Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer Provides a Balanced and Sensitive Look at a Tormented Genius

Dr. Joseph Ponterotto is a psychologist, a professor and the Coordinator of the Counseling Psychology Program at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education. His book A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer attempts to explain the psychological underpinnings of both Fischer's brilliant rise to the top of the chess world and of Fischer's sad descent into the seclusion and paranoia that characterized his "wilderness years," the tragic denouement that began soon after Fischer won the World Chess Championship in 1972 and did not end until his death in 2008.

A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer provides a detailed, well-researched analysis of Fischer's genius and of his mental illness while also offering suggestions for parents, teachers, guidance counselors and friends who are interacting with a highly gifted but deeply troubled person. Here is Dr. Ponterotto's definition of psychobiography (pp. 4-5): "More than a biographical sketch of 'who' a person was and 'what' the person accomplished in their particular field, psychobiography concerns itself with the 'why' of a person's behavior. What was the inner life, the psychology that drove the person to his or her thoughts, feelings and actions? What were the underlying mechanisms that made the person tick?" Dr. Ponterotto combines evidence from a variety of sources in order to place Fischer's thoughts and actions in the proper context and he repeatedly emphasizes that his conclusions must be considered provisional and tentative because he never met Fischer, let alone had the opportunity to treat him.

Dr. Ponterotto wisely rejects applying just one theoretical model to Fischer's life, noting that Dr. Reuben Fine's published analysis of Fischer is of limited value because it focuses exclusively on a Freudian interpretation without seriously considering any other explanations and/or theoretical models. One of the theoretical models that Dr. Ponterotto uses is the diathesis stress model, which suggests that mental illness develops in an individual due to a complex interaction between multiple genetic and environmental factors: in this model, genetics play a large role in determining how much stress a person can handle but even a person with a low threshold may escape the throes of mental illness if he has a strong enough support system around him to reduce his stressors to a manageable level. Dr. Ponterotto uses several other theoretical models to evaluate Fischer, including psychodynamic theory (focusing on the impact of early childhood experiences), family systems theory (examining the impact of family relationships), psychosocial development theory (evaluating a person's ability to perform "critical tasks over the life span") and multi-cultural theory (placing a person's life in the proper cultural and socioeconomic context).

The first several chapters of the book provide background information about chess, about Bobby Fischer's family history and about the methodologies of psychobiography. Dr. Ponterotto begins his psychological autopsy of Bobby Fischer with this statement (p. 87): "I believe Bobby had some genetic vulnerability to develop a mental illness, and that this predisposition in concert with early life trauma and the burden of relentless media pressure, coalesced into serious mental health concerns that called for early and ongoing psychological intervention." Even people who are very knowledgeable about chess in general and Bobby Fischer in particular may not realize how much evidence there is that several of Fischer's closest relatives suffered from some form of mental illness: his maternal grandmother spent the final three years of her life in a psychiatric hospital, his presumed biological father Paul Nemenyi displayed behavior that was, at the very least, extremely eccentric and his presumed half-brother Peter Nemenyi committed suicide; mental illness is most likely linked to both genetic and environmental factors--the classic "nature" versus "nurture" debate is applicable both to Fischer's prodigious abilities and to his mental illness--and there is good reason to believe that Fischer not only had a genetic predisposition to mental illness but that in his formative years he interacted with a mother who had psychological problems: the 900-plus page FBI file on Regina Fischer paints a very negative picture of her mental health, though Dr. Ponterotto--after interviewing several people who knew her personally--believes that FBI attitudes during the Cold War era were biased against her because of her Jewish background and presumed Communist sympathies. The Chicago Municipal Psychiatric Institute diagnosed Regina Fischer as having a "stilted (paranoid) personality, querulent [sic] but not psychotic." Dr. Ponterotto notes that this terminology would be considered "outdated" today but would perhaps be equivalent to what is now called Paranoid Personality Disorder; he emphasizes that she had good reason to feel suspicious--she was under active FBI surveillance for many years--and that there is no way to confirm whether or not the CMPI diagnosis was accurate. Various research studies estimate the heritability of the PPD trait to range from 21% to 66%, so if Regina suffered from PPD she may have passed along to Bobby a predisposition to develop the problem as well. Bobby's half-sister Joan showed no signs of mental illness but she likely had a different father and thus a different overall genetic makeup.

