Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

Review :

In 1975, having just been elected leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher interrupted a fellow party member who was speaking on the virtues of a "middle way" for the Tories. Mrs. Thatcher pulled a book from her briefcase and slammed it on the table. "This is what we believe," she declared.

The book, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, is a treatise on the perils socialism poses to both prosperity and freedom. It formed the ideological fulcrum of her time in power, a reaction to and indictment of the state-socialist system then rivaling the West but also a highly influential statement of economic orthodoxy that would outlive the Cold War.

A question that naturally arises is: what if Mrs. Thatcher had instead slammed Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness on the table and made the same declaration

Written by an accomplished and respected German jurist, Memoirs is part of a long appeal against an official, court-sanctioned decision to incarcerate the author in a public mental asylum. It consists mostly of accounts of his time in mental hospitals but also includes (as addenda) the medical reports of doctors, as well as Schreber's own arguments against his incarceration, on legal grounds.

Schreber understands the basis of his own plea: the laws of the Kingdom of Saxony do not specify the conditions that must preexist for a person officially diagnosed as mentally ill to be legally committed to a public asylum against his or her will. That is, the public asylums are provided by the state to care for the mentally ill, who may indeed pose a danger to themselves or others, but they are meant to be places citizens may avail themselves of if they so wish. They are not necessarily places to which such patients can be legally incarcerated in contravention of their express desires simply by virtue of a medical analysis.

Schreber demands to be released and returned to the care of his wife and family. Eventually, he is released from psychiatric hospitals, nearly a decade after first being committed, He resumes his profession for about five years until the death of his mother in 1907. Subsequently, he returns to a mental asylum, where he dies in 1911.

Diagnosed with the equivalent of paranoid schizophrenia (dementia praecox) in the 1890s, Schreber had experienced extreme alarm and anxiety at imagining one morning-just after waking-that he might enjoy sexual intercourse as a woman. He quickly concluded that this perverse thought must have had an external origin-that it had entered his mind from "outside"-and he began to believe that his primary psychiatrist, Prof. Paul Flechsig, had invaded his mind telepathically, making contact with his nerves via "divine rays." These thoughts morphed into extreme delusions of grandeur, whereby Schreber became part of a "divine plan" in which hundreds of "souls" took immense interest in him, and God performed "miracles" on him using "fleeting-improvised-men." These "fleeting-improvised-men" were "souls" who temporarily resided in the human body, and whose "miracles" (as far as Schreber was concerned) included torture.

Sigmund Freud (who never interviewed Schreber) argued that Schreber's condition should have given rise to a new diagnosis-paranoid dementia-because dementia praecox could not account for all of Schreber's experiences, including his evident ability to receive sexual gratification outside actual sexual experiences. He claimed that Schreber's experiences were the result of repressed homosexual urges, which were projected onto the outside world causing intense hallucinations. Schreber accused Flechsig of attempting to murder his soul and change him into a woman. He also believed God and the "Order of the World" demanded that he be changed into a woman to become the object of God's sexual desire.

There is little point trying to add substantially to the many reviews to which Memoirs of My Nervous Illness has been subjected since its first appearance over a hundred years ago. More helpful would be to include a few excerpts. In 1903, when Schreber had already been released from the asylums, he wrote a letter to Dr. Flechsig that included this passage:

I have not the least doubt that the first impetus to what my doctors always considered mere "hallucinations" but which to me signified communication with supernatural powers, consisted of influences on my nervous system emanating from your nervous system. How could this be explained I think it is possible that you-at first as I am quite prepared to believe only for therapeutic purposes-carried on some hypnotic, suggestive, or whatever else one could call it, contact with my nerves, even while we were separated in space. During this contact you might suddenly have realized that other voices were speaking to me as well, pointing to a supernatural origin. Following this surprising realization you might have continued this contact with me for a time out of scientific interest, until you yourself felt as if were uneasy about it, and therefore decided to break it off. But it is possible that in this process a part of your own nerves-probably unknown to yourself-was removed from your body, a process explicable only in a supernatural manner, and ascended to heaven as a "tested soul" and there achieved some supernatural power. This "tested soul" still endowed with human faults like all impure souls-in accordance with the character of souls which I have come to know with certainty-then simply allowed itself to be driven by the impulse of ruthless self-determination and lust for power, without any restraint by something comparable to the moral will power of man, exactly in the same way as another "tested soul," that of von W., as recorded in my "Memoirs." It is possible therefore that all those things which in earlier years I erroneously thought I had to blame you for-particularly the definite damaging effects on my body-are to be blamed only on that "tested soul." There would then be no need to cast any shadow upon your person and only the mild reproach would perhaps remain that you, like so many doctors, could not completely resist the temptation of using a patient in your care as an object of scientific experiments apart from the real purpose of cure, when by chance matters of the highest scientific interest arose. One might even raise the question whether perhaps all the talk of voices about somebody having committed soul murder can be explained by the souls (rays) deeming it impermissible that a person's nervous system should be influenced by another's to the extent of imprisoning his will power, such as occurs during hypnosis; in order to stress forcefully that this was a malpractice it was called "soul murder," the souls for lack of a better term, using a term already in current usage, and because of their innate tendency to express themselves hyperbolically.

