State of Mind

How Should We Talk About the Mental Health of Historical Figures?

A collage of images show a woman's face, a man's face, the two together with a dog, and parts of their torsos.
Klára Dán and John von Neumann Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress and Archives of the Institute for Advanced Study/Alan Richards.

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The first modern-style code ever executed on a computer was written in 1948, by a woman named Klára Dán von Neumann, or Klári to her friends. The code itself is a narrow column, 30 pages long, of numbers and letters written in pencil, with occasional corrections, like a 6 turned into a 7 with two urgent exclamation points.

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The pages represent the foundation of today’s entire world of code, which is now replete with English and much more legible, even to me. Code is now written in one of thousands of “programming languages,” which, like human languages, are systems of signifiers, shorthand for the on/offs computers actually register. In the late ’40s Klári had no such interface, effectively speaking a novel and foreign language.

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This unassuming artifact and hundreds of other relics from Klári’s life are preserved with her much-more-famous husband John von Neumann’s files at the Library of Congress. Johnny, a brilliant mathematician who invented game theory, was the one who got Klári into computing, seeing her mathematical talent as a population researcher. He brought her onto his project, which aimed to perfect a design for the hydrogen bomb: an algorithm would simulate occurrences of nuclear fusion. This mathematical algorithm is what Klári translated into code, which was then run on ENIAC, an early electronic computer.

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I recently sifted through the couple’s archives for my job as the senior editor for a podcast called Lost Women of Science that devoted its second season to describing Klári’s contribution and putting it into context. The code itself was the tip of the iceberg.

The majority of the couple’s relics at the Library of Congress were personal, and the most personal were handwritten letters Klári and her husband exchanged over 19 years—many of them in Hungarian, the couple’s native language. Their correspondence traces their relationship, starting with their brief flirtation in Monte Carlo and then detailing their Jewish families’ evacuation from Europe at the onset of World War II, their careers in the United States, and beyond. In their letters, the two were playful, collaborative, and often unwell, to pull a term from the present. Johnny is now widely believed to have had OCD, and Klári was diagnosed at the end of her life with “anxiety depression with neuroses,” according to a coroner’s report.

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Those diagnostic terms never actually appeared in the personal exchanges, of course. Instead, Klári referred to a “nervous stomach,” for which she had several surgeries; “getting panicky”; and according to a poem she once jotted down, a sense that most of life was “just like hell.” In a memoir draft she never finished, Klári playfully described Johnny as “intensely and convincedly superstitious. A drawer could not be opened unless it was pushed in and out seven times, the same with a light-switch, which also had to be flipped seven times before you could let it stay. He would not walk past a mirror without looking into [it] and making a grimace, and you could not go alongside a building without touching it with your elbow.”

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Johnny died from cancer in 1957, and Klári died bysuicide in 1963. In the middle of the night, she weighed her dress down with sand and walked into the Pacific ocean.

Lost Women of Science set out to talk about Klári’s contribution to computing and everything significant to it—and it was clear from the first day of archival research that mental illness was significant to it. In later interviews, everyone who knew of Klári and her work—which turned out to be very few people—said that she was plagued by insecurity in her extremely interconnected life and work. In letters, she expressed jealousy toward Johnny’s brain and accused him of not caring about her; he responded with long, passionate assurances. After presenting her findings from ENIAC’s runs in Los Alamos to a team of decorated scientists, someone spotted a mistake in her code, and according to a letter from Johnny, she became “catastrophically depressed.” By the late ’50s, as her field became mainstream, she was turning down offers for jobs as a consultant, saying she didn’t do that kind of work anymore.

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Mental illness shaped Klári’s life and eventually ended it. My coworkers and I sat in many Zoom meetings puzzling over how to present this aspect of Klári’s story. There were so many unanswered questions: What kind of force was mental health to her, exactly? What did the experience feel like to actually live? What did Klári have? And the most tempting of all: What would have happened to Klári if she’d been alive today, with all of our tremendous developments in mental health—the lifting of the stigma? What else could she have done? All we had were raw and crude descriptions from Klári and Johnny’s writings to describe something mystifying.

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Klári and Johnny did not have a well-developed language for mental health. And maybe we don’t either, but we have one new tier, a widely used vocabulary that signifies not just an experience, but the experience of an experience. A nervous stomach is anxiety. Not sleeping is insomnia. The compulsive touching of buildings with elbows is OCD. And lots of people have anxiety, insomnia, and OCD. The words we have now can feel dry and colorless, but looking at history makes their value clearer; they do more than define our experience of pain.
They can actually confine that pain within a definitional boundary, standardize the experience so that it’s manageable, and connect us to a network of those who use the same language. These words perform a function–they actually work towards changing an experience from overwhelming to defined, from everything to a thing, from isolated to shared.

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Whatever language we now have to talk about interiority was not pulled out of thin air, but wrestled into existence by people in the past who needed it. That’s the process I see happening when I read Klári’s stormy, handwritten letters, which span pages trying to pin down the meaning of her pain, determine who or what caused it, figure out what to do.

My colleagues and I asked ourselves: What would it mean to use our new language to describe Klári’s experience? I don’t think it would mean much more than telling the ENIAC to “print(‘Hello, world!’).” The terms we have now are anachronisms, and the specific purpose they serve in the present becomes null when they’re projected backwards. That doesn’t really stop us though; there are heaps of online listicles retroactively diagnosing Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh with this and that. Maybe this knee jerk is a response to a sense of loneliness—because this mental health “awakening” can create the feeling that we’re alone in history, with these experiences we’ve now defined more clearly, though not perfectly. It’s tempting to pull familiar figures from the past closer, or even give them justice.

The way people felt determined technologies, politics, who lived and died. And we have not yet figured out what to make of that when we study history. Maybe our descendants will find the language.

​​If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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