Bobby Fischer's early home life was very stressful. No father figure was present because Regina divorced Gerhardt Fischer--the father of Bobby's half-sister Joan--and she did not get along with Paul Nemenyi, who openly expressed concerns about Regina's fitness to raise Bobby and Joan. The Fischers moved at least 10 times before Bobby turned six years old. Bobby Fischer was expelled from school at age six for kicking his principal and he attended several schools before dropping out of Erasmus Hall High School at age 16 not long after attaining the Grandmaster title.

Fischer described his chess philosophy simply--"I am always on the attack"--but he unfortunately applied that same mindset in his personal life; it is well known that Fischer pushed away just about every family member and friend who ever became close with him, believing that each of those people had somehow betrayed him. This pattern began very early in Fischer's life; Fischer's mother took him to play chess with Dr. Reuben Fine, a world class player who was also an eminent psychiatrist, but when--after a few playing sessions--Dr. Fine asked Fischer about school Fischer furiously replied, "You have tricked me" and he refused to visit Dr. Fine again. Fischer remained angry at Dr. Fine for many years, Dr. Fine recalled, "as if I had done him some immeasurable harm by trying to get a little closer to him."

Dr. Ponterotto disagrees with those who suggest that Fischer suffered from Asperger's Syndrome; while Fischer displayed some personality traits that fit that diagnosis, those traits are also consistent with PPD--and Dr. Ponterotto concludes that Fischer had six of the seven traits that characterize PPD, including "suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming or deceiving him" and "persistently bears grudges, i.e., is unforgiving of insults, injuries or slights." Dr. Ponterotto also says that Fischer "manifested non-bizarre delusions"; Fischer was not Schizophrenic--he was not hearing colors or experiencing other "bizarre" delusions--but he showed signs of Delusional Disorder, Persecutory Type, which is characterized by "...the person's belief that he or she is being conspired against, cheated, spied on, followed, poisoned or drugged, maliciously maligned, harassed, or obstructed in pursuit of long-term goals. Small slights may be exaggerated and become the focus of a delusional system."

Dr. Ponterotto believes that the early and intense onset of fame worsened Fischer's problems because, in the words of psychobiographer William Todd Schulz (p.98), "...some people are simply temperamentally unsuited to be famous. Their talent merits fame, but their personalities don't stand up to it." It would not be correct to say that chess made Fischer ill and, indeed, Dr. Ponterotto suggests that chess provided some balance for Fischer (p.99): "Perhaps chess was an anchor for his sanity and functioning, and without that anchor he was now more psychologically vulnerable than ever. Bobby's chess identity had fused with his personal identity, and when he abandoned competitive chess and thus his chess identity, he was lost."

A key point about Delusional Disorder is that someone who suffers from this illness can appear quite normal when he is talking about anything other than what Dr. Ponterotto calls the "delusional theme." Fischer's biographer Frank Brady told me that Fischer almost seemed to suffer from "Tourette's Syndrome" concerning Jews: once that subject came up Fischer would not talk about anything else but if one steered clear of that subject it was possible to have a nice, normal conversation with him.

Bobby Fischer's life eerily resembles the life of Paul Morphy (1837-1884), the first great American chess player; Dr. Ponterotto devotes an entire chapter to comparing Morphy's story to Fischer's--and the similarities, both positive and negative, are breathtaking: both men rapidly rose to the top of the chess world before quitting the game at the height of their powers and thereafter showing signs of significant mental illness. While Fischer's paranoia focused on what he believed to be a Jewish conspiracy against him, Morphy convinced himself that various people were trying to drive him out of New Orleans. Morphy even challenged one of these people to a duel. Like Fischer, Morphy was able to conduct a reasonable conversation on any subject other than the alleged conspiracy against him. Morphy's mother, brother and best friend tried to convince him to seek help at a mental institution but Morphy refused to go. Dr. Ponterotto concludes (p. 130), "The life stories of Fischer and Morphy are both fascinating and sad. In the end these men died virtually alone with no offspring to speak their legacy. Yet their influence and impact on the game of chess was so significant that their games will likely live on, worldwide, for as long as humans walk this earth. Despite their challenges and psychological struggles, let us honor their memory and legacy."

