“This book goes back to my interest in poetry and my interest in understanding suffering and trauma. I’ve been on my own journey to understand the place where those things intersect, and when I found Allen Ginsberg’s poetry in junior high school, it really spoke to me.”
With BEST MINDS: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry From Madness (Fordham University Press), Dr. Stevan M. Weine has written an amazing, illuminating and important new book. We get into the nexus of poetry, suffering and trauma that enveloped Ginsberg’s life, what it took for him to write Howl, and his mother Naomi’s schizophrenia and what it meant for him to wrestle with it in Kaddish. We talk about the history of psychiatry, the legacy of some truly terrible practices (like prefrontal lobotomization), and what lies ahead for the field, while also exploring Stevan’s mid-’80s interviews with Ginsberg and the discoveries he made in the family’s psychiatric records, the power of self-mythology and how it can elide the facts (like how old Allen was when had to sign the consent form for his mother’s lobotomy), and how Ginsberg balanced on the fine line between madness and great art. Plus, we discuss Ginsberg’s activism and advocacy (including a controversial endorsement), the impact of his best-known poems on the public’s understanding of mental illness, what it meant to Stevan to discover Ginsberg’s poetry in junior high, whether he’s got some poems of his own, and a lot more. Give it a listen! And go read BEST MINDS!
“Allen doesn’t just tell the story of an individual, but of an era, of a society gone mad.”
“Is it possible to know someone like Naomi Ginsberg as a full human being, and as someone who had an illness? Yes, it is. That’s one of the most important tasks of the book, just as much as understanding Allen.”
“In many ways I think that Allen Ginsberg and his system of belief has had an impact on psychiatry and is part of what’s led to changes.”
About our Guest
Dr. Stevan M. Weine is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he is also Director of Global Medicine and Director of the Center for Global Health. He is the author of two previous books: When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Testimony and Catastrophe: Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence. His new book is Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness.
Here’s a drawing I did of Allen Ginsberg in 2022, in honor of the anniversary of his death (April 5, 1997):
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Stevan by someone else. It’s on my instagram.