A delusion is a fixed false idea that is unshakable despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. It takes a great deal of imaginative work to create an alternative world for yourself, and you risk ridicule by flouting the common-sense reality as generally agreed by everyone else. The question then is what might a delusion offer a person that’s worth all this trouble? What kind of help or protection? As a historian of delusions, I’ve gone on the trail of 10 people from the past who have experienced delusion, looking for traces of real lives and struggles behind the “marvels of the mind” that appear in the medical case studies to see if I can understand.
At first encounter delusions appear crazy, but with close attention one can hear communiqués smuggled inside them, their meanings encrypted, demanding interpretation. They mean something real, what is it? I argue in my book that delusions can be psychological strategies to help a person deal with a difficult reality, like a reversal of fortune, traumatic loss, or irreconcilable forces and feelings. Delusions can be exquisite metaphors, instructions to the world as to how to treat us, as with King Charles VI of France a 14th-into-15th-century king who believed he had turned into glass and would smash if he came into contact with a hard surface. “Stay back,” the glass king says, “or you’ll break me!,” but also “I am a treasure to be admired.”
Delusions are distilled psychological dramas, thrillers, mysteries, and whisper to us about why we do what we do, navigating our lives and reconciling ourselves with challenging realities. It’s no wonder then that they form part of the psyches of so many great characters in fiction. Here are a few of my favourites:
“El Licenciado Vidriera” or “The Glass Graduate” is a short story of 1613 by Miguel de Cervantes star of the Spanish Golden Age. Charles VI’s “glass delusion” was seen as a subcategory of “melancholy” (something like what we may now think of as depression, caused by an imbalance of “humours” and too much black bile) and the psychological phenomenon spread across Europe and into fiction. Cervantes’s hero, Rodaja, is a brilliant student at Salamanca University, who is poisoned by a quince given to him by a worldly love in vain. It’s intended as a love potion, but it triggers a glass delusion which sees him taking care when sitting down and avoiding company. Charles VI was reported to have wrapped himself in blankets and inserted iron rods into his trousers to stop himself shattering.
In my book I tell the story of a French housewife “Madame M” who in 1918 walked into a police station in Paris demanding a divorce on the grounds that her husband had been murdered and substituted for a double. (She also believed that multiple children had been abducted and hidden in the cellars and catacombs beneath the city). Her delusion reads like an Edgar Allan Poe short story and indeed Poe’s eponymous hero “William Wilson” who appears in his 1839 short story is a man plagued from his schooldays to adulthood by a rivalrous double. Doppelgängers as harbingers of trouble feature in folklore from many different traditions. Dostoyevsky’s novel of 1846 The Double is an icon of the genre. The protagonist is a low-ranking office worker with poor social skills persecuted by a double who resembles him in every single detail except that he possesses the very social skills the protagonist lacks. The clerk is tormented by the doppelgänger to a denouement which sees more and more replicas present themselves and eventually he is carted off to an asylum.
Paranoia has been the most common delusion type seen by doctors for decades. In my book I trace the story of James Tilly Matthews, an 18th-century tea broker who worked as a self-styled diplomatic in Revolutionary France but was arrested and imprisoned as a spy. After escaping back to London with his life he conceived a paranoid conspiracy: a gang of villains were operating a contraption he called the “Air Loom” on street corners in Westminster. The machine emitted magnetic forces intended to influence the minds of politicians in the House of Commons and bring the revolution across the Channel. Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel Crying of Lot 49 is a dizzying postmodern conspiracy story set in the sprawling urban jungle of a fictional town in California. The protagonist, a young woman called Oedipa Mass, becomes convinced that she has uncovered a feud between rival underground postal networks and is compelled to interpret the mysterious symbols left by these companies all over the metropolis.
Cause for Alarm is a 1939 spy novel by Eric Ambler set in contemporary fascist Italy. Our expat fugitive hero has just lost his job as an armaments manufacturer and takes refuge in the mountains with a mathematical genius. The professor has fallen foul of Mussolini by refusing to sign a declaration that fascism is the “sacred religion.” What’s ruined him professionally, it turns out, is a swivel-eyed delusion regarding perpetual motion. The professor has become convinced that the laws of thermodynamics are based on a gigantic misconception and that “science was nothing but a house of cards.” “I knew for certain that he was insane,” our hero concludes before he dashes off. The suggestion here is that this may in fact be a sane response to a mad world.
In my book I write about the steady stream of “Napoleons” who made their way to the asylums of Paris long after the Emperor of France himself had died. “Delusions of grandeur” are arguably the poster boys and girls for delusions in general. They are certainly the simplest delusions to understand and naturally they feature in some wonderful fictional creations. Cervantes’s Don Quixote is the icon of grandiosity in fiction: a middle-aged gentleman who affects the power and status of a chivalric hero while in reality he is jousting with windmills, bestowing prestigious rewards on his sidekick who is limping along beside him on a worn-out nag.
Trauma is often the trigger for delusions—a number of people who in reality survived the guillotine during the Terror of the Revolution nevertheless presented at Paris asylums saying that they had, in fact, lost their heads, even that their heads had been mixed up in the basket after the decapitation and that they had been given the wrong one. Charles Dickens’s novels present some of the most memorable delusional characters. Mr. Dick in David Copperfield is a wise fool, working obsessively on his own memorial but distracted by his other obsession—King Charles I’s head.
“Walking corpse” delusions appear in my book too, specifically a 19th century French woman who told her doctor that she was already dead and refused to eat. This might bring to mind Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but gothic novels are mere background reading because the threat with this kind of delusion isn’t external: Here, the person has absented themself. This delusion is really about a withdrawal from the world; disconnection from a claustrophobic family or trauma. Herman Melville’s unsettling tale “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” features a clerk who politely withdraws in this way. He discombobulates and infuriates everyone around him by replying “I would prefer not to” to any requests and eventually starves to death. Dickens’s marvellously gothic creation of Miss Havisham in his novel Great Expectations seems to have unplugged herself from reality following her jilting and turned herself into a ghost of what could have been but never was—the eternal bride who will never get married, her wedding feast rotting and her wedding dress silting up with dust in a darkened room.
I mention in my book a delusion that I argue is quintessentially 20th-century: “Erotomania,” or the belief that someone of high status is madly in love with you. It’s a version of stalking where the protagonist is able to deny any responsibility for events—it’s the other person who is in love. Doctors began to see more of these delusions at a time when Hollywood was distributing larger-than-life moving pictures of true love into towns and villages for the first time. Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love is a disturbing tale of erotomania, and the delusional interloper’s impact on the marriage of a British science journalist. Richard Yates’s mid-century novel Disturbing the Peace, a thinly veiled autobiography, is a compelling portrait of an advertising salesman’s breakdown. John Wilder is a man with grandiose dreams about working in the film industry who descends into paranoid, alcohol-induced delusions. John travels to Hollywood and the novel ends with John wandering the streets of L.A. declaring himself to be Jesus Christ.