“The TV is talking directly to me” is a common delusion nowadays. But delusions have existed throughout history, so what did people in the Middle Ages have delusions about when there was no TV?
Join us as historian Victoria Shepherd tells us about the King of France who thought his body was made of glass, a woman who believed her husband and children had been swapped by imposters, and the man who thought magnetism was controlling the British Parliament. Victoria tells us how all delusions are products of their time and culture and how they hold the key to our collective traumas and anxieties.
Victoria Shepherd is an award-winning producer of history documentaries for BBC radio. She has a masters in creative writing and has just completed her first book, “A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse.”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Victoria Shepherd. Victoria is an award-winning producer of historical documentaries for BBC Radio and the author of the book “A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse,” which she wrote as a companion for her ten-part series of the same name for BBC Radio 4. Victoria, welcome to the show.
Victoria Shepherd: Thank you so much for having me, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: I am very excited for today’s episode. Living with bipolar disorder, I personally have experienced delusions, so I have a personal investment in this topic. But before we dive into deeply into our topic today, Victoria, can you explain what definition you used for delusions?
Victoria Shepherd: Well, the working sort of definition that I’ve used from my book is a fixed false idea that can’t be shaken despite evidence, plenty of evidence to the contrary. So, it’s an unshakable, fixed, false idea about the world. It’s been important for me as a historian writing the book to keep focused on that definition, because the subject is very nebulous and elusive, really, and it crosses over into all sorts of other areas. And so, I’ve tried very much to stick to that kind of psychiatric definition of a delusion, which means that the ten characters whose life stories I tell from across many centuries may in many respects be very high functioning. But they have at least one fixed false idea about themselves.
Gabe Howard: Victoria, for me personally, whenever anybody asked me what a delusion is, I say, you feel that it’s there. Like, you know, the monster is under the bed, but you can’t see the monster.
Victoria Shepherd: Oh, that’s that’s really interesting. What that speaks to from my point of view is this idea that logic won’t touch a delusion. It’s not something you can be talked out of or you partially you suspect or something. It’s an absolute fixed false idea. Some very interesting research in 1991 was the first time that, well, psychologists had had asked the general population about their delusional beliefs. Nobody had ever really asked the general population at random. And this happened in Baltimore in 91. And they discovered, of course, that we’re all delusional. We’re somewhere on the spectrum. We all have at least one fixed false idea about ourselves. And yet these people, the kind of people who’d ended up being logged as being delusional over the centuries were the people who whose delusions were so extreme that they’d ended up in an institution. The volume on them can be so turned up that life, normal life and functioning becomes impossible
Gabe Howard: Victoria. I feel like it’s important to say that science doesn’t really understand where delusions come from. We think there is some aspect of biological brain malfunction or disease. Well, it’s all just very incredibly complicated, but your work looks at delusions with a psychological or psychodynamic lens, and your book and your radio series are incredibly fascinating. Now, I want to point out to our listeners that you are a trained historian, and in your book, you describe ten different case studies of people throughout history who experience delusions. Now, these people are all very different. There are men and women. They live in different time periods spanning from the 1300s all the way to today. They’re even different socioeconomic classes. And the main thing you are showcasing is how delusions have manifested and changed over time. What got you started on this? How did you first become interested in delusions?
Victoria Shepherd: Right. Well, I mean, I suppose that the entry delusion certainly for me would be King Charles, the sixth of France. He was a 14th into 15th century king, and he believed that he had turned into glass. Now, he had a very busy day job. He was dealing with the Hundred Years’ War with England. But privately, what he was worried about was smashing if he came into contact with hard surfaces, which kind of absurd scenario. And to understand it, that that glass was a was a new technology. He may have seen glass in cathedral windows or inside of his royal goblets, but there would have been very thick and opaque and glass that you had in a window to domestic space that gave you a good view was brand new. Plate glass had just been invented in Rouen, and of course at that time it had a kind of alchemical magic to it. We still think of glass as being magical in some ways. It turns up in fairy tales all the time, and it still has that power for us. But then this idea that you would heat rock to unbelievably high temperatures and then it would produce something that was clear but brittle that it could break, but it was strong enough to hold things that embodied so many different qualities. And there was, as I say, this kind of alchemical magic to it.
