“More repetition than depth” – The Book of Phobias and Manias by Kate Summerscale

“If a phobia is a compulsion to avoid something, a mania is usually a compulsion to do something.”

IMG_2022-10-5-202407With my abiding interest in neuroscience, psychology and sociology, The Book of Phobias and Manias sounded right up my street. It turned out not to be quite what I expected. There is more repetition than depth.

It does what it says on the cover, providing an A-Z of ’99 Obsessions’, some well known and others strangely niche. The length of each entry varies. If only a few lines are offered then little more than a brief description of the problematic behaviour is provided. Those entries spread across several pages also include case studies, with possible treatments and their effectiveness.

Occasionally the author will point towards the lack of ethics in the methods employed by certain scientists when dealing with patients. For example, behavioural psychologists wishing to establish that a phobia could be induced experimented on the nine month old baby of a fellow employee. They proved that a fear response could be conditioned. Soon afterwards the baby’s mother left her job at their hospital, the child taking with him a lifelong dislike of animals.

Exposure based treatments have been shown to be curative in many cases, although the way offered varies. A twelve year old child was treated by psychiatrists who strapped the object of her fear to her back until her screams and cries abated and the girl claimed she was no longer afraid. The author ponders if a new fear, of therapists perhaps, may have replaced the original. Such quips, although rare, help lighten the tone of what can be a troubling read.

There is much discussion of how and why phobias develop. In amongst the theories I couldn’t help but question why Freud was ever taken seriously. He appears to describe every problem encountered as representations of sexual desire. What seems more apparent is that phobias and manias are manifestations of wider social and familial anxieties.

Alongside the serious and life limiting effects sufferers live with, are occasional nuggets to add more light-hearted interest – such as why hanging a sieve above a door deters witches.

Much of what is elucidated may be negative but some can also have meaningful aspects. It is suggested that hoarding (Syllogomania) may be regarded as a way of storing memories. The hoarder’s unwillingness to lose any of these is likened to a biographer who must tell a life story from a wealth of research material, most of which cannot be included in the final edit.

“The story she would tell would be more elegant, more pleasing, and less true.”

Objects, even those seemingly worthless, become a part of the hoarder’s psyche.

Scattered throughout the book are pen drawings that could be potentially triggering to those suffering what is being described. These, along with the imagery evoked by the narrative, can make this an uncomfortable book to chew over and digest. While few may suffer a full blown phobia or mania, the fear or disgust at the core of each diagnosis is mostly grounded in what all feel to some degree. As the author explains, not fearing anything can, in itself, be life threatening.

Not all the phobias and manias included are psychiatric diagnoses. Some mock fads or fashions. A few are jokes, such as aibohphobia: a fear of palindromes.

It is pointed out that fears may be passed on across generations, as much by example as by genes. Phobias and manias are cultural creations, giving a name to a tormenting condition. While some people may regard them as nonsensical, to sufferers they are often severely life limiting.

Women are, apparently, disproportionally phobic. The author posits this could be:

“because the social environment is more hostile to them – they have more reasons to be afraid – or because their fears are more often dismissed as irrational.”

The writing throughout is mostly factual and, in many ways, repetitive. There is much of interest within these pages but the entries tend to merge after a time rather than provide memorable differentiation.

A section listing the author’s sources is included for those wishing to dig deeper.

Any Cop?: Perhaps the best use for this book is as a taster, a reference to dip into for those interested.

Jackie Law

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