Paperback Writer: Geography of Madness

Paperback Release

I’m very happy to announce the publication of the paperback edition of The Geography of Madness by Melville House. The past year has been full of fascinating conversations on everything from missing members to the mysteries of PMS. It seems like the tide is turning toward a more nuanced, less mechanistic, view of how the body and mind interact. If Geography helped advance that discussion, I am glad.

Below is a roundup of reviews and interviews that have come out since the hardcover publication, for which I’m deeply grateful. I want to thank everyone who bought and read the book. I hope it rang true on some level.

Interviews
The Atlantic: Diseases You Only Get if You Believe in Them
Toronto Globe and Mail: Penis thieves? Voodoo death? Frank Bures suggests such maladies aren’t all in our heads
Meaning of Life TV: Culture-bound syndromes
Rain Taxi: The Fluidity of the Human Brain
The Isthmus: On the trail of penis thieves

GoMmech.indd

 

Reviews
New Scientist: Stolen penises and other exotic psychological tales
The Australian: From penis thieves to voodoo
The Guardian: Is your penis really shrinking?
Maclean’s: Penis thievery and other strange syndromes
Star Tribune: “Ambitious and exhaustively reported, this thoughtful book examines culture, beliefs and madness.”

 

Further discussion
Slate: We’re not scientists, but PMS is real.
Vox: Of course PMS is “real.”
New York: Yes, PMS IS Real

 

Reviews in other languages:
Enfermedades que tienes sólo si crees en ellas
Più crediamo di essere stressati più lo siamo veramente
Kroppen, själen, penistjuven
Er zijn ziektes die je alleen hebt als je gelooft dat ze bestaan

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Creepy Clowns, Pizzagate and American Panics

526388637From Powells.com

To a village dweller on Hainan, the Great American Clown Panic of 2016 would certainly seem strange, while the 1985 ghost panic of Hainan would make a certain amount of sense. This was largely because they had heard the stories about genital-stealing ghosts before. Older residents “vividly remembered previous epidemics in 1948, 1955, 1966 and 1974” that had also affected hundreds of people. Our culture is the ecosystem of narratives that we belong to. One study found that the difference between victims and non-victims was 100 percent of victims had prior knowledge of the danger of the fox ghost, and 100 percent of them had a fear of death due to genital retractions. Culture-bound syndromes and mass panics emerge from the stories that we believe could be true.

Dark CarnivalFor the same reason, the clown panic makes a certain kind of sense to us: we have heard this story before. “The story always sounds real,” says Robert Bartholomew, author of Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior and many other books on the topic. “A pedophile or sadist trying to lure people into the woods. Yet when you look into it, these stories go back for centuries. Folklorists have a name for them: bad clown narratives, or killer clown, phantom clown, stalking clown. For me, phantom clowns are the bogeyman in another guise. They are living folklore. They are a modern myth in the making.”

Clowns, in our culture, have a long and complicated history. According to Bartholomew they were viewed positively until the late 1800s, when they began to appear in operas as murderers. Around the Great Depression in 1930, traveling circuses hit hard times, so they spun off into smaller sideshow carnivals. These were called “Dark Carnivals” (like the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name) and there clowns were dark, creepy, and scary.

Read the rest here.

Clowns._America

Geography of Madness: Book Club Edition

GoMmech.inddIf you’re considering The Geography of Madness for your book club, please feel free to contact me, and to use the questions below for your discussion.

Book Club Discussion Questions:

1) One main themes of The Geography of Madness is that stories (about the world, about our lives, about our bodies) are contagious. Can you think of a story, or an experience, that changed what you believed was possible?

2) Do you believe the brain and the mind are the same thing? If not, what is the difference?

3) The stories in The Geography of Madness raise the question of free will: How much do you choose the life you live? How much do you learn (or catch) you life choices from those around you?

4) Have you ever found yourself immersed in a situation where you did not know the rules? What was that like?

5) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that our mindset and our expectations have biological consequences. Does that resemble your experience? If so, how?
[Further reading: On the Body as Machine.]

6) Try to imagine living in a world where it was possible to have your genitals stolen, either by magic or by ghosts. How would you protect yourself?

7) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that a strong sense of self—of your story— can help to activate your endogenous (internal) healing systems and vice versa. Do you remember a time when a stressful or difficult period seemed to be followed by a health problem or sickness?
[Further reading: Writing the Self]

8) In The Geography of Madness, did anyone’s genital actually disappear? If not, what happened? Does it matter?

9) Is there a belief that everyone around you holds, but that you don’t share? How did you come to doubt this?

