The book of phobias & manias A history of obsession

Kate Summerscale, 1965-

Book - 2022

The Book of Phobias and Manias covers 99 obsessions, some familiar and others little known.

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[Place of publication not identified.] : Penguin Books [2022]
Main Author
Kate Summerscale, 1965- (author)
Physical Description
239 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages (203)-239) and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Edgar Award winner Summerscale (The Haunting of Alma Fielding) examines the fear of the number 13, the 17th-century Dutch tulip frenzy, and 97 other irrational turns of mind in this fascinating compendium. Acarophobic delusions, caused by the "extreme fear of tiny insects," can be transmitted from person to person and once caused Salvador Dalí to take a razor blade to his back to kill a flea that turned out to be a pimple. Triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, may have its roots in the story of the Norse trickster god, Loki, who "cursed the earth with darkness" when he crashed a dinner party for 12 other gods at Valhalla and became the 13th at the table. Summerscale also makes the intriguing point that manias and phobias may actually preserve sanity by "crystallising our frights and fancies, and allowing us to proceed as if everything else makes sense," and links obsessions to historical and cultural developments, noting, for example, that arithmomania, or "a pathological desire to count," was first identified in the late 19th century and may be the product "of our era's reverence for mechanical processes." Exquisitely detailed and consistently insightful, this is an entertaining guide to humanity's compulsions. (Sept.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

An award-winning author with a taste for the eccentric looks at what scares us and why. Summerscale, author ofThe Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and other well-regarded books, lists 99 fears and compulsions, and the result is a peculiarly engaging book. Phobias are more common than one might think, with surveys suggesting that more than 7% of people will experience a phobia at some point. Phobias are often hard to define, although most medical researchers characterize it as an irrational fear that affects a person's daily life. Some phobias have an evolutionary component. The fear of snakes, called ophidiophobia, makes sense given that many are poisonous. Much the same can be said for spiders and rats. However, the fears of feathers, popcorn, and balloons are odd. The fear of the number four, tetraphobia, is so deeply embedded in various Asian cultures that some hotels do not have floors or rooms with the number, apparently because in some of the region's languages the word four sounds like the word death. As the author shows, the other side of the coin, manias, or the compulsion to act, can be just as disturbing. Hoarding falls into this category, but there are also communal manias. For example, Summerscale recounts the tale of "tulip mania" in Holland in the 1630s, when a collective obsession with tulip bulbs sent prices soaring to insane levels before crashing and ruining the economy. The author sometimes writes with her tongue in her cheek--e.g., in her descriptions of aibohphobia, the fear of palindromes, and nomophobia, the fear of losing one's mobile phone--but she is clearly aware that phobias and manias can be serious psychological conditions. The author carefully treads the line between the oddness of her subject and sympathy for the people affected, and she notes that many phobias can be treated, usually by controlled doses of exposure. An informative, witty, and unique perspective on human psychology. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Ablutophobia A fear of washing - or ablutophobia, from the Latin abluere, to wash, and the Greek phobia, or fear - especially affects children. It is often a temporary terror, experienced in infancy, though in some cases it can last for years. A seventeen-year-old girl once told the American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall that until the age of eleven she used to scream in horror if bathed. Another teenager informed him: 'To be washed always made me stiffen out, my eyes bulge, and I was almost convulsed with fear.' The fear of washing was common in France in the early nineteenth century, when many believed that dirt was a shield against disease and the stink of sweat was proof of health and sexual vigour. As the historian Steven Zdatny explains, thorough washing was in any case difficult in a society that considered nudity shameful. A woman in a rural French hospital was outraged by the suggestion that she take a bath. 'I am sixty-eight,' she said indignantly, 'and never have I washed there!' The upper classes were similarly fastidious. 