Victoria Shepherd: When you look at it in that way, it’s not surprising that it cropped up in delusions. And, people all over Europe, in fact, there were so many people who thought they had turned into glass in early modern Europe that there was a discrete category of people called the Glass Men of Europe. You know, the stories of Victorians presenting themselves to doctors saying that they thought that their guts had turned to concrete at a time when concrete was a new technology. And of course, since the kind of sixties and the great seal bug and all that kind of stuff about espionage, nanotechnology and so on, people saying, Doctor, I think my thoughts are being downloaded by a chip in my teeth. You know, that started to become a really common presentation of delusions from the mid-20th century onwards. And so again and again you see new technology and changes in technology reflected in delusions.
Gabe Howard: You talk about how the content and context of delusions change from era to era, but they do have common threads. In fact, you said that they had “encoded meetings that demand interpretation” and that they “hold the key to our collective anxiety and traumas” that was. Those are exact quotes, but what did you mean by that? And can you provide some examples?
Victoria Shepherd: Ooh, that’s. That’s a biggie. That’s fascinating. The first being so in the case of Charles the sixth is a great visual demonstration of this, that how delusions can operate as a kind of distance regulator, as an instruction to the world in how to treat you. You know, you can see being made of glass is saying, you know, keep back, you’ll break me. I’m fragile. But also, I’m a treasure. I’m precious. Something to be admired and something of value. A delusion can be a way of becoming the metaphor as it like. Charles turns himself into glass. He’s giving the world instructions on how to treat him. And it feels like a kind of what we might call now an anxiety disorder. Or, in fact, quite a clever strategy for dealing with anxiety, to say you’re made of glass. And then other sort of major strands is that delusions seem to be a really rather ingenious way of accommodating, conflicting beliefs that one of the things that as human beings we find hardest, almost harder than anything, is dealing with ambiguity, ambivalence, conflicting beliefs, cognitive dissonance. And we just hate it. We don’t want to sit with it. And of course, a great conspiracy theory, for instance, a paranoid conspiracy theory, which we see a lot of now. I tell the story of James Tilley Matthews, an 18th century tea broker from London who got tangled up in the French Revolution, got into all kinds of trouble, experienced a kind of real reversal of fortune, got kicked out of revolutionary France.
Victoria Shepherd: He got humiliated and came back to London and kind of conceived this incredible conspiracy theory that the Jacobins in France, the revolutionaries, were using a machine, a contraption that he called the air loom, which was emitting magnetic rays on the street corners of Westminster in London, and using it to influence the minds of the politicians in parliament to bring the revolution to England. And I mean, his story is wild and extraordinary. And he was living in very chaotic, ambiguous political times when, you know who was right and who was wrong, could change in 5 minutes and you could lose your head under the guillotine from either side, hour by hour. And, you know, his delusion gave a narrative, a really clear story, gave him a job to do. It made villains clear and the hero’s clear and put him clearly on the side of justice. And he’s just a really kind of daring do, rip roaring example of a conspiracy theory from the 18th century with all of the content, from that culture. Tilley Matthews came up with the idea of the air loom when magnetic forces were being discovered in a scientific environment. The echoes about, you know, the Internet and so on, are kind of uncanny the idea of invisible forces and what they might be doing and how that might make people feel incredibly anxious. I don’t think that’s difficult to understand.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the author of “A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpose,” Victoria Shepherd. I think when most people think of delusions, they just think of it as being part of mental illness, part of being, quote unquote, crazy, because these delusions are clearly false. And therefore, the people who are having these delusions can just literally be dismissed. But you have a different opinion on this. How should we be looking at delusions?
