in “A History of Illusions: The King of Glass, a Surrogate Husband and a Walking Corpse“Victoria Shepherd takes us hundreds of years back to investigate unusual and well-documented delusions. She invites us to understand the logic behind madness.”
An illusion can generally be defined as “a persistent and false idea, not shared by others, that is unshakable in the face of critical evidence that contradicts it.” It is important to note that merely having delusions is not unusual. Many of us believe in things, especially in relation to ourselves, that unconcerned observers might disagree with. (Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon’s motto comes to mind—”where all women are strong, all men are good-looking and all children are above average”—but the examples given in this book are at the far end of the bell curve illusion, representing notable cases in the history of psychology.
Shepherd’s day job is to produce documentaries for the BBC, including the 10-part radio series that gave birth to this book. This helps explain the podcast’s ambiguous feel to the text. Each chapter begins in the present tense, with some kind of staggering commentary, giving the accounts an instant, catchy feel. They are arranged in no clear order, traversing back and forth in time with profiles of patients and physicians who have studied them, all while relying on ample primary sources.
It’s a great group of characters. There’s the watchmaker who thought his head had been accidentally chopped off and replaced with another one (he wanted his original teeth back – and much better -). A tea broker in London boycotted Parliament to warn that a gang of bad guys were using A device called “Air-Loom” to control the minds of British politicians. A middle-aged housewife, immortalized in medical history as Mrs. M, appears at a Paris police station to report that her entire family has been replaced by husbands. She also insisted that there were kidnapped children trapped in her basement and in need of rescue.
Digging deeper into their stories, it is possible to identify recurring patterns. One common theme is the need for respect, especially in life that has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. When this happens, some individuals resort to delusions of grandeur to reassert their dignity and sense of self-worth. A good example is Margaret Nicholson, who after years of service in upper-class families finds herself ostracized, abandoned by her lover and on the verge of poverty. She began to believe that she was descended from Queen Boudica and thus the true heir to the English throne. In an attempt to assert her rights, she attacks King George III with a butter knife and the king himself saves her from the fate of a gruesome traitor, who insists that no one harm her (he came here much better than the musical “Hamilton”). Locked up in Bedlam Hospital, it became a popular visitor attraction and received occasional concessions due to its notoriety.
Take delusions of grandeur one step further and you’ll have delusions of grandeur, one of the most prevalent forms of delusion. That’s when you’re not just related to important people, you be Important person. The belief that you were Napoleon was so common in the mid-19th century that the sanctuary of Bicêtre alone at one point recorded about 15 or so emperors among its fellows. Why not be Napoleon? He was the most powerful man of his time.
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 to recede under heavy pressure from the Catholic Church. On his way home after making his public confession, he thought he had heard God’s voice, criticizing his own unbelief. Convinced that he was irreplaceable and doomed to the fire below, he took Spira to his bed and refused food until he died. Almost immediately his story became a cautionary tale, the Renaissance equivalent of a meme.
Perhaps Spira’s legal insanity caused his mental downfall. The theological writings he was drawn to affirm predestination, and he believed his self-attempt to avoid earthly persecution was clear evidence that he was going to Hell. Unable to reconcile his religious beliefs with any hope of mercy, he chose uncomplicated despair. His ordeal illustrates another common denominator in people with delusions: an overwhelming desire for simple answers. It’s one reason why conspiracy theories are so hard to dislodge. As Shepherd notes, “It is not easy to persuade a person to return from an elegant world to a more refined and confusing one.”
Not content with relying solely on medical case notes, Shepherd repeatedly tries to see things from the patients’ point of view. Like a true crime reporter, you discover key facts and evidence that provide insight and context. She does not want to entertain you with tales of her unfortunate subjects; It is intended to arouse your sympathy for the afflicted.
There are times when clues presented can feel a little redundant, and frequent cross-references between cases can be distracting. If you’re looking for scathing humor, this isn’t your book – Shepherd plays it all straight. But overall, A History of Illusions is a humanistic and thoughtful narrative in an age awash with vitriol. Its honesty is refreshing.
Next time, instead of dismissing a deluded person, stop and ask yourself why he thinks like he thinks. Or a quote from Ted Lasso, Be curious, don’t judge others.
Lucinda Robb has worked for 15 years at a teaching firm and is a co-author with Rebecca Boggs Roberts of the book YouthThe Suffrage Handbook: Your Guide to Changing the World. “
The King of Glass, a surrogate husband and a corpse of cattle