November 21, 2021

I Know Why Dostoyevsky Is Emotionally Overwhelming

I Know Why Dostoyevsky Is Emotionally Overwhelming
Dostoyevsky's slumped shoulders and their 2021 view on the world, St. Petersburg.

"I am a sick man."

When I asked a friend what she thinks of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, that was her answer. They are the opening words of Notes from UndergroundAnyone who thinks that Dostoyevsky himself was not a sick man has never read him.

"There usually has to be some ingredient of domestic instability in the childhood home (anxiety, depression, codependency, borderline personalities, various forms of abuse) for readers to find themselves in Dostoyevsky's world," writes Dr. Yuri Corrigan, literature scholar at Boston University, in a personal email. "The unwounded childhood points much more firmly towards the Tolstoy camp." But Dostoyevsky "sees a great value in the wound, in having been around the whirlwind of chaotic individuals, since for Dostoyevsky, that wound becomes a place of possibility, an opening towards the divine (as he understands it)."

This "whirlwind of chaotic individuals" is at the heart of Dostoyevsky. In fact, I'd argue that the primary "chaotic individual" at the center of Dostoyevsky's work and world was his father, Mikhail Andreyevich Dostoyevsky.

The D. Stands for Depression

Many people think Dostoyevsky's writing is depressing. Critics have charged him with "an unhealthy concern for psychic abnormality." One Dostoyevsky biographer writes, "Dostoyevsky's portrayal of the agonies of a conscience wrestling with itself... has no equal this side of Macbeth."

So much love is heaped on Dostoyevsky that fans may not know how flawed he was. He had a serious gambling habit. He eventually kicked it – but not before forcing his second wife, Anna, to pawn their stuff for rent money while he was busy pissing it away at the roulette tables.

The writer died at fifty-nine of emphysema, undoubtedly because he was a chain smoker. The Dostoyevsky Museum in St. Petersburg conveniently fails to tell listeners of its audio guide that their hero died because he smoked every minute he worked. The guide emphasizes his epilepsy, which is easier to blame on unfortunate genetics.

Dostoyevsky worked only late at night. Not 9:00 p.m. late, but all-night late. When he looked out the window during writing pauses, Dostoyevsky would only have seen middle-of-the-night drinking types. As comedian Chris Rock asks in one of his specials, "Have you ever taken out $300 [from an ATM] at four o'clock in the morning for something positive?" Dostoyevsky's characters fit those who were still awake while he worked.

Dostoyevsky at 200
Dostoyevsky at 200, according to the Dostoyevsky Museum. 

Loving Dostoyevsky is exhausting if you read his biography – for instance, the definitive one in English by Joseph FrankDostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. One is wearied by the sheer number of times he moved. By the number of times he had to ask someone to loan or advance him money. By his brother's widowed family and his stepson relying on him for their upkeep – well into adulthood. By the number of times he suffered an epileptic fit. Dostoyevsky is draining.

He compared himself to Count Lev Tolstoy and complained that the count never had to worry about where his next kopek came from. Dostoyevsky wrote that, if only money were no issue, he could "write the sort of thing that people would still be talking about in a hundred years!" Somehow he managed, and here we are after two hundred.

Dostoyevsky was surveilled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for twenty-six years – even when living abroad and not internally. From his 1849 arrest with the Petrashevsky Circle and his near-execution, through his ten-year Siberian hard labor and exile and back, all of his correspondence was read and movements tracked. He was followed until 1875, only six years before his death. Ironically, in his last few years, ex-convict Dostoyevsky was in Tsar Alexander II's inner circle.

Dostoyevskaya Metro Station
Dostoyevskaya stantsiya, St. Petersburg. 

The D. also stands for dostoyevshchina, a state of mind. It is the "anger, annoyance, and nausea that come from overexposure to Dostoyevsky's God-peddling Russo-mania, and digging in the dirt," in the words of historian Claudia Verhoeven. According to a St. Petersburg book clubdostoyevshchina is "this constant quest for big questions mixed with depression and religion – and poverty." It is when "someone reaches the bottom of the soul and something dark is opened. Usually, you don't want to meet it, but Dostoyevsky makes you encounter it face to face."

Understanding D.'s Depressiveness with the Direction of the DSM

I believe the source of Dostoyevsky's deeply psychological writing predates his challenging adulthood. Situating dostoyevshchina in his arrest, near-execution, and hard labor plays into a clichéd view of Russia as an autocratic state. What if the groundwork for his dark prose was laid much earlier in life?

Before most of his troubles began, Dostoyevsky portrays a young heroine in Netochka Nezvanova (1849) so devastated by her cruel narcissist of a stepfather and passive doormat of a mother that she breaks down. "Unable to look within," Corrigan says, "she turns the world around herself into a shadow architecture of her own personality." Many of Dostoyevsky's characters refuse to remember painful things from their past, as if "in flight from something oppressive." There is always a sense that "the past is coming to get you." As a former social worker, I believe that Dostoyevsky was raised by a father with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Every therapist will say they cannot diagnose someone who does not go to therapy. This was a popular refrain when Donald Trump was U.S. president and everyone who did not agree with him diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The long-dead Fyodor's long-dead father is at even further remove from us and our Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Yet Dostoyevsky's writing and biography bring BPD constantly to mind.

