Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David.
Believing oneself to be Napoleon Bonaparte is a classic

Victoria Shepherd is a radio documentary and podcast producer, and a writer. We discuss her latest book, "A History of Delusions; the Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse", a social history exploring an intriguing psychological phenomenon.

How did you come to write a book about delusions?

While working on a completely different project, I found a brief reference in a book about early modern Europe to Charles VI of France, a monarch who believed that he had turned into glass. Here was a king publicly embroiled in the Hundred Years War with England (a busy day job), but privately terrified that he would shatter if he sat down. It’s an absurd scenario. But I listened more carefully to it and began to hear something more serious. To the "glass king”, the situation is no less than life and death. The courts of Europe are laughing at him. A communiqué, it’s meaning encrypted, is smuggled inside the [delusional] belief, demanding an audience, attention and interpretation. I made a documentary about what become known as the more widespread psychological phenomenon called ‘Glass Delusion’, and then I was hooked as a historical detective of delusions.

You focus on the lives of ten people spanning over six hundred years and ending in the early 20th century. How are these cases relevant to us today?

I tell the stories of several individuals from the past who were causes célèbres in their lifetimes, their outlandish stories sensationalised further by their fame. The delusions in my book are extreme – “Technicolour” with the volume turned up – but they are not as far removed from our own psychological strategies as we might imagine …As a historian, I’ve gone on the trail and tried to catch traces of the real lives and struggles behind the case studies. To create an alternative reality for oneself, to go against the common-sense reality as generally agreed by everyone else, risks ridicule and social exclusion. The question then is: What is the delusion offering by way of help or protection that is worth that ridicule?

You define a delusion as "a fixed, false idea, not shared by others, unshakeable in the face of decisive evidence contradicting it." Yet they often appear to be communal – as a reaction to new technology, or a major historical event.

Let’s return to the "glass king". Glass was a relatively new technology at the time, specifically ‘plate’ glass developed in Rouen, which could be used in domestic windows. It was new in homes and had an alchemical magic to it: here was sand, heated to extreme temperatures, which then became transparent yet hard; breakable, beautiful, fragile. It’s not hard to see how being ‘made of glass’ might operate as an instruction to the world on how to treat you. ‘Stay back, or you’ll break me’, you declare, but also ‘I’m precious; a treasure.’ ….

I think the many people across early modern Europe who ‘turned themselves into glass’ is a poetic example of how patterns and ‘epidemics’ of delusions happen. Everyone was experiencing glass as a new material, with unique, contradictory qualities, at the same time. It’s not surprising that many pegged their own anxieties and ambivalences onto it – even felt such an affinity with the material and its qualities that they melted into it.

Collective trauma is often reflected in delusions. I tell the story of a clockmaker in post-revolutionary Paris who presented at an asylum saying that, despite surviving, he had in fact had his head chopped off by the guillotine, and – the most pressing complaint of all – that there had been a mix up in the basket and he had been given the wrong head in the confusion. The proof was that he had had perfect teeth, but this lot were all rotten, as he said.

An individual’s delusion usually represents a challenge to the generally accepted reality. Group delusions seem to contradict this.

However, what I have observed looking back over hundreds of years of delusions is that people may have the same delusion at the same time, but they are not usually a collective experience. Quite the contrary. An experiment by the psychologist Milton Rokeach in a Michigan hospital in the early 1960s introduced three men to each other who all believed they were Christ. Being aware of each other’s existence did not snap them out of their delusions, as Rokeach imagined it might. There was a violent fist fight instead.

Do we have a contemporary equivalent of the "Glass Delusion"?

Since the discovery of espionage bugging devices during the Cold War made front page news, people have presented to doctors claiming that there is, for example, a chip in their tooth, downloading their thoughts. I’m sure that Artificial Intelligence will soon feature in delusions, alongside nano-technology.

Why do you think paranoic delusions, and delusions of grandeur, are the most common forms?

Delusions of grandeur are perhaps the clearest demonstration of how delusions function as a psychological strategy. They are useful in navigating a wretched existence or a humiliating reversal of fortune, or loss of autonomy in your life. It’s not hard to see what putting on the costume of Napoleon, for example, might offer if you’ve lost all sense of power and control. Dozens of men turned up at French asylums after the real Napoleon had died claiming that they were themselves Napoleon. Napoleon was the poster boy of self-made power: a boy from rural Corsica who had broken into the establishment to rule half the world. Delusions are not conscious decisions, but I’ve come to see then as ingenious imaginative creations, sometimes beautifully simple.

