1857: Georges Gilles de la Tourette

The Doctor Who Became Insane Himself

October 30, 1857 – Birth date of French physician and neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette.

As one of the pupils of famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) at the Paris Salpêtrière hospital, Tourette experimented with the use of hypnosis as a method in psychotherapy. One of his specialisms was working with patients who suffered from hysteria. People considered him brilliant, though not always friendly.

Georges Gilles de la Tourette

As a young assistant in 1884, he was the first to analyze a condition characterized by recurring involuntary movements and tics (sometimes with rude, offensive vocalizations). Named after him, this illness is still known today as the “Tourette Syndrome”.

A Shot

When in the early evening of December 6, 1893 Tourette returned home from the hospital, he found a young woman waiting for him. This girl was 19-year-old Rose Kamper (1864-1955), a former Sainte-Anne asylum patient who had participated in one of Tourette’s hypnotism sessions. After a brief exchange in which she asked Tourette for money, she produced a pistol and shot him in the neck. The wound was not fatal.

After the shot, Rose Kamper kept sitting quietly in Tourette’s waiting room. She later explained that she suspected Tourette to be in love with her, that she had been hypnotized without her consent to take over control of her will “at distance”, and that there was another person in her who had made her shoot.

Kamper was diagnosed with what we today would call paranoid schizophrenia and quickly locked in the asylum again. She would spend much of the rest of her life going in and out of mental hospitals, once stabbing a nurse with a fork; in 1910 she would cause a large-scale police hunt when she managed to escape from an asylum.

Meanwhile the news of a patient shooting a therapist had gotten very much publicity in the French popular press. It was sensationalized like this:

Kamper shooting Tourette“A Hypnotism Drama”

Going Downhill

Tourette survived the shot, but the incident was used by others to discredit and ridicule the therapeutic use of hypnosis. So it also damaged Tourette’s reputation, and worse, the experience had shaken him enough to mark the beginning of his becoming mentally unbalanced himself. Gradually, he began to suffer from depressions and manic moods himself.

This probably was not just caused by some kind of posttraumatic stress. Several of his colleagues suspected that Tourette was in fact developing “paretic dementia”, the dreaded mental illness caused by a sexually transmitted disease: by syphilis infecting the brain.

Georges Gilles de la TouretteIronically, in 1899 Tourette himself published an article on the advance of syphilis into neurosyphilis and insanity. Some wonder if by then he did recognize the symptoms in himself and if this perhaps worsened his depressions; we just don’t know.

Anyway, around that time Tourette’s behavior became ever more erratic and bizarre. He sometimes bothered people by following them on the street, and occasionally stole little items.

Newspapers began to write about “the deranged doctor” and in the end he lost his hospital job. Friends and family decided something had to be done.

On May 28, 1901 Tourette was lured into the Swiss Asile d’Aliénés de Cery (an insane asylum near Lausanne, Switzerland) under the pretense that some “famous patient” was waiting there for a consult with him. Once inside, he was involuntary committed.

The asylum staff observed he was suffering from “melancholia with suicidal tendencies” and “bouts of megalomania”. He was indeed diagnosed with “paretic neurosyphilis”.

Asile d'Aliénés de Cery (1873)The Cery asylum as it was built in 1873

Tourette became (not surprisingly) very agitated over his involuntary commitment, and after a few days had to be put in an isolation cell.

The next few years he was kept in this Swiss asylum, where at first he vainly kept writing letters pleading for his release. He began to lose his last shreds of sanity and became almost psychotic, with rambling speech and convulsions.

Three years later (May 22, 1904) he died in the asylum after an epileptic seizure. He was 46.

Footnotes:

 


1965: Frank Wisner

October 29, 1965 – Mental problems can be fatal even in the world of James Bond. On this day Frank Gardiner Wisner (56) who had been one of the main figures in the CIA, used a 20-gauge shotgun to shoot himself in the right temple. He had been suffering from serious mental illness since at least nine years.

