A History of Delusions
The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse
Hb, 352pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780861540914
What is a king trying to tell us when he claims that he is made of glass? Or the man who says that his head is not his own?
Victoria Shepherd delves into the history of delusions via a compelling series of individual case studies, arguing that delusions can be a powerful way of understanding individual and collective anxieties. Many FT readers will be familiar with James Tilly Matthews, whose life was exhaustively documented in Mike Jay’s The Air Loom Gang (2003). Matthews believed his mind was being controlled by French revolutionaries through a mysterious contraption called the Air Loom, and fans of Jay’s book will enjoy what Shepherd adds to the Matthews story.
The most fascinating chapters, though, are those that explore the lives of less well-known individuals such as “Madame M”, a middle-aged woman living in Paris during World War I. Madame M believed that members of her family were being replaced by doubles, the real versions of them spirited away to vast underground tunnels as part of a city-wide conspiracy.
In a society dealing with mass death, missing soldiers and war propaganda, it was hardly surprising that such themes were echoed in delusions like Madame M’s. Shepherd effortlessly weaves together individual cases and broader social and political events, offering fascinating glimpses into topics beyond the psychological: French plans to construct a “fake Paris” complete with replica streets to confuse German bombers, for example, or the dark trade in rats that emerged to feed starving Parisians during the 1870-71 Siege of Paris.
Many cases in the book come from France, a country historically characterised by upheaval, rapid urbanisation and shifting social structures. Although brief mention is made of medicine in late 18th-century France, when the structure of Parisian healthcare changed after the Revolution, more could perhaps have been done to link French developments with psychiatry elsewhere in Europe. For the reader new to the history of psychiatry, however, Shepherd is an excellent guide, offering concise accounts of specific diagnoses and a particularly absorbing account of the work of French asylum doctor Philippe Pinel.
The question of who gets to define a delusion, and where the boundary between reality and delusion lies, is a recurring theme. Delusions are historically and culturally contingent, as their frequent reliance on modern technologies (guillotines, magic lanterns, telephones) suggests. Shepherd’s approach to the topic, melding doctor and patient accounts with broader historical commentary, means that we close the book convinced of her central message: delusions are not signs of madness, but “important and compelling” phenomena. They are both a means of communication and a way to deal with the painful and uncertain realities of life. Jennifer Wallis