Hemingway’s Head

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel has written a lifestyle guide, offering people tips on achieving the kind of life that has helped Mariel avoid becoming the eighth member of her family to commit suicide. Hers seems to be the kind of family that supports the theory that mental illness is genetic.

The Hemingways - Clarence 3rd from left; Ursula 2nd from right; Ernest far right

The Hemingways – Clarence 3rd from left; Ursula 2nd from right; Ernest far right

Ernest’s father Clarence shot himself in 1928 – understandably, 29-year-old Ernest was traumatised (not least because his mother sent him the gun his father had used) – and his maternal grandfather had attempted suicide. Even before Clarence’s death though, Hemingway was plagued by thoughts of suicide. In a love letter to his future (second) wife Pauline, whom he married in 1927, he wrote:

“I think all the time I want to die.”

He was a notoriously heavy drinker, which has been blamed, partially at least, for his poor mental health, and for his diabetes. Another reason has been suggested as haemochromatosis, or ‘iron overload’. Haemochromatosis is inherited; Hemingway’s father had it, and the disease’s impact on his physical and mental functions probably contributed to Clarence’s own depression.

Hemingway was diagnosed with haemochromatosis in 1961, following a decade in which he won the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature (with The Old Man and the Sea, 1951) but was also in two plane crashes that nearly killed him. The first one left him with a broken skull, the second – a day later; ironically, Hemingway and his (fourth) wife Mary were travelling to receive medical care after the first – gave him a concussion and leaking cerebral fluid. He was to be in pain for the rest of his life, which, according to those who knew him, made him increasingly irascible and difficult to be around. Understandably, his drinking increased as he used alcohol to self-medicate.

Hemingway in 1960

Hemingway in 1960

By the end of the 1950s Hemingway was seriously ill. He spent some time in the Mayo Clinic in Massachusetts in 1960, and was back in the following April after Mary found him sitting at home with a gun. There he underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which he said ruined his memory. He was released for the second time on the 26th of June, and killed himself with a double-barrelled shotgun on the 2nd of July.

In her own book of their relationship, his widow Mary wrote that she thought about locking the gun cabinet, but decided it would be wrong to keep her husband from his possessions. Interesting reasoning.

According to a psychologist in the US, ‘significant evidence exists to support the diagnoses of bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probable borderline and narcissistic personality traits’ for Hemingway. His reported mood swings and occasional cruelty seem to back up these retrospective mental health diagnoses, but of course we’ll never know for sure. What is certain is that the Hemingway family has a long, sad history of chronic mental ill-health, often triggered, it seems, by physical illness.

We have Clarence’s suicide possibly due to his haemochromatosis, Ernest’s sister Ursula killed herself with a drugs overdose in 1966 while battling cancer, and his brother Leicester shot himself in 1982 after learning that he might lose his legs to diabetes. Mariel’s sister Margaux died after taking an overdose of phenobarbital, in 1996.

Mariel was born a few months after Ernest died. According to interviews she believes there’s a curse that haunts her family; fingers crossed she’s managed to escape.

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2 thoughts on “Hemingway’s Head

  1. Mariel looks like she is doing great things to help avoid/manage unhealthy lifestyles and mental illness. I have not read this book she is publishing, but it looks interesting.
    –JW

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