A paranoid conspiracy organises the enemy in a chaotic world and gives us a job to do; it offers a clear story, a plot to be foiled, villains and heroes, and puts the person with the delusion clearly on the side of good. We humans struggle to live with ambiguity and ambivalence. There is a clear correlation between a sense of belonging and paranoia. The lower the sense of belonging in a community, the higher the incidence of paranoia.

Why is it important to understand these stories in their historical context?

The picture is always incomplete and mysterious, and we have to live with the ambiguity. But

understanding the historical context of a delusion gives glimpses of flesh-and-blood people dealing with difficult realities behind the case study pseudonyms. The themes are perennial – love, death, war – and specifics are gold dust. For example, I write about the case of ‘Léa-Anna B.’: a milliner in 1920s Paris and the poster girl for the delusion of ‘Erotomania’ – the belief that a person of high status is in love with you (when they’re not). She believed that King George V was madly in love with her, and travelled to London to stand outside Buckingham Palace and wait for a sign from the king as to when they should meet. ‘Léa-Anna B.’ had, we learn, been dumped by her lover and ostracised in her rural community. It’s a sad, personal journey. But it’s also significant that her delusion appeared at the birth of Hollywood when the Silver Screen was projecting larger-than-life images of true love into towns and villages across the world for the first time.

Have women and men been susceptible to different kinds of delusions?

For centuries women were far less likely to consult a physician, so we can’t know how many experienced, for example, glass delusion.

We do know that women are well represented in accounts of delusions seemingly triggered by a relationship ending in humiliating or disreputable circumstances, and the financial and social ruin that followed. Margaret Nicholson, for example, doorstepped King George III at St. James’s Palace with her claim that she was descended from Boudicca and the throne of England was rightly hers. Nicholson had worked hard in service for decades, supporting herself. No one had ever had a bad word to say about her, until one night someone in her household spied a valet leaving her room. They were both fired on the spot. The valet married someone else and quickly found a new place to live. We next find Nicholson outside St. James’s Palace, with a blunt butter knife, making her grandiose claims.

It wasn’t only women who could fall out of good society in a moment, but a woman’s route back was certainly more difficult, if not impossible. Nicholson spent the rest of her life in Bedlam.

What about today?

Almost (though not quite all) historical cases of ‘Erotomania’ are women. The delusion is defined by a person believing someone of high status is in love with them (when they’re not), so it’s not surprising that the people experiencing the delusion are typically women in service or other low-pay jobs, and the ‘lovers’ typically government officers and priests.

Today, ‘Erotomania’ still typically involves a woman who believes that a man of high status is in love with her. It’s also true that practically speaking, today, ‘Erotomania’ could also be described as ‘stalking’ – the ‘difference’ being a technicality, that the person presenting the delusion takes no responsibility for their behaviour – it’s the other person who is in love. A man with this delusion might be more likely to be processed by the police as a criminal, rather than being logged by a clinician as delusional.

Do you think we are more, or less prone, in our own century, to delusional thinking?

The principal types of delusion have remained consistent for as long as there have been records, so it’s fair to assume there have been delusions for as long as there have been people. Social anxiety, political chaos, and descent into poverty are all drivers for delusion. Since there’s also strong evidence that lack of social connection and sense of belonging makes delusional thinking more likely, the appeal of an alternative reality is surely as strong today as it’s ever been. It’s certainly easier than it’s ever been for invisible operators to curate alternative realities for us in our own homes, within our social media silos.

The book seems to ask us not to dismiss delusions, but instead to see them as potentially important forms of expression.

I’ve come to see the meaning of delusions as imaginative creations – their meanings encoded or encrypted. In writing the book, I’ve tried to pull up a chair, figuratively speaking, and listen. We all want to be worthy of attention and interpretation. Delusions communicate that something is amiss. The question is: what is it?

The clinicians I’ve met along the way, both in books and in real life, all seem to have come to the same conclusion, albeit from different directions – that the best chance of coaxing someone with a delusion back [to real life] is to meet them half-way, by entering a few steps into their alternative reality. It’s certainly not to try to argue them out of it. That’s not how a delusion functions. It may be better to view a delusion as vital scaffolding for a disordered life, and best not to dismantle it at all. Above all, I’ve come to feel compassion and admiration for the imaginative ingenuity of people making use of delusions in order to navigate their difficult lives.