Frank Wisner

As a young Navy officer during World War II Wisner had joined the OSS, the secret American government organization that later would become the CIA.

He made a quick career as a spy and head of spies. Near the end of the war, he was chief of American intelligence in Turkey and Romania. There in 1944 he was one of the first who clearly understood that after the defeat of the Nazis, the Soviet Union was going to take control over all Eastern European countries.

Since 1947 Wisner headed several secret operations for the CIA, such as establishing spy networks in various European countries at both sides of the Iron Curtain. From 1952-1957 he successfully led the most important covert department of the CIA, that for example in 1953 played a decisive role in organizing a pro-American coup in Iran. He also was involved in the planning of the U-2 spy plane program.

But in December 1956 Wisner suffered a truly serious mental breakdown. He had to break off his work and was diagnosed as “manic-depressive”: what we today would call bipolar disorder.

Cause?

Frank WisnerAccording to some, Wisner’s illness had been triggered by his deep disappointment over the Soviet’s brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising (October-November 1956). He was equally disappointed by America’s inability to intervene and help the Hungarians.

Frankly, assuming that Wisner’s bipolar diagnosis was correct, this explanation looks a bit incomplete. Maybe political disappointment did indeed bring a sense of failure, that in turn triggered one of the depressive episodes that are typical for bipolar disorder. But the suggestion that this political disappointment was what triggered the illness itself seems implausible.

Generally, bipolar disorder is not an illness that just breaks out suddenly. It is a more chronic condition, one that develops over a long time. So my own guess would be that Wisner had already been suffering from the associated mood swings and hyperactivity episodes since many years, maybe even for most of his life.

After his breakdown, Wisner got therapies on all possible levels – from psychotherapy to electroshocks. Unfortunately lithium, that in some cases of bipolar disorder can be a simple and effective form of medication, was not yet known at the time.

Wisner had to be hospitalized in a famous psychiatric clinic in Baltimore, the Sheppard Pratt Hospital (a very old one, founded 1853 as the Sheppard Asylum).

The Sheppard Pratt HospitalThe Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, Towson (Baltimore)

Final Years

In 1958, after six months in this clinic, Wisner was allowed to return home. But because had not recovered fully (he still was unstable) the CIA had to find him a less demanding, less pivotal job. In September 1959 he finally went to work again, as head of the London CIA station. After a while however it became clear he could not function well anymore. In 1962 he was recalled from London and retired.

In his last years Wisner kept suffering from deep depressions. Apparently, no therapeutic help was adequate.

When on October 28, 1965 (the day before his suicide) he drove from his town house to the family’s Maryland farm, his wife was worried. She called the caretaker, asking to remove the guns from the farm before her husband’s arrival. But Wisner found the shotgun of one of his sons and used it to kill himself the next day.

According to his niece Jean Lindsey this may not have been a sudden impulse. She later described him as:

 
“Entirely rational, if you can say such a thing. He realized that his life would be circumscribed by increasing cycles of depression. I saw Frank three days before he died and he seemed in good spirits. He talked about his children. Perhaps he had made up his mind to kill himself.”
 

Wisner was buried at Arlington Cemetery with military honors as a naval commander, his wartime rank. Because so many CIA people were present, guards were posted all around to make sure that no Russian spies would register who attended the funeral.

Footnote:

 


1987: Joyce Patricia Brown

Freedom Or Cure?

October 28, 1987 – On this day a 40-year-old mentally ill woman was involuntarily committed to the New York Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

For over a year, she had been living as a homeless person on a hot air vent grate near the corner of 2nd Avenue and 65th Street, where with her uncontrolled psychotic behavior she was a nuisance to people passing by.

A Homeless WomanJust a homeless woman (not the one of this story)

Sometimes, little seems to change in history. Elsewhere I’ve described how back in 1409 one of the first asylums in Europe was founded after a street disturbance involving a mentally ill person (see here). And today, we still would like to have seriously mentally disturbed people removed from our streets.

