A Disturbance in the Mind: The Complicated Biography of Patricia Highsmith


Patricia Highsmith was an enigma, both in her writing and in her personal life. She is best known for her suspenseful, twisty thrillers, such as “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” However, her own life was just as intriguing and complex.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921, Highsmith described her childhood as unhappy and repressed. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she was sent to live with her grandmother in New York. This sense of loneliness and isolation would later influence her writing.

Highsmith studied at Barnard College and quickly developed an interest in writing. After graduating, she moved to New York City and worked in various jobs, including as a comic book editor. In 1949, she published her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” which was later adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. This was the beginning of her successful writing career, but it was also the start of her struggle with mental illness.

Highsmith’s work often explores themes of paranoia, guilt, and twisted minds. Her most famous character, Tom Ripley, is a charming and manipulative sociopath who becomes entangled in a web of lies and deceit. Highsmith’s writing is known for its complex plot twists and dark, psychological depths. However, the dark themes in her stories were also a reflection of her own struggles with mental illness.

Highsmith was diagnosed with anorexia and depression in the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This condition was characterized by intense mood swings, fear of abandonment, and unstable relationships. Highsmith’s own relationships were tumultuous, and she had a tendency to push people away with her volatile behavior.

Her personal life was also filled with secrecy and complex relationships. Highsmith was a bisexual woman in a time when homosexuality was not accepted. She had affairs with both men and women, but she preferred to keep her relationships private. Her most famous romance was with writer Marijane Meaker, who used the pseudonym “Vin Packer” when writing lesbian pulp fiction. Highsmith’s exploration of sexuality in her writing was groundbreaking for its time.

Unfortunately, Highsmith’s mental health issues and struggles with alcoholism also impacted her writing career. She often had difficulty meeting deadlines and clashed with publishers and editors. Her relationships with agents and publishers were often strained, and she had a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Despite the challenges in her personal life, Highsmith continued to write and produce acclaimed works. She published 22 novels and numerous short stories throughout her career. In addition to her popular thrillers, she also wrote social commentary and explored taboo subjects, such as incest and the supernatural. However, it wasn’t until after her death in 1995 that her work gained widespread critical acclaim and recognition.

Highsmith’s complicated biography is a testament to her brilliant and disturbed mind. Her writing has influenced countless authors and continues to captivate readers with its haunting psychological narratives. She may have had a disturbed and troubled mind, but Highsmith created some of the most memorable and unsettling characters in literature. Her legacy will continue to live on through her influential writing.