Did Orwell have Asperger’s? The answer – in popular psychology books, newspaper articles, tweets and society journals – appears to be yes! Or is this pseudo-scientific nonsense best not proliferated?
The idea that Orwell had Asperger’s was first posited by Professor Michael Fitzgerald in his book, The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger’s Syndrome and The Arts (2005). A much-lauded expert in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry, Fitzgerald specialises in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and publishing books about famous people who he has retrospectively diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. An Irishman, Fitzgerald also confidently diagnosed revolutionaries Robert Emmet, Pádraig Pearse and Éamon de Valera; the scientist Robert Boyle, mathematician William Rowan Hamilton and ethnographer Daisy Bates; along with the poet W. B. Yeats and writers James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as having Asperger’s Syndrome, in a later book, Unstoppable Brilliance (2014). He does acknowledge that ‘clinical assessment’ is not possible, but blithely continues to retrospectively diagnose more and more “geniuses” with the syndrome. Fitzgerald posits Asperger’s can be viewed as an integral component of genius and emphasises the “almost superhuman” qualities that those with the syndrome possess. Advertising for Unstoppable Brilliance is quite disturbing:
“The authors examine the character quirks that lead them to believe that all nine can be seen as ‘Asperger geniuses’. They assert that this condition meant that all nine were virtually predestined to become exceptional figures in their chosen field and that, moreover, Asperger’s syndrome can be seen as the key to genius in all ages and all cultures.”
Professor Fitzgerald knows more about autism than he does about Orwell (or the dozens of “creative geniuses” he has diagnosed retrospectively in several books). It is widely felt that he insufficiently questions: “if diagnosing the dead is permissible or even possible” (Osteen 2008: 12). It has also been noted that his psychobiographies range from the plausible (Ludwig Wittgenstein) to the frankly absurd, for example, W.B. Yeats and, “most alarmingly, Adolf Hitler” (ibid). These less believable cases cast significant doubt on the entire, already dubious enterprise. Reviews of his books in reputable journals, such as the British Journal of Psychiatry, express significant concerns about Fitzgerald’s use of popular biographies of his (often long) dead “patients” to diagnose retrospectively (Dohani 2005: 267). Fitzgerald finds what he’s looking for by “trawling life stories for nuggets to fit his theory” (ibid).
On reading the chapter about Orwell (Fitzgerald 2004: 87-96), it is readily apparent these reviewers are making accurate observations. Fitzgerald summarises Orwell superficially as a man with ‘a sadistic streak, a talent for writing about animals and an ability to add new phrases to the English language’ (ibid: 96). He also casually suggests that Richard W. Blair, Orwell’s father, was probably autistic. Considering how little is known about his father, this seems a particularly ridiculous attempt at retrospective psychobiography. The ‘classic signs of Asperger’s Syndrome’ include:
- difficulties with social relationships
- difficulties with the communication and control of emotions
- special, almost obsessive interest
- love of routine
- poor concentration
- unusual language abilities that include advanced vocabulary
- remarkable honesty
- sensory sensibility
These signs do not amount to anything much at all. Orwell did have a refined sense of smell, however, on further investigation ‘hyposensitivity’ – a lack of reaction to smells – is also a possible sign of the syndrome (Attwood 2007: 271). It would be more likely that an individual with this syndrome would avoid bad odours rather than constantly placing himself in situations where he would be challenged by them, as Orwell did by conducting his social investigations. Yes, Orwell is renowned for intellectual honesty but was certainly no saint being remarkably dishonest in other aspects of his life, for example, having multiple extra-marital affairs with his wife’s friends. Orwell was able to maintain long-term friendships and easily make new ones, often reaching out generously after being intellectually brutal towards other writers, such as Stephen Spender and George Woodcock. He constantly sought out new experiences and people successfully from his boyhood onwards.