Victoria Shepherd: The story of delusions, these threads of how delusions might function and how you see them, what that what they are offering people. Rather than seeing them as kind of marvels of the mind that are inexplicable and bizarre. I’ve tried to say, to try to sort of say, look, you can’t hold this topic at arm’s length or put it in a kind of curio freak show cabinet. We’re all somewhere on that spectrum. We all have delusional thinking. Why? What’s it offering us? And it seems to me really clear, looking at these stories, that there are all these threads, there are all these common functions to delusions. And it’s actually I did find myself feeling very impressed with the kind of imaginative ingenuity of delusions. And when they when they cross over with psychosis and they’re very, very serious, they’re to be taken seriously. They’re not, you know, frivolous anecdotes by any stretch of the imagination. And they can present dangers to the people experiencing them and to others. But they are also kind of extraordinarily imaginative and rather ingenious.
Victoria Shepherd: I’ve come to see them as ingenious psychological strategies for dealing with difficult stuff. I’ve come to see them. Well, they are. They’re very often responses to trauma, to wretched existence, and to difficulty. There’s a particular thread of women in the 19th century and actually early 20th century who have sort of fallen out of good society, in inverted commas. And it’s not only women who fall out of society, but I certainly see there’s a thread of women who fall out quicker and find far fewer ways back in. In one case, Margaret Nicholson. She’s a woman who assaulted King George, the third, claiming that he he’d stolen her birthright. Her delusion was that she was the rightful heir to the throne of England. What had happened to her was that she’d been in service, really working very hard in London with well-to-do families. Never had any black mark against her name at all. And then one day somebody saw the valet, one of the other men in service coming out of her bedroom and gossip spread. They were both immediately fired from their job. And her story is just devastating demonstration of how she could go from being hardworking, self-financing, successful woman, unblemished record.
Victoria Shepherd: And suddenly she had nowhere to live, no job, nothing. And we next see her turning up at St James’s Palace, claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne. Several of the women who I’ve studied, that’s happened to them, they’ve fallen on hard times, maybe because they’ve rightly or wrongly been seen to commit a kind of social faux pas of behavior. And that’s it. Their life is wretched. They’re reduced to nothing, and there’s no real way back for them in terms of getting back into society. And these very grandiose delusions emerge from that. Even to people, the people who thought they were Napoleon. That’s another really interesting kind of entry delusion. The number of people who, way after Napoleon himself had died presented saying that they were Napoleon, including some women actually. And you can see really clearly there what a delusions might be offering. France, that’s a complete mess. And putting on the costume of the poster boy for being self-made. He was from a lowly family and Corsica and how he half the world. It’s not hard to see what wearing that that costume, that persona might offer somebody.
Gabe Howard: I noticed that trauma features heavily and delusions that you document in your book. You write about several people who have delusions in response to the trauma of war specifically.
Victoria Shepherd: You know, the effect of dealing with war trauma is something that hasn’t changed and didn’t change over the hundreds of years that I follow. So, the people who believe that they’ve been decapitated by the guillotine after the French Revolution, the people who I tell a story about a woman who believed that King George the Fifth was in love with her and she was experiencing what became known as a erotomania, the fixed false belief that somebody of high status is in love with you when they’re not. My first case study is Madame M, who’s a woman who she walks into a police station in 1918, just at the end of the First World War, demanding a divorce on the grounds that her husband had been murdered and substituted for a double. And you know her life.
Victoria Shepherd: She’s married relatively well. She was working behind the scenes of the Belle Epoque, making dresses and doing well. But she’d experienced death of several children in quick succession. The trauma of living through the First World War, many of the difficulties and out of that, her life had really collapsed. And she found this really kind of striking reversal of fortune that she had to somehow accommodate. And she’s recorded by her psychiatrist, is walking in and claiming that her children haven’t died. They’ve been substituted for doubles as well. Her husband isn’t her husband. He’s a double. And this incredible story about belief that that, in fact, from her point of view, even the soldiers of the First World War haven’t died. They’ve been put under Paris in the catacombs. And again, you start to see that perhaps it’s easier to deal with the idea of substituted loved ones than with the idea that you don’t like them very much. In the case of her husband, I came to the conclusion she was not happily married, but also in terms of the terrible loss of her children and kind of mass loss of the war.