Of course the argument is no longer (as it once was in 1409) that these insane may be possessed by the devil. Today we prefer to think that our humane decision to put them in some institution is purely in their own interest. But of course, it also still counts that (just like in 1409) we don’t really like to bump into those smelly, humming, begging homeless wrecks near the entrance of our shop.

So in 1987 New York mayor Ed Koch (1924–2013) started his Project Help that aimed at removing such severely mentally ill homeless people from the city streets and parks, forcing them to accept psychiatric care.

Billie Boggs

The homeless woman who on this day in 1987 was moved to the psychiatric hospital was Joyce Patricia Brown (street name “Billie Boggs”). She was one of the first who involuntarily became part of Mayor Koch’s ambitious project. She had a troubled life behind her, had become addicted to drugs, and had already been diagnosed as psychotic a few years before.

 Bellevue HospitalThe stylish old gate of Bellevue Hospital, New York

From her regular spot on the street she used to suddenly run into traffic, or expose herself or utter threats to people on the sidewalk. When well-meaning people gave her money she sometimes just tore it up or urinated on it. It was not uncommon to see her covering herself in her own excrement. It surely cannot have been a pretty sight.

To justify her forced hospitalization (and forced medication) the city had a Columbia University professor diagnose Brown as seriously mentally ill. However, the subsequent court case went wrong.

A lawyer of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Robert Levy, successfully defended Brown’s right to be free and to be left alone. In January 1988 the State Supreme Court ruled that New York City had no right to forcibly medicate her and that she had to be released. The judges argued that while Brown clearly was mentally ill, her behavior was not really dangerous to other people.

So after a forced stay of eleven weeks in psychiatric care, Joyce Patricia Brown was released and back on the street. This photo shows her celebrating her regained freedom with the Civil Liberties lawyers (Robert Levy is the man on the right).

Joyce Patricia Brown

Needless to say, Mayor Koch was not happy with this outcome. He wondered why the judges had not considered whether Brown was a danger to herself. Koch later said:

 
She lies there all year around, and she defecates in her clothing when she is not lucid, and when she is lucid she defecates on the sidewalk.
 
I said, “Isn’t she a candidate for institutionalization in some form?” No, they said.
 
I am thinking to myself, you are loony yourself!
 

Over the next few years, Koch’s Project Help still got 466 mentally ill homeless people to accept (more or less voluntarily) hospitalization, medication and other psychiatric care. There were a few success stories. But eventually, many of the people involved ended up on the streets again.

Ed KochNew York mayor Ed Koch

So what happened to Joyce Patricia Brown? It’s not quite clear. We don’t know if she ever got really cured, but maybe with some help by others she did manage to find a place to live. She certainly got attention, and this may have helped.

A 2000 news article described her as a “formerly homeless” at a meeting organized by the Institute for Community Living. But the same story also told that she was still getting drug counseling, and that she had recently suffered a stroke.

According to Social Security records, she died in 2005 at the age of 58.

Conclusion?

Has anything changed since 1987, when Ed Koch tried to move these mentally ill homeless from the New York streets to a hospital?

Of the 40,000 homeless in New York today, about 3000 live on the streets without making use of provisions such as shelters. Among the homeless, especially the people with serious mental problems tend to live on the streets. And of course we see the same thing in cities all over the world.

How to find a balance between allowing such people their personal freedom, while at the same time protecting them from the worst consequences of their illness? That question remains just as delicate and difficult as it was in the past.

I fear that history offers no clear answer: for what we want to give priority here, remains a matter of ideology.

Footnote:

  • The court case that freed homeless psychotic “Billie Boggs” from hospital may not have saved her from all troubles, but at least it did save her from oblivion. She remains one of the very few homeless people with a Wikipedia page: Joyce Patricia Brown.

 


1247: Bedlam

October 23, 1247 – Founding date of the London Priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlem, that after 1350 would evolve into the Bedlam hospital and become one of Europe’s first mental asylums.

