A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse

Victoria Shepherd. Oneworld, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-86154-091-4

In this bewitching debut, Shepherd adapts her BBC Radio 4 series of the same name, providing a delightfully strange account of delusions. Through a series of case studies spanning the Middle Ages to the present day, Shepherd contends that “cases of delusion often have the quality of a parable or fairy tale.... They are peculiar, cryptic, their meanings encoded.” She discusses the French “Madame M,” who in 1918 requested a divorce because she thought her husband had been replaced by imposters, and Shepherd points to the stigma around divorce as a possible subliminal motive. An exquisite chapter tells the story of the 17th-century psychological theorist Robert Burton, who so trusted a horoscope he had personally calculated that he allegedly committed suicide to accord with its prophecy of his death. Other cases include King Charles VI of France, who believed that his body had been transformed into glass, and a French Revolution–era clockmaker who claimed his head had been severed by a guillotine. Reminiscent of Oliver Sachs, Shepherd opts for empathy over prurience, highlighting the humanity of her subjects and lucidly drawing out the dream logic by which their delusions operate. This is a wondrous reminder of the intricacy and paradox of the human mind. (July)
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