It is now more than fifty years since Ernest Hemingway, at the time America’s most celebrated novelist, shot himself in the head with his favourite double-barrelled shotgun in his home in Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains. His family initially suppressed the suicide, reporting it to the press as an accidental death, but the facts behind the incident and Hemingway’s history of mental illness quickly became common knowledge, and continue to reverberate among his descendents to the present day.
Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel, who is best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, is the subject of Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary, which chronicles the Hemingway family legacy of mental illness and suicide. Born on 22nd November 1961, just four months after her grandfather’s death, she has, in her own words, always been ‘running from crazy‘, battling with insecurity, depression, suicidal thoughts and chronic familial adversity for as long as she can remember. Now, having gained control over her own life, she is in a position to reflect on her family history and attempt to change perceptions of the so-called ‘Hemingway curse’.
On paper, there appear to be strong foundations for the label and, whichever way you look at it, the statistics give the impression of a family in crisis. There have been five suicides in the last four Hemingway generations, from Ernest’s father, Clarence, in 1928, to Mariel’s sister, the high-profile model and actress, Margaux, in 1996. Throughout his life, Clarence displayed erratic mood swings, suicidal tendencies and an obsessive personality, while, for Ernest, we can add insomnia, intense headaches, chronic alcoholism and severe depression to that list. His siblings, two of whom committed suicide, all had similar symptoms, while Margaux suffered from bulimia, epilepsy, substance abuse and severe alcoholism. Mental health problems have also been prominent in family members who did not commit suicide, such as Mariel’s eldest sister, Joan, known to friends and relatives as Muffet, who has been institutionalised at various points throughout her life with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
But is it fair to say that mental illness is, in this case, hereditary, or are there other reasons behind this genealogy of suffering? Studies indicate that there does appear to be a genetic element to the development of psychiatric disorders but, as yet, there is little evidence regarding how the mechanisms might work. Various hypotheses have been put forward to explain the Hemingway legacy, including hereditary hemochromatosis, which Ernest was diagnosed with in his last year of life. However, these theories are all unsubstantiated and, furthermore, there are ethical reasons why genetic explanations for psychiatric conditions can be very dangerous.
The perceived heredity of mental illness can have a tremendous impact on the wellbeing of family members, leading them to question whether they will suffer a similar fate. Fears of genetic contamination can arise, which stigmatises those already suffering from mental health problems and increases anxiety among those who do not. When, as is the case with the Hemingway family, this is played out in the media spotlight, it can have an even more devastating effect on the people involved. In the documentary, Mariel speaks openly about giving power away to others in an attempt to distance herself from her family history, while her ex-husband explains that she was always concerned about going down the same ‘slippery slope’ as many of her relatives.
While significant progress has been made in destigmatising suicide in recent years, for most of the twentieth century, suicide was unquestionably a stigma. It was not something that could be easily talked about in public and the Hemingway family mastered the ability to avoid the subject altogether. After their initial denial to the press, they refused to discuss the issues that came to affect them most, even amongst themselves. Ernest, famous for his emotionally-detached prose and hyper-masculinity, could not bring himself to accept that his father’s problems were down to psychological weakness, instead choosing to blame his mother for his death. This evasive attitude was passed down to Mariel’s father, Jack, who ensured that his daughters remained unaware that their grandfather had killed himself until they were young adults.
When the girls were growing up, their home environment was rife with traumatic incidents and hugely detrimental to their mental health. According to Mariel, ‘the house‘, which was situated just a short distance from the site of Ernest’s suicide, ‘was insanity, and nobody recognised it‘. Nobody spoke about their own problems and would go out of their way to avoid tension. Their parents, who had an unhappy marriage, drank every night, and if any of the children ‘rocked the boat, things became scary‘. Avoidance and isolation became essential coping mechanisms, and nobody could bring themselves to address the intensely negative situation that was developing.
This had repercussions for both Mariel and Margaux, who have spoken publically about their experiences with mental health problems. Although they pursued similar careers, their relationship was never close, primarily because they shared the same deep-rooted insecurities. Both were self-conscious about their bodies and their intelligence, in Margaux’s case, at least, partly because they were long-standing sources of jokes in the family when she was growing up. Because their situation forced them to become emotionally detached from other family members, they were unable to confide in each other and developed resentment where there should have been support.
Avoidance, blaming and exclusion are all too common in households with mental health problems, and recent generations of the Hemingway family are just the most high-profile examples of the damage that this can cause. The family is perhaps the most crucial institution in recognising and even treating mental illness, and a negative home environment can greatly exacerbate any developing problems. It is vital that family members are able to speak openly about mental health problems and suicide, as this leads to reduced stigma and a more positive approach to prevention and recovery. As Mariel recognises in the documentary, it is time to stop ‘running from crazy‘ and instead face up to and work through our problems.
Risk of suicide has been shown to increase for individuals with an immediate family history of mental illness or suicide, and more needs to be done to ensure that support is in place to recognise early symptoms and prevent this from happening. The Hemingways are like any other family whose inability to cope with the stigma and trauma of mental illness becomes endemic, leaving individuals isolated, with nowhere to turn. In this respect, they are an illuminating example when looking at approaches to dealing with mental health problems in the family, but, in another sense, they are an exceptional case. The controversy and media attention that has always surrounded their lives and deaths places an additional burden on each individual and those who are close to them.
While Mariel hated the baggage that came with the family name, Margaux embraced it, and, in many ways, most closely followed in her grandfather’s footsteps. One of the most fascinating aspects of Running From Crazy is the footage from a documentary that Margaux started shooting before she died, which focuses on Ernest’s life and legacy, replete with mystery and adventure. She describes Hemingway as ‘a magical name‘, and said in an interview with People magazine that ‘like him, I wanted to live life to the fullest, with gusto‘. Like him, she is drawn to her father’s hunting and the bullfighting at Pamplona, seeing something of her own life in that appalling dance of death. And like him, she was at times a tormented individual, wracked with depression and suicidal thoughts. With tragic symmetry, she took her own life on the eve of the 35th anniversary of Ernest’s death, and, once again, the Hemingways refused to accept what had happened.
Written by Rob Dickie