The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

By Joshua Kendall

Grand Central. 294 pp. $27

Control freak. Neurotic listmaker. Successful American icon. Which one of these is not like the others?

None — they all go together, according to Joshua Kendall. In his new book, “America’s Obsessives,” he profiles seven American super-achievers: political visionary Thomas Jefferson, renowned librarian Melvil Dewey, condiment titan Henry Heinz, prominent sexologist Alfred Kinsey, celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, cosmetic giant Estée Lauder and baseball legend Ted Williams. Kendall attributes their success to an unexpectedly powerful force: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Kendall argues that “obsessive innovators are more made than born.” One imagines these superstars as prodigious youths with exceptional talent and drive, inspired by mentors. Instead, they were often motivated by troubled upbringings and childhood neglect, coupled with obsessive personalities that caused them to dedicate themselves to perfectionist goals. And the benefits of their compulsive preoccupation with flawless excellence came at the expense of flexibility and social aptitude.

‘America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy that Built a Nation’ by Joshua Kendall (Grand Central)

An extreme workaholic and disciplined listmaker, Jefferson brought his “style and passion” to bear on the Declaration of Independence. Lindbergh, a fellow cataloguer, acknowledged that his obsession with detail pushed him to produce the first comprehensive flight-safety checklist. Heinz’s penchant for counting and measurements led to one of the most recognizable American marketing slogans: “57 Varieties.” Dewey also had a fascination with numbers, which drove him to create the Dewey Decimal Classification system for libraries. Williams devoted himself to perfecting his swing, achieving a .344 lifetime batting average. Lauder, the sole woman in the group, turned her childhood fixation with touching faces and beautifying strangers into a multibillion-dollar cosmetic empire.

Kendall also covers the less-flattering sides of his subjects’ obsessions. Symptoms of this disorder include preoccupations with interpersonal control and sexual thoughts. To maintain control, Lindbergh and Jefferson micromanaged their wives and tracked every minute household expenditure. Lindbergh’s “outsized libido” led him to take three German mistresses with whom he fathered seven children. Dewey’s lecherous tendencies eventually caused his termination from the very organization he helped found, the American Library Association.

Kendall’s observations are interesting and enlightening. His profiles reveal the startling secrets behind these iconic figures’ extraordinary accomplishments while explaining their unique quirks and paradoxical idiosyncrasies. In doing so, he humanizes and destigmatizes their disorder.

His book underscores the sentiment of the memorable Apple ad copy created by Steve Jobs, a lifelong perfectionist who also had OCPD. “Here’s to the crazy ones . . . they push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.”