5 Writers Who Went Crazy While Writing Important Books
We tend to think of writers as indoor types. Hell, look at us -- we're writing this without pants because they were technically more ice-cream stain than fabric. But, some writers like to get their hands dirty, instead of getting their velvet sweatpants dirty. George Orwell lived in the slums to learn what it was like to be dirty and poor, Hunter. S Thompson hung out with the Hell's Angels ... and the following writers made both of them look like complete pansies.
Beatrix Potter's Characters Really Lived! Until She Killed And Boiled Them
Beatrix Potter wrote the famous Peter Rabbit books, as well as stories featuring Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tittlemouse, and more adorably named fuzzy-wuzzy animal friends. With more than 150 million sales, it's safe to say multiple generations have grown up on the timeless story of an asshole rabbit stealing a hard-working farmer's crops and then barely even getting punished for it.
You smug little shit. Mr. McGregor has children.
But, writing wasn't Potter's main passion. She was mostly into science because it was the 1800s, and children either started studying or started digging coal. Potter used to go around and collect anything that moved, slithered, or hopped for her personal menagerie. Then, she would take it home, skin it, and boil the flesh off so she could study the skeleton. Young Potter going full horror on a dead fox was just the start of her rampage through nature. She killed a frog, had a gamekeeper shoot a squirrel out of the trees, and chloroformed the real life Peter Rabbit, all so she could dissect them. Notes on her drawings revealed they were the inspiration for her cuddly fictional characters, so, in a way, Potter's characters were all real -- it's just that their life was much more Hellraiser than Tiny Toon Adventures.
After this photo was taken, she slowly crushed the mouse in her hand without breaking eye contact.
To be fair to Potter, it's not like she was a budding serial killer making neighborhood pets vanish. Her techniques were standard for the time, and, if it wasn't for old-timey sexism, we might know her as a famous scientist who happened to write some cute little books. It's just unnerving to look at her whimsical watercolors and realize that beneath them lies an ocean of bone and boiled sinew.
The Tale Of Oh My God, They're All Dead, Oh God, Oh God, Why?
Sociologists Are Basically Criminals
When sociologists study, they use a combination of statistics, interviews, direct observations, and impassioned arguments to their parents that yes, dammit, their major is too a real thing. Alice Goffman, a college senior studying the roughest areas of inner-city Philadelphia for an ethnography paper, favored the observational approach. So, she went undercover by living in the apartment of two crack dealers. For six years.
Welcome to your ivory tower.
Goffman met them by going on a date with one, presumably after being matched with him on OkCrackhead. During her fieldwork, she partied with dealers, dodged police investigations, watched shootings, attended the funerals of nine neighborhood men, accompanied people as they smuggled drugs into jail, and watched a surgery to remove a bullet performed on a kitchen table. You know, typical undergrad work.
She became so closely associated with local criminals that the cops began harassing her -- they even told her they wouldn't answer any emergency calls from her unless she snitched on her acquaintances. Near the end of her studies, she wasn't sure if she was going to graduate or end up in prison, a sensation that's very familiar to us (albeit for different reasons). But, despite constant harassment, risk, and paranoia, Goffman never told the police her story.
"Snitches get inferior grad-school recommendation letters."
And then, there's Sudhir Venkatesh, who calls himself the Rogue Sociologist, which surely sounded cooler in his head. In 1989, Venkatesh was a regular debt-saddled grad student hungry to make a name for himself, and also probably literally hungry given the whole indebted grad student thing. So, he ditched the boring old standard clipboard-and-survey approach and just started hanging out with the notorious Black Kings gang instead.
"I borrowed my mom's jacket for the cover photo!"
Since there isn't a class on becoming a gang member, Venkatesh had to learn the basics on the fly. This included kicking a pimp in the stomach and practicing drive-by shooting safety because there are apparently safety drills for everything. It wasn't all business though -- sometimes his main subject, gang leader J.T., would call up Venkatesh just to hang out. Y'know, do some recreational pimp-kicking.
