Emory Report
September 24, 2007
Volume 60, Number 5

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September 24, 2007
A patient approach to writer’s block

By Carol Clark

The database on creativity and the mind recently entrusted to Emory's Center for Psychoanalytic Research and Education owes its existence to decades of hard-won revelations in the remarkable life of Lucy Daniels.

Shortly after Daniels turned 17, her family committed her to a mental institution because she was suffering from anorexia. It was 1951 and treatments were relatively crude. "I had electric shock, insulin injections and force feedings through a tube," she recalls, "everything you could do to a person, but no psychotherapy."

Around the age of 20, while she was still hospitalized but encouraged to work a day job outside the hospital, Daniels asked for permission to write at 5:00 a.m. and received it. A budding writer before she was institutionalized, she had published a short story in Seventeen Magazine at the age of 15. "I was beginning to get my thoughts back together after the shock treatments, and I wrote for nothing except to keep on writing," she says. "You can imagine, you feel pretty ruined after being locked up nearly five years."

When she was released at the age of 21, Daniels left the hospital with the manuscript of a novel, "Caleb, My Son," which became a critically acclaimed bestseller. Within months, she went from being a confined mental patient to a national celebrity, appearing on the "Today" show and radio talk shows. She became the youngest person ever to receive a Guggenheim fellowship.

She published a second novel a few years later, but then encountered decades of writer's block. The Raleigh, N.C., native married, had four children and eventually enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a degree in psychology in 1972.

At the age of 40, she entered psychoanalysis, while she was working on her PhD in clinical psychology. "It changed my life," Daniels says. "After about eight years of analysis I started writing again. I learned that the anorexia and writer's block were from the same conflict."

In 2005, Daniels published "The Eyes of the Father," her first novel in more than 40 years, and "Dreaming Your Way to Creative freedom," documenting the critical role of psychoanalysis in this victory.

Daniels went on to become a successful psychologist, winning honors from the American Psychoanalytic Association and the Association for Child Psychoanalysis. She sold her shares in the Raleigh News & Observer publishing business, which her family had owned, and used the money to create the Lucy Daniels Foundation in 1989.

The main goal of the foundation, located in Cary, N.C., is to help creative professionals overcome mental issues impeding their work, through both treatment and research. "I wanted to help other people get the same freedom that I had been able to achieve," says Daniels, who published a memoir in 2002, "With a Woman's Voice: A Writer's Struggle for Emotional Freedom."

Daniels' financial resources and commitment enabled the foundation to conduct lengthy and expensive research into the ways psychoanalysis affects creative output. One groundbreaking study has been following eight writers over the course of one to 10 years of therapy sessions. The writers' identities remain anonymous in the study data, and they are provided the therapy for almost no cost. In exchange, their therapy sessions are taped and they regularly undergo interviews regarding their work. They also provide writing samples for their case files. The project goes so far as to have writers' significant others fill out forms every six months, reporting on the treatments effect on the relationship.

"I don't think there's any other research like this in the world," says Daniels, who personally does the videotaped interviews. "It's really exciting, every six months, to see the changes in people."

Contrary to one popular belief, that creativity and neurosis are linked, Daniels believes that good, analytic therapy can liberate creativity and help writers and other artists become more effective.