Book Review of A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse by Victoria Shepherd

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Listen to the radio, watch the news, or log on to social media, and it won’t be long before you come across a crazy new fallacy (you can probably think of one or two off the top of your head). But despite how wild a theory may be, or how easy it is to disprove, there always seems to be an audience ready to buy it. How, we ask ourselves, can people believe such foolish – and often dangerous – nonsense?

INA History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse,” Victoria Shepherd takes us back hundreds of years to examine extraordinary and well-documented cases of delusion. In doing so, she invites us to understand the logic behind the madness.

A delusion can generally be defined as “a fixed, false idea not shared by others, unshakable in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” It is important to note that simply having delusions is not that unusual. Many of us believe things, especially about ourselves, that disinterested observers might disagree with. to think about.) But the examples in this book are at the extreme end of the delusional bell curve, representing landmark cases in the history of psychology.

Shepherd’s day job is producing documentaries for the BBC, including the 10-part radio series that spawned this book. This helps explain the vaguely podcast feel of the text. Each chapter begins in the present tense, with a kind of breathless you-are-there commentary that gives the accounts an attractive immediacy. Arranged in no obvious order, they jump back and forth in time to profile the patients and doctors who studied them, all the while drawing on abundant primary sources.

It is something of a series of characters. There’s the watchmaker who thought his head had been chopped off and accidentally swapped it for another (he wanted his original – and much better – teeth back). A tea broker in London interrupted Parliament to warn that a gang of crooks were using a device called an “Air-Loom” to control the minds of British politicians. A middle-aged housewife, immortalized in medical history as Madame M, turned up at a Parisian police station to report that her entire family had been replaced by doppelgangers. She also insisted that there were kidnapped children trapped in her basement that needed to be rescued.

If you dig deeper into their stories, it is possible to identify recurring patterns. A common theme is the need for respect, especially in lives that have taken an unexpected turn for the worse. When this happens, some individuals resort to delusions of grandiosity to confirm their dignity and sense of self-worth. A good example is Margaret Nicholson, who after years of service in upper-class households found herself dismissed, abandoned by her lover, and on the brink of poverty. She began to believe that she was descended from Queen Boudicca and thus the true heir to the English throne. In an attempt to assert her rights, she attacked King George III with a butter knife and was saved from the gruesome fate of a traitor by the king himself, who insisted that no one harmed her (he comes off much better here than in the musical “Hamilton “). . Confined to Bedlam Hospital, she became a popular attraction for visitors and was given occasional privileges due to her notoriety.

Take delusions of grandiosity one step further and you get delusions of grandeur, one of the most widespread types of delusions. It is when you are not only related to important people, yourself is an important person. Believing you were Napoleon was so common in the mid-19th century that the Bicêtre asylum at one point alone registered some 15 emperors among its inmates. Why not be Napoleon? He was the most powerful and influential man of his era.

At the other end of the spectrum are delusions of despair. Consider the case of Francis Spira, a 16th-century Venetian lawyer who converted to Protestantism only to recant under intense pressure from the Catholic Church. On his way home after making his public confession, he thought he heard the voice of God, which blasted his faithlessness. Convinced that he was irredeemable and doomed to the fire below, Spira took to bed and refused food until he died. Almost instantly, his story became a cautionary tale, the Renaissance equivalent of a meme.

Spira’s legal mind may have caused his mental decline. The theological writings he was drawn from emphasized predestination, and he believed that his self-serving attempts to avoid earthly persecution were clear evidence that he was headed for hell. Unable to reconcile his religious convictions with any hope of mercy, he chose uncomplicated despair. His situation illustrates another common denominator in people with delusions: an overwhelming desire for simple answers. That’s one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so hard to dispel. As Shepherd notes, “It’s not easy to coax a person back from a gloriously neat world into a more nuanced and confusing one.”

Not content to rely solely on medical case notes, Shepherd repeatedly tries to see things from the patients’ point of view. As a true-crime reporter, she uncovers facts and background clues that provide insight and context. She does not wish to amuse you with anecdotes about her unhappy subjects; she aims to evoke your empathy for the afflicted.

There are times when the evidence presented can feel a bit repetitive, and the frequent cross-references between cases can be distracting. If you’re looking for snarky and biting humor, this is not your book – Shepherd plays it straight all the way. But overall, “A History of Delusions” is a humane and thought-provoking account of an age overflowing with vitriol. Its sincerity is refreshing.

Next time, instead of dismissing someone as delusional, stop and ask yourself why they think the way they do. Or to quote Ted Lasso, be curious, not judgmental.

Lucinda Robb worked for 15 years for the Teaching Company and co-authored with Rebecca Boggs Roberts the book for young adults “The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World.”

The Glass King, a deputy and a walking corpse

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