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“I started looking at Benjamin Rush, and as I looked into his story, I was utterly amazed at what an incredible story it was, and how little he had been written about, and how the things that have been written about him you would never read on purpose.”

Stephen Fried is an award-winning historian and journalist. He's written seven books on distinct topics such as bipolar disorder, substance abuse, the AIDS epidemic, and the life of the visionary businessman Fred Harvey. In this episode of Keep Talking, host Dan sits with Stephen to discuss the importance of historical non-fiction books, writing about complex social issues, and using stories to argue a historical point.

Stephen also discusses his work, including Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia, Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time, and Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, and his most recent work, Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father.

About Stephen Fried (quote from Wikipedia):

“Stephen Fried is an American investigative journalist, non-fiction author, essayist, and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Pennsylvania. He is an award-winning writer, a two-time recipient of the National Magazine Award, and has written for GQ, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Parade, Ladies' Home Journal, and Philadelphia Magazine, where he was also editor-in-chief in 1999 and 2000. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, author Diane Ayres.”

Time Stamps:

(00:49) Stephen shares where his initial interest and talent in nonfiction history comes from
(13:35) How Stephen spent years of his life researching and writing books
(18:35)  About Stephen’s first book, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia
(39:25) Stephen explains how he learned about Benjamin Rush
(56:39) Stephen notes that Benjamin Rush was somebody who was well ahead of his time. He explains his understanding of Rush and how he was able to create a new perspective on people who had mental illnesses and addiction
(01:15:00) Stephen explains why bleeding someone who’s psychotic is the craziest thing in the world
(01:27:34)  Stephen’s advice for people learning about Patrick Kennedy’s story
(01:37:30) Stephen shares his thoughts on modernity
(01:45:06)  What Stephen thinks is the best thing we as a country could implement to ease some suffering and improve the mental health crisis


“Part of the reason her [Gia’s] story continues, is one because it's an unbelievably interesting and tragic story from which we can learn many things about gender about a lot of different things. But it's also because...there's a lot of pictures from different time periods that are unbelievably dated.”

“My challenge is to make sure that people understand that we don't know the simple answer to these things. And sometimes getting involved in the debate is a way of avoiding the challenge of treating mental illness and treating addiction.”

“The bedrock speech puts forth the idea that mental illness has to be treated as a medical issue.”

“We all know that we can move on. It all has to be learned. And the learning curve has to be hard for every person who has the illness and their families, and the people who love them.”

“I just think that people will do anything to avoid saying the obvious."

“Do we understand that people can be triggered into psychosis by events? Yes, we do. This has happened to them because they have a genetic predisposition or because the event is so overwhelming.”

“Sometimes you write better about things you know nothing about, and you learn about them from scratch, because you explain them better to people than the things that you think other people know.”

“I started looking at Benjamin Rush, and as I looked into his story, I was utterly amazed at what an incredible story it was, and how little he had been written about, and how the things that have been written about him you would never read on purpose.”

“Benjamin Rush has to know that he is going to die with his son being mentally ill and incurable, which is heartbreaking to him.”

“My goal is to find the best evidence and tell them a story. And so that they can end.”

“[Benjamin Rush] wrote one of the supporting pieces about public education, reforming prisons, against slavery.”

“While I believe that that's factually true, and it certainly informs what happened to [Rush’s son], I think that we have to be open to the idea that we don't always know how somebody gets to that [psychotic] point."

Relevant Links:

Books mentioned:

People Mentioned (quotes from Wikipedia):

  • Gia Carangi - “A(n) American model, considered by many to be the first supermodel.”
  • Fred Harvey - “A(n) entrepreneur who developed the Harvey House lunch rooms, restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels, which served rail passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the Gulf Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, the Kansas Pacific Railway, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.”
  • Patrick J. Kennedy - “A(n) American politician and mental health advocate.”
  • Benjamin Rush - “A signer of the United States Declaration of Independence and a civic leader in Philadelphia, where he was a physician, politician, social reformer, humanitarian, and educator and the founder of Dickinson College. Rush attended the Continental Congress.”
  • Thomas Jefferson - “A(n) American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, musician, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809.”
  • Warren Buffett - “A(n) American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist.”
  • George Washington - “A(n) American political leader, military general, statesman, and Founding Father of the United States, who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797.”
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt - “A(n) American politician who served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945.”
  • Lawrence Wright - “(A)n American writer and journalist, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and fellow at the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. Wright is best known as the author of the 2006 nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
  • Ted Kennedy - “A(n) American lawyer and politician who served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for almost 47 years, from 1962 until his death in 2009.”

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