When Eileen Blair, his first wife, died unexpectedly, the first friend that Orwell saw (as he rushed home from Germany where he was working as a war correspondent) was Inez Holden. She reported that he was distraught beyond telling (Shelden 1991: 417-418). Of course, he had been taught socially from an early age to have emotional reserve which others may have interpreted wrongly, becoming disconcerted at his apparently stoic calm. The social context of the era in which Orwell was raised is not considered at all by Fitzgerald, who dismisses Ida Blair as having a ‘self-absorbed life’ and not bothering to ‘mother’ her children. Boarding school was de rigueur for children of Orwell’s class and parenting a different enterprise compared with contemporary mores.
The exact cause of Asperger’s is unknown but is generally thought to be largely inherited (although some experts believe environmental factors play a role) and brain imaging has not identified a common underlying reason for the syndrome. The diagnosis of Asperger’s was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 and the symptoms are now included within the Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is deﬁned and diagnosed on the basis of behavioural symptomology, however research suggests biological, neurological, and/or genetic causal factors (Ward 2016: 277). It is complex to diagnose and Fitzgerald writes: “as if he were their psychiatrist. He isn’t. Nor is he really their biographer” (Dohani 2005: 267). An improbable genie is, unfortunately, now well and truly out of the bottle.
It was not just the late Christopher Hitchens who flirted with the work of Professor Fitzgerald as increasingly the notion that Orwell was autistic floats around in the ether. Kathy Lette, the Australian author, recently wrote a feature article about Julian Assange where she noted: “with diagnostic hindsight, we now know that Mozart, Einstein, Orwell, Van Gogh, Steve Jobs and many other scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians and computer masterminds such as Alan Turing were on the autistic spectrum. Joining their quirky ranks is Julian Assange.” Assange, at least, is alive and formally diagnosed with ASD but it is of concern that this kind of dubious nonsense is entering the public discourse unchallenged, as fact. Lette, to her credit, did respond to my tweeted question about her source and a dialogue ensued. Her final salvo:
“It’s just pretty much assumed by every autism expert I know. Along with many great writers and artists. And also fictional characters like Mr Darcy and Sherlock Holmes etc..” (Twitter 2020)
Anyone convinced by Fitzgerald’s diagnosis may well ask themselves if this diagnosis changes their estimation of Orwell’? It is deeply misguided, however tempting, to think that such a posthumous diagnosis can ‘explain’ aspects of his personality. Fitzgerald knows the diagnostic map pertaining to Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorder but only superficially knows the territory that was Orwell. It seems a classic case of looking at the map, not the territory.
Eric Blair was not autistic but eccentric, a product of his peculiar environment and experiences! To say otherwise is ‘pure wind’.
A version of this post can be found in the The Orwell Society Journal.
Attwood, Tony (2007) The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Dosani, S. (2005) “Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? By Michael Fitzgerald”, British Journal of Psychiatry, 186(3), 267-267. doi:10.1192/bjp.186.3.267
Fitzgerald, Michael (2004). Autism and Creativity: Is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability?, New York: Brunner Routledge
Fitzgerald, Michael (2014). The Link between Asperger Syndrome and Scientific, Artistic, and Political Creativity: Eleven Case Studies, New York: Edwin Mellen Press.
Fitzgerald, Michael (2015). The Mind of the Artist: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Asperger Syndrome & Depression, New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Lette, Kathy (2020) “Assange’s Autism Explains Why People Read Him Unfairly”, The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: <https://www.smh.com.au/national/i-knew-assange-was-autistic-it-explains-why-people-read-him-unfairly-20201013-p564tp.html> Accessed 15 January 2021.
Osteen, Mark ed. (2008) Autism and Representation (Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies), Taylor and Francis: Kindle Edition
Shelden, Michael (1991) Orwell: The Authorised Biography, London: Heinemann
Twitter (2020) Available at: <https://twitter.com/Dorianlynskey/status/1316673806182887429> Accessed 15 January 2021.
Walker, Antoinette; Fitzgerald, Michael (2014) Unstoppable Brilliance, Dublin: Liberties Press
Ward, S. L., Sullivan, K. A., & Gilmore, L. (2016) “Practitioner Perceptions of the Assessment and Diagnosis of Autism in Australia”. Australian Psychologist, 51(4), 272–279. https://doi.org/10.1111/ap.12211