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Letter to the Editor   |    
Creativity and Affective Illness
LASZLO VARGA, M.D., PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:676-677. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.676
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To the Editor: My heartfelt gratitude to you for accepting articles related to culture and not only dull statistical assessments of recently approved pharmaceutical agents. The study about Emily Dickinson is, of course, on my mind. I read Dr. McDermott’s article with delight.

Without the slightest intention to alter or correct anything in that interesting article, I wish to present additional information regarding the mystery of the emotional “crisis” in Dickinson’s poetry and life. The secret of her “emotional disaster” has been subjected to various and even contradictory interpretations. My source is a book written by Rebecca Patterson (1), published in 1951 and thus perhaps forgotten. It is a thoroughly researched work, reporting that Dickinson’s “crisis” happened during the breakup of a loving relationship with another woman; this woman was Kate Scott Anthon, a worldly, intelligent, bisexual woman who was herself a poet.

The two ladies met the first time in March 1859 in Amherst, and the mutual attraction was immediate. About a year later, when Anthon visited Amherst for the third time, Dickinson’s sister Lavinia was away in Boston. Anthon stayed overnight in Dickinson’s room, and they shared a bed. Never was Dickinson happier than during the summer of 1860. They walked together, holding hands, and Dickinson’s poetry sparkled with love: “Her sweet weight on my heart at night.”

But in that prejudiced, puritan, Calvinistic atmosphere, such a friendship was threatened with danger of large magnitude. Thus Dickinson enveloped the relationship with symbolic substitutions, so much so that analytical expertise is needed to decipher the meaning of words such as “diamond,” “pearl,” “dusk gem,” “soldier,” “pilgrim,” and a dozen other characters, all representing Anthon. After these happy days, what precipitated an emotional crisis? Anthon realized the socially precarious nature of their entanglement and broke up the relationship in a letter in April 1861. Dickinson was destroyed; she felt more hurt than at any other time in her life. She called Anthon a traitor and contemplated suicide. For the sensitive, naive, and inexperienced girl, this wound remained unhealed for the rest of her life. She changed her name from “Emelie” to “Emily,” a little-known fact. Family members, finding her poems and letters after her death, changed her grammar and falsified much of her manuscripts. Lavinia even destroyed Dickinson’s letters from Anthon. Her poems were carefully edited, and only a small number were allowed to be published. Dickinson published only seven poems in her lifetime. Her manuscripts were auctioned in 1950, but it is not known how many were actually sold. Several variations exist because of the alterations and exchanges of ownership. Some important poems, however, escaped censorship. Dickinson, her heart wounded, wanted to share her secret and did not mind if the truth emerged after her death. Perhaps the most moving lines that escaped editorial alteration include a frank disclosure and show remorse:

I shall not murmur if at last
The one I loved below
Permission have to understand
For what I shunned so—Divulging it would rest my heart
But it would ravage theirs
Why, Katie, treason has a voice
But mine dispels in tears.

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