10) The Handbook of Depression points to a genetic marker associated with greater vulnerability to depression. Yet this link only holds true in Western cultures. Why would that be?

11) Have you ever had a health problem you were afraid to talk about, or that others didn’t believe in?

12) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that cultural syndromes are “real” syndromes, but that their causes might not lie where we think they do. Do you think they are “real” or “imaginary”?

13) Over the last few years, gluten intolerance has been rising. This rise occurs at a time of increasing anxiety about the relationship between food, health and identity. What’s changed: our bodies or our culture?

14) After reading The Geography of Madness, how would you describe what culture is?

15) How much does a your culture create you? How much do you create your culture?

16) Have you ever had a cultural syndrome?

Beyond the Machine Age

From Undark:

It used to be that when I looked in the mirror, I saw many things: a body; a collection of cells; a fantastic kind of machinery. I didn’t see these things because they were a reflection of reality, or because the body and brain are, in fact, machines. I saw them because I was born in America, and that is my culture.

In our country, we have what’s known as a mechanistic understanding of our bodies. We imagine ourselves to be machines made of meat and bone. We see the doctor as a mechanic whose job is to find the broken parts and fix them. For at least a century this has been our primary metaphor for talking about sickness and health, about how our bodies work and break down. In its popular 1960s television special, National Geographic flatly described the human body as “The Incredible Machine.”

The body is incredible, but my view of it as a machine — the validity of that metaphor — started to break down in the process of researching my book, “The Geography of Madness,” about the so-called “cultural syndromes.”

“Of course, one cannot think without metaphors,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1989 essay, “AIDS and its Metaphors,” “But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.”

Read the rest here.

newbod

On Rimbaud’s Trail

From Longitude Books:

One of the places I remember most clearly (and fondly) is Obock, Djibouti, a town on the edge of the Red Sea where I traveled several years ago for a story for Nowhere Magazine. Obock is hot and miserable and there is nothing to do. At night thousands of migrants stream through the area on their way from Ethiopia and Somalia to the Middle East where they hope to find work. When I got there I found that the hotel the tourism office in the capital recommended had closed long ago. On my first day I was harassed by the local police for being there.

What I remember best, though, was how refreshing it was to be so uncatered to, so far from everything. It didn’t matter to anyone (except a few curious folks) whether I was there or not. This must have been something like was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud felt when he first arrived there in the mid-1880s to escape his former life and become an arms dealer: It was like the whole world could slip away.

Read the rest hereIMGP3480.JPG.

Travel and Insanity

the-rotarian-column-travelFrom the of The Rotarian

In the 1970s and ’80s, an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini began to make note of tourists who came to Florence and, while viewing great works of art, experienced a mental breakdown. Often, they had to be put on a stretcher and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Magherini looked at 106 such cases and labeled the condition “Stendhal syndrome,” after the French novelist who described having such an experience in a Florence basilica. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky may have had a similar affliction.

According to Magherini, such a breakdown is caused by the power of art over people who are psychologically vulnerable or by “coming into contact with great works of art without the mediation of a professional guide,” as one paper on the syndrome described it. That may be the case. But such experiences are not unique to Italy, regardless of the power of its art. Rather, I suspect there was a greater power at work, one the victims brought with them: the power of their own expectations.

A similar condition has affected some Japanese tourists in Paris. Researchers observed that in Japan, “Paris has, and holds, a quasi-magical power of attraction because the city is considered a symbol of European culture.” Besides the normal stresses of travel and the vast cultural differences, the authors noted that “disappointment linked to contact with the everyday reality [of Paris] is a factor of incomprehension and anxiety, but also of disenchantment and depression.” This was dubbed “Paris syndrome” by the media.

Read the rest here.

Live Well, Die Fast

1215_CoverThe business of longevity is massive in America—land of perpetual youth. One of its most ardent boosters is Dan Buettner, who has created a minor industry around the so-called “Blue Zones,” where people are reported to live extra-long lives. Most of his advice qualifies as common sense: Eat plants, exercise, be part of a community. I don’t have any problem with most of this. In fact, I do most of it.

What I do have a problem with is the way the Blue Zones capitalizes our refusal to accept death as part of life. And even if we allow that some Blue Zones exist (though many have been debunked), the idea that you should try to replicate those in your own life strikes me as naive and sad and beside the point. The science of longevity is extremely complex. How long you live depends not only on what you eat, but on what you believe—something I write about in my new book, the Geography of Madness. For example, one study found that those with a more positive view of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with a negative one. If that’s true, it means the very people most desperate to stave off the end (the natural market for the Blue Zones) would be the least likely to benefit from such advice.

In any case, if you care, you can read my short critique here.