'No one in my family ever took a bath!' recalled the comtesse de Pange. 'The idea of plunging into water up to our necks seemed pagan.' In the second half of the century, as scientists established a link between dirt and the spread of disease, teachers tried to teach modern hygiene practices to children who had never used a sponge or immersed themselves in water. The French army, too, tried to instil cleaner habits in its recruits, and in 1902 published a Manuel d'hygine that instructed soldiers to brush their teeth, scrub their bodies and wear underclothes. In Douai, northern France, a military commander ordered his men to forcibly clean a young artilleryman who claimed to be afraid of bathing. The soldiers dragged their dirty comrade into the bathhouse and held him under a shower. According to Zdatny, the artilleryman's death eight days later was attributed to his shock and horror at the sensation of water on his skin. His fear, it seemed, had killed him. i See also: aquaphobia, hydrophobia, mysophobia, thalassophobia Aboulomania In 1916 the American psychoanalyst Ralph W. Reed treated a pathologically indecisive bank clerk of twenty-two who was 'continually doubting the validity or correctness of anything he has done in the course of his daily duties'. Each time he added up a column of figures, the clerk felt compelled to check it, and then check it again. He made the same agonised return to every calculation, however trivial. Reed noted that this kind of mental paralysis often coincided with paranoid delusions: both were disabling doubts about what had happened or what might take place. He diagnosed the clerk with aboulomania. The term aboulomania - from the Greek a (without), boul (will) and mania (madness) - was coined by the neurologist William Alexander Hammond in 1883. Aboulomania, explained Hammond, was 'a form of insanity characterised by an inertness, torpor, or paralysis of the will'. He described one patient, a Massachusetts man, who was seized by indecision when dressing or undressing himself. As soon as he started to take off one shoe, he would wonder whether he should take the other off first. He would switch helplessly between the shoes for several minutes, before deciding to walk around the room to deliberate on the matter. Then he might catch sight of himself in the mirror, and, noticing his necktie, think, 'Ah, of course that is the thing to take off first.' But when he tried to remove the tie, he would again hesitate and become powerless. 'And so it went on, if he was left to himself,' wrote Hammond, 'till it has frequently happened that daylight would find him still with every stitch of clothing on his body.' In 1921 the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet described the feeling of 'incompleteness' that affected such individuals, rendering them continually unsatisfied, as if something was missing. They 'watch themselves', he wrote, 'and by dint of observations, through anxiety about themselves, they fall into a sort of perpetual auto-analysis. They become psychologists; which is in its way a disease of the mind.' Aboulomania is an obsession that springs from self-consciousness, Janet suggested, a disorder made possible by our tendency to reflect on our own thoughts. It seems odd to categorise a state of chronic uncertainty as a compulsion: an inability to make choices looks more like a fear of error than a passion for indecision. But by identifying pathological doubt as a mania, Hammond reminded us that it is not just an absence of conviction. Rather, it is a powerful emotional state, a turbulent and painful condition in which all possibilities are still available; several futures are jostling and nothing has been closed off. i See also: arithmomania, mysophobia, syllogomania Acarophobia Acarophobia (from the Greek akari, or mite) is an extreme fear of tiny insects, first identified by the French dermatologist Georges Thibierge in 1894, which can develop into a belief that minuscule creatures have invaded the body. The itchy feeling of 'formication' may be caused by the imagination alone, or by a physical condition such as shingles, tuberculosis, syphilis, skin cancer, the menopause or malnutrition. It can also be provoked by substances such as pesticides, methamphetamine and cocaine. Since itchiness is very suggestible, acarophobic delusions are sometimes transmitted from person to person. The public health officer William G. Waldron investigated several reports of biting insects in Los Angeles workplaces in the 1960s. At a flight-booking centre that he visited, all the female employees were experiencing a tingling sensation and a slight 'pulling' on their nylon stockings, just above the ankle. Waldron could find no insects on the premises, but he speculated that the women might be picking up a static electric charge from an uncovered telephone cable beneath their desks. He noticed that morale among the 150 employees was low. Perhaps, he thought, the oppressive working conditions were contributing to their prickly unease - the workers sat at their desks for hours on end, making complex telephone bookings, while three bosses watched them constantly from a darkened booth at one end of the room. Waldron recommended that the airline company cover the phone cable and turn on the light in the supervision booth. After this, the women told him, the itching stopped. In attempts to dislodge insects, some acarophobes gouge out the flesh of their faces, necks or arms, scalps, chests, armpits or groins. 