Victoria Shepherd: It’s easier. There’s a comfort in a scaffolding in believing, a psychological prop in believing, believing that people have been substituted. And even though it’s a horrible, horrible ploy, she says that it’s like a sort of Dante’s Inferno strata onto Paris, filled with all these abducted people. But again, it gives her it gives her a job to do. It gives her a plot to foil people to rescue. And so, it starts to make sense. And I’ve tried with all of these ten people whose lives are followed to try and to say, yes, they’re crazy in inverted commas, but they mean something real. What is it? That’s the question. They mean something real. And I think that’s true, absolutely, of delusions. They always, they always mean something real. They always reward sort of pulling up a chair and listening really carefully and. And they won’t be argued down or back into generally accepted reality through any kind of logic or shouting or haranguing. This is answering that question of how we bring people back. You know, it’s not an easy sell, is it, to people who’ve created this sort of neat story for themselves in terms of a paranoid conspiracy? It’s not an easy sell to bring people back into a into a messier world, is it? But I think that’s probably what we have to try and do.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that’s so amazing about all of the case studies that you cover in your book is that, well, frankly, it reads fake. It reads like fiction. It reads like a novel. It all sounds like some sort of sci fi action movie. And I had to remind myself over and over again that your book is nonfiction. This isn’t made up. You’re documenting the lives of real people. Did you find it hard not to get sucked into this yourself?
Victoria Shepherd: The premises of delusions are intriguing, aren’t they? Because they have a fantastic premise at the beginning of all of them. Like I say, the woman walking into the police station saying, I want a divorce. Why, madam? Oh, but my husband’s been murdered in exchange for a double. You know, it’s like an opening for from a kind of thriller, isn’t it? Like an Edgar Allan Poe short story. They’re really good stories that these people have created and they’re not creating them cynically or manipulative. These are real fixed false beliefs, but there is a drama and a performative element to many of these that are very seductive. And her story just had me, you know, on tenterhooks to know the next installment. She’s also particularly interesting because there’s this fascinating and very visual delusion about people hidden, abducted and hidden under Paris. And some of them have had kind of Frankenstein like operations on them to change their identities, where the stitches have shown. And it’s kind of gory and macabre, and as I say, involving murder and abduction and interesting cross over there with QAnon, actually, the idea of abducted children who’ve been hidden, say, as an aside.
Victoria Shepherd: But her stories it’s an incredible yarn, intriguing psychologically about where it had come from in her life. And I’ve done my best to try and answer that by looking at the fragments that we have left, the notes that she gave to her psychiatrist, Joseph Capra, And looking myself at evidence, I literally went and paced the streets of Paris this summer to follow, to see where she lived, to see if I can try and understand a bit about her real life struggles and what my job as a historian has been to try and find the real lives, the real people. When I found out that Madame M, who’s the pseudonym name of this case study for the Delusion of doubles, the illusion of doubles, this kind of principal type of delusions. And she’s the kind of poster girl for it. And when I found out that her real name was Louise and which apartment block she lived in, I got the first of a series of sort of feeling like I was finding a real person. Who was struggling with very ordinary, extraordinarily painful things, if that makes any sense. Because the danger with the fact that there’s such incredible stories is that you’re kind of seduced by that. And what I’ve tried to do is be much more forensic and see the common human struggles that we all share, the strategies for dealing with the difficult existence that we could all sort of take tips from. I’m not suggesting we all we all develop a delusion, but certainly there are there are fragments of strategy in there. And this kind of solidarity between people, between centuries that I found really touching when I was researching it.
Gabe Howard: It really is amazing when you think about how much in common these people throughout the centuries had. Victoria, thank you so much for being here. Where can folks find your book and of course, you online.
Victoria Shepherd: Thank you so much. So, I’m you can find me at VictoriaShepherd.org and all my other social media stuff is on there and my book is published by Oneworld and should be available on all online stores or in bookshops.
Gabe Howard: You are very, very welcome. But to all of our listeners, thank you so much for being here. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because, well, everything is. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a personal favor? Recommend the show, tell your friends, your family members, your colleagues, send a text message, an email. Post us on social media Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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