As the Indian Government prepares to pass a new mental health bill banning the use of electric shock treatment without anaesthetic, we turn to Vivien Leigh. Bear with me.
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Hartley in Darjeeling, India, in 1913, and lived in Calcutta until she was sent to an English boarding school aged six. She went to RADA, married, had a daughter and was enjoying life as the new star of British theatre when, in 1935, she met the also-married Laurence Olivier. The two embarked on a passionate affair and finally married in 1940.
In summer 1944 Leigh had a miscarriage. The general consensus is that this miscarriage was the trigger for the lengthy bipolar episode that followed, though it seems she was displaying signs of mental illness in the late 1930s – in 1937 Olivier mentioned to a friend that she had verbally abused him without provocation, and in 1939 she took an overdose of sleeping pills (which she took because of lifelong insomnia, itself considered another symptom of mental illness). She was also diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1945, and was forced to spend an extended recovery period at home. Her illness did her mental health no good at all – neither did playing the mentally fragile and tragic Blanche DuBois in the 1950 film of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. She later said the role “tipped [her] over into madness.”
She suffered a major breakdown in 1953, while filming in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and was rushed back to England. In an interview given shortly after their panicked flight home, Olivier seemed to imply that a fear of flying was partially to blame for her illness, though he did acknowledge that she was receiving treatment, at a Surrey hospital called Netherne.
The only treatment available for bipolar disorder at the time was ECT; during the three months Leigh was at Netherne she had several sessions of it. Olivier was apparently devastated by the changes in Leigh’s personality following her treatment:
“I can only describe them by saying that she was not, now that she had been given the treatment, the same girl that I had fallen in love with. … She was now more of a stranger to me than I could ever have imagined possible. Something had happened to her, very hard to describe, but unquestionably evident.”
He would later write that she had the ability to hide her bipolar from almost everyone except him.
Leigh and Olivier struggled along with their marriage until 1960, when he requested a divorce in order to marry another actress, Joan Plowright. Leigh started a relationship with actor Jack Merivale but, sadly, never seemed to get over Olivier. She continued to have ECT sporadically until she died of tuberculosis in 1967.
If you’re interested, there’s a balanced discussion of ECT, its merits and flaws and its history here.