'I found him stripped to the waist,' wrote Luis Bu-uel after visiting the artist Salvador Dal' in a Parisian hotel in the 1920s, 'an enormous bandage on his back. Apparently he thought he'd felt a "flea" or some other strange beast and had attacked his back with a razor blade. Bleeding profusely, he got the hotel manager to call a doctor, only to discover that the "flea" was in reality a pimple.' Bu-uel's film Un Chien Andalou, on which Dal' collaborated in 1928, opens with a razor blade slicing into an eyeball, releasing a swell of jelly, and goes on to show a swarm of ants teeming from a man's palm, the flesh erupting with alien life. i See also: arachnophobia, dermatillomania, entomophobia, zoophobia Acrophobia Andrea Verga, the Italian physician who invented the term acrophobia in 1887, himself suffered from a morbid fear of heights. An acrophobe, he explained, 'has palpitations on mounting a step-ladder, finds it unpleasant to ride on the top of a coach or to look out of even a first-storey window'. Verga derived his term from the Greek acron, meaning peak, and described its chief symptom as the dizzy, spinning sensation known as vertigo. Almost 20 per cent of us have a fear of heights, and for about 5 per cent of us it is a terror. The condition is sometimes attributed to traumatic experience - the detective in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) develops a horror of heights after seeing a fellow policeman fall to his death - but only about one in seven acrophobes can recall an incident of this kind. In fact, in 2002 a study of eleven- and eighteen-year-olds with acrophobia found that both groups had unusually little experience of heights. If anything, it seemed that their phobia had been caused or exacerbated by a lack of familiarity with high places. In 1897, Granville Stanley Hall analysed eighty-three accounts of acrophobia and other 'gravity-related' fears, from which he deduced that the phobia was rooted in a primordial anxiety, an 'instinct-feeling' that was 'incalculably more ancient than the intellect'. Many of Hall's subjects said that when they found themselves in high places they experienced a 'sudden giddiness, nausea, tremor, gasping, or sense of smothering'. In response, they 'grew rigid, livid, clenched their hands and teeth'. But, oddly, he noticed that many acrophobes seemed to fear not an accidental fall but their own 'jumping-off instinct'. 'Very common is the impulse,' he wrote, 'usually very sudden, to hurl oneself down from towers, windows, roofs, bridges, high galleries in church or theatre, precipices, etc.' Some acrophobes clung to railings or bystanders in order to stop themselves from plunging over a precipice and 'ending it all'. One man admitted that he was tempted by 'the exquisite pleasure of dropping'. Others were drawn to the 'beautiful sensation' of leaping into the air, wrote Hall, imagining that they might be 'upborne by their clothes, a parasol, flapping hands or arms like wings'. Hall suggested that to be afraid of heights was to be afraid not only of a deathly plunge but also of one's own primitive impulses, which might include a longing to jump or to fly. 'What man really most fears is himself,' he wrote, 'because his inner primal nature is that which he knows least and which might seize and control most completely his body and soul.' Hall, who was fascinated by both Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, was edging towards a new understanding of phobias, in which fear was forged not only by the adaptations of evolution, but also by conflicts in an individual's psyche. The whirl of vertigo could seem like the giddiness of yearning. 'What is vertigo?' asks the novelist Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980). 'Fear of falling? No. Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.' Some psychologists believe that acrophobia affects individuals who overattend to and dramatically misinterpret their bodily sensations. In exposure treatments, acrophobes are encouraged to climb to a height and wait until their terror recedes - at first, their hearts race, adrenaline courses through them, their breathing quickens; but after ten to fifteen minutes, the heart rate will usually subside, adrenaline levels will drop, and breathing will slow. By waiting for the symptoms of fear to pass, they can learn to associate heights with normal feelings. In 2018 a hundred acrophobes were recruited by Oxford University for a randomised experiment. After they had filled out a questionnaire to measure their fear of heights, half were assigned to receive immersive virtual-reality therapy and half to a control group. At six thirty-minute sessions, over about two weeks, the virtual-reality group wore headsets that enabled them to undertake different activities while they navigated ascending floors of a simulated ten-storey office block. They might rescue a cat from a tree on one floor, play a xylophone near the edge of the next floor, throw balls out of the window on another. In this way, they acquired memories of being secure while high up. When they answered a questionnaire at the end of the trial, the virtual-reality group reported a reduction in acrophobic symptoms of almost 70 per cent, while the control group's fear had reduced by less than 4 per cent. When they filled out the questionnaire again two weeks later, more than two-thirds of the people in the virtual-reality group fell below the trial's fear-of-heights entry criteria: they were no longer acrophobic. 'The treatment effects produced,' concluded the study's authors, 'were at least as good as - and most likely better - than the best psychological intervention delivered face-to-face with a therapist.' i See also: aerophobia, agoraphobia Aerophobia Aerophobia (from the Greek aer, or air) originally described a terror of breezes that was common in rabies victims; but it is now often used to describe a fear of flying. Many of us experience this fear, and for an estimated 2.5 per cent of the population it is a phobia. The Boeing corporation estimated in 1982 that the US airline industry would be making an extra $1.6 billion a year if everyone conquered their fear of flying, and in 2002, the year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, aerophobia had a tangible effect on mortality rates, too: so many Americans chose to travel by car rather than plane that an extra 1,595 people died in road accidents. The risks of air travel are very low. A study by Harvard University in 2006 found that the odds of an individual dying in a plane crash were 1 in 11 million - compared to a 1 in 5,000 chance of dying in a road accident. But recent psychological research has shown that we notice rare events more than we do common ones. And Aaron T. Beck, who pioneered cognitive behavioural therapy in the 1970s, pointed out that anxiety is based not only on the chances of a feared event taking place, but also on our perception of how devastating and inescapable the event would be. Those of us with a fear of flying aren't alarmed by the probability that our plane will crash, after all: what terrifies us is the barely imaginable horror that we would undergo if it were to do so. A character in Julian Barnes's novel Staring at the Sun (1986) articulates the tormenting thoughts that air travel can inspire. A plane crash, thinks Gregory, would be the worst way to die. Strapped into your seat on a plummeting aircraft, amid the screaming of the other passengers, you would know that your death was imminent, and that it would be both violent and tawdry. 'You died with a headrest and an antimacassar,' reflects Gregory. 'You died with a little plastic fold-down table whose surface bore a circular indentation so that your coffee cup would be held safely. You died with overhead luggage racks and little plastic blinds to pull down over the mean windows.' As the plane hit the earth, smashing these tinny tokens of civilisation, your life would be rendered meaningless. 'You died domestically,' thinks Gregory, 'yet not in your own home, in someone else's, someone whom you never met before and who had invited a load of strangers round. How, in such circumstances, could you see your own extinction as something tragic, or even important, or even relevant? It would be a death which mocked you.' Aerophobes hate the surrender of personal agency that flight entails. Some fear that the pilot will lose control of a malfunctioning aircraft, while others fear that they will experience a panic attack in which they themselves lose control. The phobia can be fuelled by the memory of an alarming flight, by news stories about crashes and hijackings, by disaster movies. Some aerophobes are physiologically vulnerable to the effects of air travel. They may, for instance, suffer from a dysfunction of the inner ear that leads to vertigo or to spatial disorientation during a flight; or from an undetected hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) that creates panicky feelings. Among those aerophobes who do fly, a fifth say that they use alcohol or sedatives to blunt their anxiety. Excerpted from The Book of Phobias and Manias: A History of Obsession by Kate Summerscale All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.