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


Listen to the radio, catch the news, or log on to social media and it won’t be long before you stumble upon a crazy new deception (probably one or two will spring to mind). Yet no matter how wild a theory is, or how easy it is to disprove, it seems there’s always an audience willing to believe it. How, we ask ourselves, can people believe such foolish — and often dangerous — nonsense?

in theA 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 delusions. In doing so, she invites us to understand the logic behind the madness.

A fallacy can be broadly defined as “an established false idea, not shared by others and unshakable in the face of crucial evidence to the contrary.” It’s important to note that simply having delusions isn’t all that uncommon. Many of us believe things, especially about ourselves, that disinterested observers might disagree. (Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon slogan—”Where all women are strong, all men are handsome, and all children are above average”—comes to mind.) But the examples in this book are at the extreme end of the deceptive bell curve, the landmark cases in the history of psychology.

Shepherd’s job is producing documentaries for the BBC, including the 10 part radio series that this book is based on. 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, lending the accounts a delightful immediacy. Arranged in no apparent order, they jump back and forth in time to profile the patients and the physicians who examined them, while drawing on extensive primary sources.

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immortalized in medical history as Madame M, showed up at a Paris police station to report that her entire family had been replaced by lookalikes.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

Digging deeper into their stories, it’s 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 people resort to megalomania to reassert their dignity and self-esteem. A prime example is Margaret Nicholson, who, after years of service in upper-class households, found herself abandoned by her lover and finding herself on the brink of poverty. She began to believe that she was descended from Queen Boudicca, making her the true heir to the English throne. When trying to assert their rights, they spoke to King George III. with a butter knife and was saved by the king himself from the cruel fate of a traitor who insisted that no one would hurt her (he comes off much better here than in the musical Hamilton) . Confined in Bedlam Hospital, she became a popular attraction for visitors and occasionally received privileges due to her notoriety.

If you take megalomania one step further, you get megalomania, one of the most common forms of delusions. Then you’re not just related to important people, you are an important person. The belief that one was Napoleon was so widespread in the mid-19th century that the Bicêtre asylum alone registered around 15 emperors among its inmates at a certain point in time. Why not be Napoleon? He was the most powerful and momentous 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 only to recant under intense pressure from the Catholic Church. On the way home from his public confession, he thought he heard the voice of God quelling his unbelief. Convinced that he was incorrigible and doomed to the fires below, Spira lay in his bed and refused food until he died. Almost immediately, his story became cautionary tale, the Renaissance equivalent of a meme.

Spira’s legal mind may have led to his spiritual downfall. The theological writings to which he was drawn emphasized predestination, and he thought his selfish attempt to avoid earthly persecution was clear evidence that he was going to hell. Unable to reconcile his religious beliefs with hope for mercy, he chose uncomplicated desperation. His distress illustrates another common denominator in people with delusions: an overwhelming need for simple answers. This is one of the reasons why conspiracy theories are so difficult to debunk. As Shepherd notes, “It’s not easy to persuade a person from a gloriously orderly world into a more nuanced and confusing world.”

Not content to rely solely on medical case reports, Shepherd always tries to see things from the patient’s perspective. 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; it aims to evoke your empathy for those affected.

There are times when the evidence presented is a bit repetitive, and the frequent cross-referencing between cases can be distracting. If you’re looking for snarky and snarky humor, this isn’t your book – Shepherd plays it head-on. But overall, A History of Delusions is a humane and thoughtful account of a time brimming with poison. His sincerity is refreshing.

Instead of dismissing someone as delusional the next time, stop and ask yourself why they think the way they do. Or to quote Ted Lasso: Be curious, not judgmental.

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

The Glass King, a substitute and a walking corpse

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