In the following passage, Schreber recounts a physical experience in one of the asylums:

About the fourth or fifth night after my admission to the Asylum, I was pulled out of bed by two attendants in the middle of the night and taken to a cell fitted out for dements (maniacs) to sleep in. I was already in a highly excited state, in a fever delirium so to speak, and was naturally terrified in the extreme by this event, the reasons for which I did not know. The way led through the billiard room; there, because I had no idea what one intended to do with me and therefore thought I had to resist, a fight started between myself clad only in a shirt, and the two attendants, during which I tried to hold fast to the billiard table, but was eventually overpowered and removed to the above-mentioned cell. There I was left to my fate; I spent the rest of the night mostly sleepless in this cell, furnished only with an iron bedstead and some bedding. Regarding myself as totally lost, I made a naturally unsuccessful attempt during the night to hang myself from the bedstead with the sheet. I was completely ruled by the idea that there was nothing left for a human being for whom sleep could no longer be procured by all the means of medical art, but to take his life. I knew that this was not permitted in Asylums, but I labored under the delusion that when all attempts to cure had been exhausted, one would be discharged-solely for the purpose of making an end to one's life either in one's own home or somewhere else.

Here is a passage from Schreber's account of his many different mental experiences:

The miracles directed against my head and the nerves of my head happened in manifold ways. One attempted to pull the nerves out of my head, for a time even [during the nights] to transplant them into the head of M. who slept in the next room. These attempts caused [besides the fear of an actual loss of my nerves] an unpleasant tension in my head. However the pulling out succeeded only moderately, the staying power of my nerves proved the greater force and the half-pulled-out nerves always returned to my head after a short time. Serious devastation was caused in my head by the so-called "flights of rays," a phenomenon difficult to describe, the effect of which was that my skull was repeatedly sawn asunder in various directions. I frequently had-and still have regularly daily-the sensation that my whole skull has temporarily thinned; in my opinion this was brought about through the bony material of my skull being partly pulverized by the destructive action of the rays; but it is restored again by pure rays particularly during sleep. One can form some picture of the disagreeable sensations these happenings cause if one considers that these are the rays of the whole world-somehow mechanically fastened at their point of issue-which travel around one single head and attempt to tear it asunder and pull it apart in a fashion comparable to quartering.

Freud's theory about Schreber was later disputed and contested by prominent psychoanalysts, many of whom probably took the haughty attitude that Freud's theories were outdated due to his lack of access to modern facilities. Yet Freud probably had a point. Schreber argues in the book that his illness is not "mental" but rather "nervous." As strange as the contents of his Memoirs are, they are far from the kind of incoherence one might expect from a schizophrenic. If Schreber really did experience the tortures of the damned because of a fleeting "transsexual" thought one morning, it is unlikely the sum total of his experiences had no sociological source whatsoever, even if he were "mentally ill." Can anyone seriously imagine a person in a Western country today experiencing such anguish

We are now accustomed to effete Muslim suicide bombers such as Mohammed Atta and Salman Abedi taking out their repressed homosexuality by killing others to relieve their own inner torment. But Schreber began dealing with his inner demons at the end of the 19th century in Protestant Germany. Far more likely, Schreber's torments were in no small part a product of his time, just as he and his parents were. This theory is only augmented by the fact that he returned to his work and performed normally after the period of his treatment in different mental asylums.

As Freud noted, "The wonderful Schreber ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and director of a mental hospital." Indeed, it is not impossible-and indeed very likely-that Schreber was a good deal more sane and lucid than most psychiatrists are today.


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