Obsessives… and the rest of us

Melvil Dewey's Decimal System
Melvil Dewey’s Decimal System (Photo credit: Klara Kim)

At a recent Commonwealth Club event author Josh Kendall talked about his eponymous book on American obsessives and the seven builders-&-shakers on whom his spotlight shines. It is a spotlight of ambivalence. Kendall is talking about the likes of Melvil Dewey (who thought so obsessively in ten’s that we can now thank him for the Dewey decimal system, libraries, things like that.) Or Steve Jobs, who was prone to call in the scrubbers if a speck of dirt got on his white floors — but meanwhile was busy creating technological wonders. Or Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator and serial womanizer.

The talk made me feel a little better about the less famous among us. Being mildly obsessed with reproductive rights myself, I am inexpressibly grateful for the likes of Gloria Steinem, or Cecile Richards or Terry O’Neill. But investing one’s gifts and energies in a cause seems to be far less hazardous — to oneself as well as loved ones and everybody else — than the traditional path of the obsessive super-achiever.

Kendall’s super-achievers (the others he chose to study are Thomas Jefferson, Ted Williams, Henry Heinz and — it was reportedly hard to find a woman — Estee Lauder) were not just difficult, he maintains, but mentally ill. In an article for Slate titled “Madness Made Them Great,” he wrote that his subjects had “occasional bouts with depression, but they primarily suffered (or benefited) from another form of mental illness: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.”

You can obsess about a cause or a project and still be a great parent or a welcome dinner guest; once you get to the level of OCPD evidenced by Kendall’s subjects — who make for a fascinating book, by the way — you’re making a mark on history, but driving your families and friends nuts.

In other words, obsessives create a lot of good stuff but you probably don’t want to marry one.


  1. “Reproductive Rights” is such a misleading term! This isn’t about the right to reproduction, it’s about the right to terminate an unborn baby’s life at ANY stage of development in utero. Having suffered 2 miscarriages in 6 months, I can tell you that there is an undeniable bond between that mother and baby. Losing those babies were devastating even though one was only 9 weeks along and the other 8 weeks, but the size of 6 weeks. Meeting other women who have had even later term miscarriages and having to deliver their babies stillborn at 18 weeks and 36 weeks, I can tell you the absolute devastation is alive and real. What’s the difference with me and these women and a woman who had an abortion? The ONLY difference you could argue is that the woman who had an abortion did not WANT the child for whatever reason. Knowing several couples (including myself and my husband) who have been unable to have children and so desperately want them, it seems to me that the best thing a woman can do is bless the world with her baby and, if she doesn’t want it or is concerned she can’t care for it like it should be cared for, then place it up for adoption. Let a couple who CAN give the child the life you would want it to have! My best friend had an abortion, she was young and her boyfriend at the time pressured her into it. She dealt for years with grief, anxiety, depression, and guilt over her choice. THIS is the norm, not the exception despite what current culture and media want to portray.

    So, no…I don’t see this as a “right” at all. I see this as destruction of innocent life. It isn’t the child’s fault on how it was conceived, so why should its life be cut short? I am more understanding in cases of rape or incest, but if its going to be legal it should remain legal for only such incidents. The farse is that this is a woman’s “right” to control her own body. The problem is, the baby’s body within her IS NOT her body, it is a separate person that only resides for a short time within the woman’s body.

    1. Thank you for those thoughts, Beth, and I’m sorry for your losses. I had several miscarriages myself and know how devastating that can be. My abortion was much earlier, in very difficult and unfortunate circumstances (perhaps you’ll read my book, my story is in it) and had I not been able to terminate that pregnancy I would never have had my greatly beloved children and mourned those miscarriages. Of course, I did not (and do not) equate an embryo or non-viable fetus with life. But I don’t claim that my faith is right or yours is wrong in how we see the beginning of life. I simply know from my own experience, and that of hundreds and hundreds of women who have shared stories with me, that every abortion in complex, personal and unique to the woman involved.

      I want to be clear about the fact that I am not “pro-abortion.” I would like to see it never happen. I’m sad for your friend, and hope she will be able to welcome a child into her life. Unfortunately, not every unwanted pregnancy involves a fetus that would become an adoptable, wanted child. Many would be born drug addicted or severely flawed in ways that would make their adoption unlikely.

      So should every woman with an unintended pregnancy be forced to carry that pregnancy to term? I don’t feel qualified to make that decision for anyone else, and that’s why I would rather trust women to make appropriate choices for themselves. And why I am not pro-abortion, but strongly pro-choice.

      Meanwhile, I hope we can honor each others’ beliefs and try to find ways to work together on things we do agree on — keeping unintended pregnancies from happening, promoting good health, building strong families. If we can find ways to understand and respect each others’ views it is my hope that some solution other than criminalizing abortion again can be found, because I am too familiar with how terrible those days were for women.

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