Did David Bowie owe his mentally ill family members for giving him the genes he needed to be one of the world’s most revered creative celebrities? As it appears, there are a couple of pieces of research that seem to confirm this about David Bowie.
President Obama officially declared May as Mental Health Awareness Month, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is encouraging people to celebrate by being leaders in de-stigmatizing mental illness.
Adding to this, newer scientific evidence seems to help explain how having schizophrenic genetics in his family could have helped craft David Bowie into the extraordinary creative genius he was.
In addition, while David Bowie may have had a genetic predisposition to be creative due to his schizophrenic relatives, he also allowed his experiences with mentally ill family members to deeply influence some of his work.
Some would say that David Bowie’s creativity was irrefutable, and he had his hands in almost any project he wanted. In fact, unlike many people that wind down their creativity at the end of their lives, David Bowie was bursting with it up and until the week of his death from cancer, according to The Guardian.
However, what is interesting is that science now shows that schizophrenia is genetic and people with schizophrenia tend to have relatives in creative professions. This science could explain why David Bowie was so gifted considering multiple members of his family were schizophrenic or mentally ill.
Mind Hacks highlights that, in addition to a half-sibling, two of David Bowie’s aunts were schizophrenic and another aunt was permanently institutionalized for mental illness.
Supporting the idea that David Bowie’s family predetermined him to be exceptionally creative, a 2010 interview posted by Science Update states that “healthy people in creative professions are more likely to have family members with schizophrenia than less creative people, suggesting some kind of genetic or biological link between the two.”
The article goes on to explain that further research posted in 2010 by the Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden found the following information was evident from their research.
“The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people. Schizophrenics are also known to have low D2 density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity.”
“Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” Dr. Fredrik Ullén said.
In addition, since the 2010 findings of the Karolinska Institutet, the idea that schizophrenia is inherited was established just a few months after David Bowie died.
Published on April 21 in the Washington Post, the statement that schizophrenia is genetic is clarified with the following.
“In new research, scientists have found important evidence supporting the idea that a certain subset of those who develop the highly hereditary disease are genetically set on that path before birth.”
Researcher Kristen Brennand summarizes her thoughts about the outcome of learning schizophrenia is genetic and says she hopes “it tells parents is that it’s not their fault,” and continues with the following.
“If science can do anything, even before new treatments, maybe we can at least change attitudes.”
Speaking of attitudes, it could be said that David Bowie had a better one than most during a time period when mental illness was stigmatized in his home country of the U.K.
Psychology Today reports that “[i]n countries such as the U.S. and U.K., people with psychotic symptoms are far more likely to be stigmatized and isolated than tolerated or even celebrated.”
Instead, David Bowie may have viewed mental illness like people “in many traditional societies” where people with psychotic symptoms are “revered as visionaries and mystics, and sought out for their superhuman insights and abilities.”
Obviously, David Bowie may have thought a lot about the unique “abilities” that mental illness presented in those that went through those types of experiences.
For instance, when his half-brother, Terry Burns, died from complications related to schizophrenia, Hearing Voices writes that David Bowie “sent a wreath of roses and a card which read: ‘You’ve seen more things than we could imagine but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain. God bless you – David.’”
David Bowie’s personal relationship with mental illness is also found in his work. For instance, Vice writes the following.
“Bowie wrote a range of songs dealing with mental illness, most obviously ‘All the Madmen,’ and more obliquely ‘Bewlay Brothers,’ which many think is designed to be a syllabic overlay of ‘Bowie Brothers.’”
By “Bowie Brothers,” they were referring to David Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns. Terry was a schizophrenic and also inspired David Bowie when he was young in key ways that paved his path to stardom. Terry was about 10-years older than David Bowie, and David Bowie credited Terry with being the one that introduced him to underground creative scene artifacts like records.
Unfortunately, Terry Burns committed suicide on January 16, 1985, (David Bowie himself died on January 10, 2016, almost 31 years later), according to Daily Mail. David Bowie was not able to attend the funeral for fear of causing a “media circus” and the loss devastated him in several ways.
Hearing Voices also noted that, eight years after Terry Burns died, when David Bowie released “Jump They Say,” David said “[My brother Terry dying] scared me. I felt my own mind was in question. I often wondered how near the line I was going – how far I should push myself.”
However, some would argue at the end of his life, David Bowie moved past the fear of becoming mentally ill in the video filmed in a psych ward for the song “Lazarus” from Black Star where he appears to let go of the “ghosts,” as Mental Health Justice states.
In the end, it could be said that David Bowie owes his career multiple times over to his schizophrenic relatives. Although it may have eventually been proven to be science that may have contributed to making David Bowie creative, Mental Health Justice proposes the following.
“How different would have David Bowie’s art have been had he not had such an intense interaction with mental illness [in his family] as a young man?”
[Picture by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]