The DSM-5 states that BPD is "a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity." Borderline personality disorder is characterized by an uncertainty of one's own personality. Since people with BPD often do not know they are separate from others, they make for codependent and needy lovers and parents. They vacillate between pushing away and pulling closer their closest relations. People with BPD often seem so angry with others that one wonders why they do not choose to be alone. Yet the one thing a person with BPD cannot tolerate is being alone. Controlling others becomes the only way to live. They may lie without knowing it: they lie to have always been right in the past. "Low-functioning" borderlines often cannot control their spending and are prone to sexual promiscuity, gambling, and substance abuse; these behaviors finally bring many borderlines into therapy.

But there is a specific subtype of "religious zealot" borderline personality who does not do those sinful things. He is the epitome of righteousness. Typically, the only BPD marriage that survives is the anti-divorce, uber-religious one, in which the non-BPD spouse is extremely passive. Dostoyevsky's parents had precisely that kind of marriage.

Cardboard Dostoyevsky bust
For the low price of R1,620 ($22.91), you too can own a cardboard Dostoyevsky head. Writers' Bookshop, St. Petersburg. 

Corrigan notes that there was certainly "some form of emotional chaos" in Dostoyevsky's home growing up. Frank writes that Dostoyevsky's father was characterized by "unbearable exactions and severity." His wife, and the writer's mother, Maria (Nechayeva) Dostoyevskaya, died when Fyodor was fifteen years old, and she was remembered as "possibly docile and indulgent to the point of excess."

People with BPD violate boundaries with their children when children are too young to know what normal is. Dostoyevsky went so far as to define evil, according to Corrigan, as the "hungry violation of boundaries and an attempt to take over others and become their manager." The novelist's characters try to solve the "howling within" by glomming onto someone else or "replacing their personalities with various forms of ideology."

Dostoyevsky bag
Dostoyevsky is cool in 2021.

The writer was obsessed with the inability to love, and children of borderlines often report not having felt loved. When Dostoyevsky finally felt loved – by his dying first wife – he wrote, "I suddenly found it hard and painful to be loved so much." When he married his second wife, he announced to his former mistress, Apollinaria Suslova: "She has a heart, and she knows how to love." Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, "What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." It is unlikely that a person raised by psychologically normative parents would be so preoccupied by the incapacity to love.

Children of BPD parents have their feelings and sense of truth routinely invalidated. Gaslighting, or making another person question their sense of reality, is a common tactic of people with BPD. In his works, Dostoyevsky was obsessed with this very thing that did not yet have a name. There was no DSM in the nineteenth century, and Dostoyevsky "invented trauma" before there was a field of psychology.

Today, "Dostayevsky," based on the word "delivery" (dostavka), is a pizza-sushi-streetfood-Italian-Asian-American-Russian-fusion delivery service.

Corrigan notes, "It's probable that D's dad was something of an emotional mess, a site of stress and disorder." Young Fyodor was probably raised in a "world in which the dysfunctional person holds everyone else hostage." This dynamic is apparent in Crime and PunishmentRaskolnikov's sister, mother, girlfriend, and best friend all "whirl and dance around his moods and pathologies." Corrigan admits that this accords with "the atmosphere around the BPD personality."

In The Insulted and Injured, Dostoyevsky has Natasha say of her relationship with her father, "We shall have to work out our future happiness by suffering" and "pay for it somehow by fresh miseries. Everything is purified by suffering." When a teenaged Dmitry Merezhkovsky asked Dostoyevsky if his poetry was any good, the latter reacted with violent disapproval. He called the poems "weak, bad, nothing," and yelled, "In order to write well, one must suffer . . . suffer!" Dostoyevsky be damned, Merezhkovsky became a poet – one of the best of his generation. Dostoyevsky was committed to suffering as life's ideal, one instilled in him by an unhappy family and, perhaps, a high-functioning, religious-zealot-type borderline.

Kokushkin Bridge
"Remember" at Kokushkin Bridge, which features prominently in Crime and Punishment. Looking toward Haymarket Square.

Dostoyevsky's father was probably murdered by his peasants, and Dostyevsky's novels are preoccupied with parricide. The prosecutor in The Brothers Karamazov declares: "Filial love for an unworthy father is an absurdity, an impossibility... If fathers wish to be loved by their children, they should earn such love by their deeds." The prosecutor admits that the defendant's father hated him from childhood, making a murder morally defensible, if not defensible in court.


I cannot diagnose with certainty the murdered Mikhail Dostoyevsky who will not come to therapy. But it is possible that Dostoyevsky's tortured genius was at least partly the result of being raised in thrall to BPD.

Dostoyevsky's study
Dostoyevsky died on the date and time indicated on the clock in his study, Dostoyevsky Museum. 

If we could somehow send little Fyodor to therapy, would we? If so, we probably would never have heard of Dostoyevsky.

Corrigan told a Zoom audience gathered to celebrate Dostoyevsky's 200th: "I don't think that Dostoevsky wanted us to be mentally healthy as it's commonly understood. Because what is mental health? If it's like superficial tranquility, that's not what Dostoevsky is about. He wants us to be deeply troubled by those deeper waters. That, for him, would be a different kind of health altogether."

Lovers of Dostoyevsky, who are probably already more troubled than lovers of Tolstoy, may need to take off their rose-colored glasses and admit that their reading pleasure came at the expense of an innocent child's emotional stability and ability to feel loved.

This feels like a satisfyingly Dostoyevskian ending.

Where Dostoyevsky is now
Where Dostoyevsky is spending eternity: Alexander Nevsky Lavra, St. Petersburg.

For further reading:

Christofi, Alex. Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life. New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021.

Lawson, Christine Ann. Understanding the Borderline Personality Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.

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