The priory was founded on this day (“the year of our Lord God 1247, the Wednesday after the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist”) thanks to a grant of London Sheriff and Alderman Simon FitzMary. As a former crusader, he intended the priory to function as a religious center for collecting alms.

St. LukeWe have no portrait of Bedlam’s founder Simon FitzMary.
Therefore, here is a picture of St. Luke instead.

Originally, the priory was directly linked to the Church and Bishop of Bethlehem. In 1375, under King Edward III, this “foreign” background gave the Crown a motive to seize the priory. At this point it became a hospital; in 1377 it may have begun to take in mentally ill people.

The earliest date we know for sure that Bethlem housed mental patients is 1403. In that year, misbehavior of the priory’s porter caused a Royal Commission to inspect the premises. Among the patients they found “sex homines menti capti” (six lunatic men). The commission also registered the related therapeutic equipment: “Eleven iron chains with six locks, four pairs of iron manacles, and two pairs of stocks”.

In 1437 Bethlem was mentioned as providing “the succour of demented lunatics”: soon after, it had become an asylum exclusively for the mentally ill. They had room for about twenty of them. Among the buildings around the courtyard was not just a small church, but also a shed to store the hay that was used for bedding.

There are no images of Bethlem or the people involved in its first centuries. I can, however, show you what may have been one of the patients from this era. Between 2011-2013, during construction of a new underground station below Liverpool Street Station, archaeologists found 500-year-old graves from the old Bethlem graveyard:

A Bedlam Grave

Cryings, Screechings, Roarings, Brawlings…

The city of London took control of Bethlem in 1547 and for over a century, they had it managed as a kind of annex of the Brideswell prison-and-hospital: the place to dump the hopelessly insane.

By then, Londoners were already using the name “Bedlam” for the hospital, and they were sometimes touring it as if it was a zoo. In a general sense, the name would soon become synonymous for a pandemonium. Like it was described by clergyman Donald Lupton when he characterized the Bedlam patients in 1632:

 
Heere live many, that are cal’d men, but seldome at home, for they are gone out of themselves: Nature hath bin a Steppe-mother to some, and misery and crosses have caused this strange change in others: they seeme to live here, eyther to rectifie Nature, or forget Miseries: they are put to Learne that Lesson which many, nay all that will bee happy, must learne to know, and be acquainted with themselves: this House would bee too little, if all that are beside themselves should be put in here: it seemes strange that any one shold recover here, the cryings, screechings, roarings, brawlings, shaking of chaines, swearings, frettings, chaffings, are so many, so hideous, so great, that they are more able to drive a man that hath his witts, rather out of them, then to helpe one that never had them, or hath lost them, to finde them againe. A Drunkard is madde for the present, but a Madde man is drunke alwayes.
 
You shall scarce finde a place that hath so many men and woemen so strangely altered either from what they once were, or should have beene: The men are al like a Shippe that either wants a Sterne, or a Steresman, or Ballast: they are all Heteroclites from Nature, either having too much Wildnesse, or being defective in Judgment. Here Art strives to mend or cure Natures imperfections and defects. Certainely, hee that keepes the House may be sayd to live among wilde Creatures: It’s thought many are kept here, not so much in hope of recovery, as to keepe them from further and more desperate Inconveniences.
 
Their Faculties and Powers of their Soules and Bodies being by an ill cause vitiated and depraved, or defective. The men may be said to be faire Instruments of Musicke, but either they want strings, or else though beeing strung are out of tune, or otherwise want an expert Artist to order them: Many live here that know not where they are, or how they got in, never thinke of getting out: there’s many that are so well or ill in their wits, that they can say they have bin out of them, and gaine much by dissembling in this kind: desperate Caitifes that dare make a mocke of judgment: well, if the Divell was not so strong to delude, and men so easily to be drawne, this house would stand empty, and for my part, I am sorry it hath any in it.
 

The conditions in this old Bedlam were quite filthy. All the water had to be carried from one cistern in the yard; the sanitary conditions were especially bad for locked-in patients who had to make do with a bucket in their cell – which gave them the opportunity to throw about their excrement. Malnutrition was not uncommon, either.

