Listen to the radio, watch the news or log on to social media, and it won’t be long until you encounter some crazy new delusion (you can probably think of one or two off the top of your head). Yet despite how wild a theory may be or how easy it is to disprove, it seems there is always an audience ready to buy it. How, we ask ourselves, can people believe such foolish — and often dangerous — nonsense?
In “A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse,” Victoria Shepherd takes us back hundreds of years to investigate extraordinary and well-documented cases of delusion. In doing so, she invites us to understand the logic behind the madness.
A delusion can be generally defined as “a fixed, false idea, not shared by others, unshakable in the face of decisive evidence contradicting it.” It is important to note that simply having delusions isn’t all that unusual. Many of us believe things, especially about ourselves, that disinterested observers might disagree with. (Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon slogan — “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average” — comes to mind.) But the examples in this book are at the very far end of the delusion 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 begot this book. This helps explain the vaguely podcast feel of the text. Each chapter begins in the present tense, with a sort of breathless you-are-there commentary, giving the accounts an attractive immediacy. They are arranged in no obvious order, skipping back and forth in time to profile the patients and the physicians who studied them, all the while drawing on ample primary sources.
It is quite a cast of characters. There is the clockmaker who thought his head had been chopped off and accidentally swapped for another (he wanted his original — and much better — teeth back). A London tea-broker interrupted Parliament to warn that a gang of villains was 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in medical history as Madame M, showed up at a Parisian police station to report that her entire family had been replaced by doubles. She also insisted that there were kidnapped children trapped in her cellar needing rescue.
Digging deeper into their stories, it’s possible to identify recurring patterns. One 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 reassert their dignity and sense of self-worth. A prime example is Margaret Nicholson, who after years of service in upper-class households found herself dismissed, abandoned by her lover and on the edge of poverty. She started to believe that she was descended from Queen Boudicca and thus the true heir to the English throne. Attempting to assert her rights, she accosted King George III with a butter knife and was saved from a traitor’s gruesome fate by the king himself, who insisted that no one hurt her (he comes off much better here than in the musical “Hamilton”). Locked up in Bedlam hospital, she became a popular attraction for visitors and was granted occasional privileges because of her notoriety.
Take delusions of grandiosity one step further and you get delusions of grandeur, one of the most widespread forms of delusion. That’s when you aren’t just related to important people, you are an important person. Believing you were Napoleon was so common in the mid-19th century that at one point the Bicêtre asylum alone registered some 15 or so emperors among its inmates. Why not be Napoleon? He was the most powerful and consequential 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 from making his public confession he believed he heard the voice of God, blasting his faithlessness. Convinced that he was unredeemable and condemned to the fires below, Spira took to his bed and refused food until he died. Almost immediately his story became a cautionary tale, the Renaissance equivalent of a meme.
Spira’s legal mind may have brought about his mental downfall. The theological writings he was drawn to emphasized predestination, and he thought his self-serving attempt to avoid earthly persecution was clear evidence he was going to hell. Unable to reconcile his religious beliefs with any hope for mercy, he chose uncomplicated despair. His plight illustrates another common denominator in people with delusions: an overwhelming desire for simple answers. It’s one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so difficult to dislodge. As Shepherd observes, “It’s not an easy sell 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. Like a true-crime reporter, she uncovers facts and background clues that provide insight and context. She doesn’t want to amuse you with anecdotes about her hapless subjects; she aims to elicit your empathy for the afflicted.
There are times when the evidence presented can feel a tad repetitive, and the frequent cross references between cases can be distracting. If you are looking for snark and biting humor, this is not your book — Shepherd plays it straight the whole way. But overall, “A History of Delusions” is a humane and thoughtful account in an age overflowing with vitriol. Its sincerity is refreshing.
Next time, instead of dismissing someone as deluded, stop and ask yourself why they think as they do. Or to quote Ted Lasso, be curious, not judgmental.
Lucinda Robb worked for 15 years for the Teaching Company and is a co-author with Rebecca Boggs Roberts of the young-adult book “The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World.”
A History of Delusions
The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse
By Victoria Shepherd
Oneworld. 338 pp. $27.95