Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What If Churchill Hadn't Tamed His "Black Dog"?

Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on May 22, 2009

Reprinted with permission of World War II Magazine

In March 2006 a statue of Winston Churchill went on display in Norwich, England. It might have attracted little attention but for one disquieting detail: it showed the prime minister in a straitjacket. The statue was part of a campaign by Rethink, the mental health advocacy group that commissioned it.

“We are trying to break down the stigma of mental illness,” explained a spokesman. “Churchill documented his depression and referred to it as his ‘black dog.’ Nowadays it would be described as bipolar disorder or manic depression. We all know that Churchill was a great leader and this statue is an illustration of what people with mental illness can achieve” —- that is, without the cruel caricatures that too often burden those with such illnesses.

Indeed, the controversy in the wake of the statue’s unveiling underscored the point Rethink was trying to make. Many Britons cried foul. “It’s not only insulting, it’s pathetic,” growled Nicholas Soames, grandson of the former prime minister. The outcry forced Rethink to remove the statue after only a few days. The organization had miscalculated the public’s receptivity to such a portrayal of a national icon. But had it been mistaken about Churchill’s illness itself?

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