The fact that mental illness greatly impacted the careers--and lives--of the two greatest chess geniuses in American history is both tragic and cautionary. What, if anything, could have been done to help Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer? What can be done to make sure that the next great chess genius--or scientific genius or writing genius or any other kind of genius--does not suffer the way that Morphy and Fischer did? We can not afford to squander the prodigious talents of our greatest geniuses if our species is going to have any chance to overcome the formidable challenges cited in Harold T.P. Hayes' Three Levels of Time.

Dr. Ponterotto asks, "Does research support a relationship between creativity and mental illness?" Dr. Ponterotto notes a study that shows that the rate of mental illness is higher among creative writers than among a matched control group; neurological research has provided a possible explanation for this: certain genes and neurotransmitters that are connected with increased creativity also appear to be linked to a higher risk of developing certain forms of mental illness. Perhaps the kind of divergent thinking involved in creating great works of art and science is somehow connected to the bizarrely divergent thinking that leads to delusions and paranoia; a healthy, balanced genius may be able to regulate the stream of thoughts storming through his mind but a genius who is under stress or whose biochemistry is not quite so finely tuned may become unable to distinguish between brilliant innovation and paranoid delusion. Instead of continuing his own chess career and producing brilliant games, Fischer convinced himself that it was more important to prove that every move in several World Chess Championship matches had been choreographed to produce the desired results; he was ill and he was wrong but he knew that he was smarter than just about anyone else on the planet so who was going to talk him out of his delusions?

Dr. Ponterotto makes it clear that the research into how brain chemistry works is only just beginning and cause/effect relationships cannot yet be proven. Genius does not cause madness, nor are most mentally ill people highly creative. While there are many well known cases of chess geniuses who succumbed to mental illness, there has not yet been a long term study of chess players to determine if mental illness rates are higher in that group than in the population at large.

Dr. Ponterotto cautions that his diagnosis of Fischer is tentative and his hypothetical treatment recommendations--"long-term individual psychotherapy, family therapy, special support services throughout his schooling and possibly psychotropic medication"--are purely speculative but he believes that the right kind of intervention could have helped Fischer both personally and professionally (p. 151): "Clearly, Bobby Fischer, who basically withdrew from competition at the age of 29 (save for his 1992 comeback match against Spassky), had many years of chess ahead of him had he maintained his psychological health and competitive interests."

For far too long, many people have wrongly assumed that gifted and talented children can fend for themselves and that educational and psychological resources should be focused on helping children who are average or below average academically. The reality is that gifted and talented children need the right kind of nurturing at home and at school in order to reach their full potential personally and professionally. Anyone who thought that the young Fischer should be left to his own devices because treatment and guidance would possibly hinder the development of his chess gifts did Fischer--and the world--a great disservice. Fischer needed help to overcome the unique mixture of genetics and environment that fueled his paranoid and delusional tendencies and without that help he eventually lost the ability to be a functional member of society; Fischer suffered in solitude but the tragic "wilderness years" represent a major loss to human culture in terms of all the brilliant games he never played and all the great books he never wrote because his amazing mind was torn asunder by mental illness.

Further Reading:

A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer

Interview With Dr. Frank Brady, Author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

Brady Biography Paints Nuanced Portrait of Enigmatic Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer Against the World Details the Triumphs and Tragedies of a Great Champion

Harry Benson's Book Includes Striking Photos of World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

More Insight into Bobby Fischer's Brilliant yet Tortured Mind

Decrypting Bobby Fischer: Professor Brings to Light the Darker Side of Genius

Bobby Fischer Comes Home is a Beautiful Portrait of Genuine Friendship

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