April 8, 2017

Finest Hour 175, Winter 2017

Page 44

Walter Attenborough, Churchill and the “ Black Dog ” of Depression: Reassessing the Biographical Evidence of Psychological Disorder, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 247 pages, $39.99.
ISBN: 978–1137462299

Review by Martin Garfinkle

Martin Garfinkle is a professor in the Health and Human Services Department at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and author of The Lion’s Roar (2011).

As a psychologist and as an admirer of Winston Churchill, I found this book to be of great value to anyone who wants to understand Churchill’s lifelong struggle with depression. I may not agree with the author’s conclusion, but I do feel that the book sheds some light into Churchill’s “black dog.” Based on the research that I have done, there is for me no question that Churchill suffered from depression. I believe that the evidence points to an affective disorder (depression), and he would be diagnosed today as having what would be considered a Persistent Depressive Disorder (300.4) with atypical features.

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In reading Walter Attenborough’s book, I was fascinated that he attributes to Churchill the wisdom of modern day neuroscience. In the first chapter of the book, the author highlights Churchill’s advice that the “cultivation of a hobby,” such as bricklaying and painting (among two out of several mentioned), is necessary “to restore mental functioning of mentally overstrained persons.”

Later in the book, we see that Churchill turned to painting as a way of dealing with his “black dog”—and for Churchill, painting a picture was comparable “to fighting a battle.” When engaged with activities that helped to transport him away from his anxiety and depression, Churchill was actually switching the neural networks of his brain from default mode to task-positive mode. When in default mode, Churchill was prone to think about past misgivings and future worries. This was evidenced when Churchill was removed from the Admiralty in May 1915. When Sir William Orpen, a famous portrait painter, attempted to paint Churchill at that time, he described his subject as “sitting quietly in a chair…holding his bowed head in his hands.”

In task-positive mode, Churchill became alive and was able to work his way out of his depression by focusing on what he was doing in the moment. We again see this pattern of turning to painting when Churchill was voted out of office in 1945. Werner Vogt’s review on this page of Philip Gut’s biography of Willy Sax, manufacturer of the oil paints used by Churchill, illustrates this perfectly.

Attenborough’s own book is filled with information that is probably not well known to the average Churchillian. I was surprised to learn that Clementine Churchill had become “seriously mentally ill in the autumn of 1963.” I was reminded after reading the book that Churchill’s daughter Diana suffered from depression and in 1963 took her life by overdosing on sleeping pills. Not much attention, however, is given to Randolph Churchill, who died at fifty-seven of a sudden heart attack brought on by years of drinking and smoking. I was also disappointed that Attenborough did not speculate on what Churchill’s diagnosis would be today from the perspective of DSM-V, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by all medical and mental health professionals to arrive at a diagnosis for a patient.

Nevertheless, this good and worthwhile book is informative and easy to read if you are looking to understand Churchill from a psychological perspective.

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