the mental health of celebrities and ourselves—without apparent irony—that we live in a Culture of Narcissism. Others might argue that we’re running for the shelter of mother’s—or father’s or sister’s or brother’s—little helper, looking for that magic pill.

But the drugs and talk therapies that Kalb describes— they work. They save lives. The shame of mental illness prevents too many sufferers from getting help. The subversively titled Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder doesn’t belong on the tell-all shelves; it’s about real science. But if she reaches more readers with the tabloid title, Kalb will have gone some way toward ending that stigma.