A new book published in February 2019 claimed that famed actress, Vivien Leigh who starred in Gone with the Wind (1939) and A Street Car Named Desire (1951) had suffered from bipolar disorder. However, Leigh, along with many other artists, were victims of psychiatric treatment, especially electroconvulsive therapy (electroshock, ECT) that not only failed but also harmed them.
Leigh had received best actress Oscars for both films. In 1945, during a stage performance of The Skin of Our Teeth, she experienced attacks of hysteria, alternated with bouts of exhaustion and exhilaration. Diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), she continued performing until closing night. After six weeks of treatment in a hospital, the TB showed signs of abating and she recuperated at home over the following year. Bouts of hysteria, however, continued, exacerbated because she mixed alcohol with her TB medication. Isoniazid, one of the drugs prescribed at the time for TB, had side effects that included mental confusion and toxic psychosis.
In the early 1950s, Leigh began seeing a psychiatrist. Typically, psychiatrists do not test for underlying physical conditions that may manifest in behavioral and emotional issues. While filming Elephant Walk (1954) in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Leigh began having hallucinations, making it impossible to film. Desperately concerned, her husband, the renowned classical actor Sir Lawrence Olivier (Wuthering Heights, 1939; Hamlet, 1948; Othello, 1965; A Bridge Too Far, 1977; The Jazz Singer, 1980), took the advice of a psychiatrist and Leigh was flown to England, where she was admitted to a psychiatric facility.
Here, she was brutally packed in ice as part of her “treatment” and subjected to repeated electroshocks. One time she suffered burn marks to her head from the electric shock. Olivier was devastated by the change in his wife’s personality following ECT: “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.”
In May 1967, the TB had spread to both lungs and Leigh’s condition was critical. Her strength destroyed by years of electroshocks and psychiatric drugs, she was unable to fight off the disease and succumbed to it less than two months later.
Leigh was not the only artist ruined by ECT. Tricked into a psychiatric institution, Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms, 1929; For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940; Old Man and the Sea, 1952) was given 20 electroshocks. Several weeks later, he confided, “What these shock doctors don’t know is about writers and such…. They should make all psychiatrists take a course in creative writing so they’d know about writers… what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient….” In July 1961, days after being released from the Mayo psychiatric clinic, Hemingway committed suicide.
Actress Frances Farmer’s life was portrayed by Jessica Lange in the 1982 movie Frances. It is a story of the savage, brutal and unforgivable harm done to one of the most talented actresses of her time by psychiatrists. Upset over a string of failed relationships and stressed by career demands, Farmer was addicted to amphetamines prescribed to keep her weight under control. She also abused alcohol. In 1943, Farmer was committed to a psychiatric institution and subjected to insulin shock and ECT. When she tried to escape, psychiatrists punitively administered more ECT in an effort to break her defiant and rebellious will. When this failed to turn her into a “model” patient, she was given “hydrotherapy”—stripped naked and thrown into a tub of icy water for six to eight hours.
Judy Garland, star of iconic films including The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Star is Born (1954), had a studio contract that required her to maintain a certain physical appearance—if she gained weight, she could be suspended without pay. She was prescribed antidepressants and amphetamines to control her appetite and barbiturates to help her sleep. As the drugs took a progressively greater hold of her life, her behavior on the film set became erratic and disruptive. Under a psychiatrist’s orders, she began the first of many stays in psychiatric hospitals. In 1949, not yet 27 years old, she was subjected to electroshock. Assertions that the source of Garland’s troubles was some inherent artistic neurosis came from psychiatrists or psychoanalysts with purses to fill. She had formed her own firm opinion of her treating psychiatrists: “She was abysmally discouraged; her years of analysis had not helped her… she had no respect for psychiatrists, she had seen more than a dozen of them and they had all failed her.”
The legendary bass-baritone Paul Robeson (“‘Ol’ Man River,” “Swing Low, Swing Chariot,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Summertime”) became famous when segregation was legal. As well as advancing the cause of black Americans, he used his music to share the cultures of other countries and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time. He sang songs promoting world peace and human rights in 25 languages. They were often traditional spirituals or folk songs telling of struggle, resilience and survival. During a concert tour in Russia in 1961, Robeson didn’t feel well and locked himself in his room. He began to feel worthless and depressed and slashed his wrists. He was taken to a Soviet hospital to recover, went to London where he relapsed and was given 54 doses of ECT. He was never the same man again, according to his son.
Guitar hero Peter Green founded Fleetwood Mac in London in 1967 but by the time they released their fourth album in 1969, he was going off the rails mentally having consumed a large amount of LSD. Touring Europe in March 1970, Green binged on dangerously impure LSD and several months later left the band. Green spent time in various psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s undergoing electroconvulsive therapy, and his friends were shocked to find him in an almost continual trance. The man who had been hailed as one of the finest blues guitarists of his generation fell into destitution, having to find work as a hospital porter and even a gravedigger. Green later resurrected his career, according to The Daily Mail in 2012.
Electroshock is pain inflicted in the name of therapy. It is just as controversial and destructive today (despite its alleged changes) as it was in 1975, when the Academy-Award-winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released and Nurse Ratched was famous for saying ECT “might be said to do the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair and the torture rack.” ECT ruins lives. Help support its ban. Sign CCHR’s Petition here.
 Physicians’ Desk Reference to Pharmaceutical Specialties and Biologicals (Oradell, N.J.: Medical Economics, Inc., 1964), 19th ed., p. 710.
Anne Edwards, Vivien Leigh (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977), p. 198; Steven Farber and Marc Green, Hollywood on the Couch, pp., 122, 123, 149, 156, 188, 191, 192, 197.
Laurence Olivier, Laurence Olivier An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 194-95.
“Psychiatry Kills Celebrities,” The L.A. Voice, Apr 12, 1974; “Shock Therapy,” Washington Post, Sep. 24, 1995.
 Leonard Roy Frank, The History of Shock Treatment (San Francisco: Leonard Roy Frank, 1978), p. 70.