After a few years, J.T. decided to conduct his own experiment and put Venkatesh in charge of the Black Kings for a day because drug dealers enjoyed Trading Places as much as the rest of us. His duties included supervising teams of drug dealers and deciding how to punish gang members for misusing funds. For the latter, he decided that light exercise would be discipline enough. He was overruled, and the offenders were beaten, instead. Not everybody is born for the thug life.
Ted Conover Will Severely Beat You For Journalism
Ted Conover wanted to write a book about prison guards, so he applied for a job as a corrections officer at Sing Sing, America's most infamous maximum security prison. See, that's why we do all of our undercover investigative journalism at the cotton candy factory.
As you'd expect, Conover started off as a big ol' softy, but quickly got a bit too into the role, and, well, we'll let him say it: "The more I did the job, the more I longed for a use of force."
"OK, now do you want another one where your eyes aren't dead husks?"
And then, there's the time he lived as a train-hopping hobo. At the age of 22, when most of us were still planning our next keg stand, Conover rode the rails through 14 states. At one point, another hobo tried to jump onto his boxcar in a clear breach of hobo etiquette, so Conover stomped on his hand and sent him flying off. Look, Ted, we're sure you're a great journalist, but has it ever occurred to you that you miiiight be using "research" as an excuse to beat the shit out of people?
In 2014, he recreated his rail-hopping adventures with his 18-year-old son, who was curious to discover how deep insanity runs in his genes. Together, they traveled from rail yard to rail yard, while hiding from train inspectors and presumably stomping some good old-fashioned hobo etiquette into anybody that used the wrong fork to eat out of the bean can.
"Remember, son, one rail spike to some chump's back and no one will ask to share your boxcar chili."
The Writer Of Cast Away Actually Lived The Movie
Movie research is tough -- if you're writing Die Hard 7: Die Fledermaus, you can't exactly go out and start shooting Germans to get into the character's headspace. You're mostly stuck with stuffy library research. Cast Away writer Bill Broyles didn't feel like spending all day reading in the same place where homeless people masturbate, so he, instead, opted to strand himself on an isolated island for real.
"Tell me again about how you couldn't work on your screenplay because Starbucks was too loud."
Many of the movie's iconic scenes -- such as Tom Hanks licking water from leaves, making a spear out of a rock, and eating raw fish -- were based on what Broyles really did to survive. Even Wilson the Volleyball was inspired by a real volleyball that washed ashore. Broyles decorated it with shells and seaweed and started talking to it -- what you're seeing on-screen is basically a recounting of Broyles' actual descent into insanity.
The part where Broyles worshiped Wilson as a pagan idol was quietly cut.
Broyles lasted 10 days before the leaf-water-and-raw-fish-diarrhea got to him, and he had to contact civilization for recovery.
John Griffin Goes Black, Comes Back (To Report On Racism)
Experiencing life as a different race is basically impossible unless you're in a Wayans brothers' movie. But white Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin was up for the impossible (or perhaps just not up for a Wayans brothers' movie), so he had a dermatologist artificially darken his skin and embarked on a six-week journey through the segregated South. Spoiler alert: racism!
Although black or white, the dude could absolutely rock those shades.
He received slurs and threats of violence on a daily basis and had such an all-around bad time that he was forced to abandon his experiment early. Note that this was a man who survived being blinded and rendered paraplegic by spinal malaria, as well as a stint fighting Nazis in the French Underground, but he could not survive being black in America.
His book, Black Like Me, sold more than 10 million copies and led to a successful lecture circuit across the country. It also led to Griffin being hanged in effigy in his hometown, his parents receiving death threats, his wife and children fleeing to Mexico, and Griffin himself being severely beaten by the KKK. Well, that's the life of an author: They say if you want to get published, you should be prepared for rejection -- violent, effigy-based rejection.
And your critics won't even bother to make a good effigy.
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For more on your favorite writers, check out 5 Authors More Badass Than The Badass Character They Created and 6 Famous Authors Who Were Nothing Like You Expect.
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