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Author Looks at the Complicated Lives of 'America's Obsessives'

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. But that doesn’t mean he was an easy guy to live with.

It is the sometimes dissonant relationship between professional skills and social skills that helped Joshua Kendall question whether some of America’s most prominent innovators were also some of its most obsessive citizens. The result was his new book, “America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation.”

The book profiles seven Americans — “a long ticket-tape parade of American icons” is how he puts it in his prologue — whose accomplishments put them at the top of their professions and at the forefront in helping define pillars of American culture: Jefferson (politics), Henry Heinz (marketing), Melvil Dewey (information technology), Alfred Kinsey (sexuality), Charles Lindbergh (aviation), Estee Lauder (beauty) and Ted Williams (sports).

Using the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” that the psychiatry profession uses to identify mental illness as his guide, Kendall studied the seven for signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and found that they all exhibited key symptoms of OCPD, such as “perfectionism,” “excess devotion to work,” “preoccupation with details, rules, order, lists, organization or schedules” and “rigidity and stubbornness.” (A new edition of the DSM came out just before his book was released. The symptoms for OCPD and keys to diagnosing it were largely the same, he said.)

In the book, Kendall posits that frequently with such figures, their symptoms did little to negatively affect their professional capacities. Indeed, “paradoxically, they also emerged as assets” in their quests to do everything from defining fundamental human rights (Jefferson) to becoming the quintessential baseball hitter (Williams.)

“I’m trying to start a conversation about these type of people in our lives,” Kendall told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “With our heroes, we tend to idealize or demonize them. ... People are more complicated.”

Readers will note that the list is heavy on men. Kendall said women’s station in U.S. history until recently meant there were fewer candidates that met the criteria for both being an innovator/icon and having OCPD. “Women were harder to find, because women had fewer opportunities until the last half-century,” he said.

Kendall said he considered profiling Julia Child, citing her encyclopedic and seminal work “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” but ultimately ruled her out, saying she didn’t exhibit enough OCPD symptoms to make the cut. “Her relationship with her husband was too tender, too normal,” Kendall told CQ Roll Call.

“What I was trying to show was how obsessives can rise to the top in a variety of lines of work. Once I had Henry Heinz, I didn’t need, say, John Rockefeller,” he added.

His emphasis on how highly functioning people who have a personality disorder can be is part of a growing body of thought that is de stigmatizing mental illness. It also adds context to an ongoing conversation about historical leaders.

“We really have to rethink what makes a great leader or a great innovator. ... People are very fragmented,” he said, adding, “Sometimes that touch of madness can be helpful, but [it] needs to be properly channeled.”

CQ Roll Call will host Kendall on Wednesday at a free event where he will discuss and sign his book. For more information, go to kendallbook.eventbrite.com.

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