As for therapy, until 1634 (when Bedlam for the first time got its own physicians) in fact there was none. The patients were indeed kept like animals in a zoo.

A Reconstruction

As said, we have no reliable pictures of old Bedlam at all. A circa 1572 city map by Ralph Agas gives a vague impression of what the complex may have looked like. The cutout below shows how Bedlam (within the red lines) still had its original position just outside the medieval city wall; a century later the fast-growing city would be all around it.

Bedlam on 1572 map)

By combining Agas’ picture with other old maps and descriptions, in 1882 physician Daniel Hack Tuke made a reasonable reconstruction of what the original old Bedlam in the 1400s and 1500s may have looked like:

Reconstruction of Old Bedlam by Tuke

Important to note here is that as an institution, Bedlam initially remained quite small. Between 1440 and 1600, the number of patients kept hovering around 30. During an inspection in 1598, the patient count got no further than 21.

But in the 1600s, gradually the old former priory buildings began to get overcrowded. In 1667 there were 59 patients.

Ten years later (1675-1676) a much bigger “New Bedlam” would be built to replace the dilapidated old one; but that’s another story.

Memorial?

In the 19th century, a railway station was built on the site of the original medieval Bedlam (and its graveyard). Since an 1894 extension, this Liverpool Street Station covers the entire area. Except for underground construction work, little will remind people of the asylum that once was there.

There’s just a wall plaque now:

bedlam-plaque

Isn’t it a little strange that this plaque does not explicitly commemorate the nameless patients who suffered terribly here and who for centuries lay buried at this spot?

Footnotes:

 


1959: An American in Moscow

October 21, 1959 – This was when (just three days after his 20th birthday) a slightly disturbed young American came into touch with the Soviet system of psychiatric care. He had tried to kill himself.

If his pathetic half-hearted suicide attempt had succeeded, then a few years later President John F. Kennedy might have returned from Dallas alive.

I can and will be brief here, as the life of this young ex-Marine has already been examined in hundreds of books and a zillion websites, up to the minutest detail. I don’t even need to mention his name anymore, but OK, I will.

Lee Harvey Oswald (1959)Lee Harvey Oswald, 1959: about to go to Russia

Lee Harvey Oswald had arrived in Moscow a few days before on a one-week tourist visa, with the intention to apply for Soviet citizenship and stay there. But on this day he was told that his application was rejected and that due to his visa expiring, the authorities expected him to leave right away.

In his room in the Moscow Hotel Berlin, Oswald (as he later described in his diary) held his left wrist under the cold tap to make it numb, then slashed it open and put his bleeding wrist in a bathtub with hot water.

He knew that his KGB-assigned sightseeing guide, Rima Shirokova, would return an hour later. Did he expect to be dead by then?

The guide found him half-conscious next to the bathtub. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital emergency unit where he got five stitches in his wrist. The medical report was later retrieved from the hospital archive: the wrist slash had been a fairly superficial one, two inches long and not really deep.

Botkinskaya Hospital (about 1959)Gate of the Botkinskaya Hospital, about 1959 (Oswald’s time)

Oswald found himself in the Moscow Botkinskaya Hospital, where the next morning he awoke in a room with twelve patients and three nurses. He described both the room and the breakfast given to him as “drab”. It took him two hours before he realized that he was in a psychiatric ward.

Later that afternoon he was interviewed by two doctors (with his tourist guide serving as interpreter) who had to laugh when he complained about the bad food.

The next day, having been diagnosed as not insane and not dangerous, Oswald was transferred to another ward that was partly reserved for foreign patients. This was not an exclusively psychiatric ward, but the nurses kept a close watch on him (and Oswald noted with relief that the food was much better now).

For a week, he was kept under observation here in the Botkinskaya Hospital. His tourist guide came to visit him every afternoon; the lady who ran the hotel reception counter payed him a visit too.

Botkinskaya Hospital (about 1959)Same gate of the Botkinskaya Hospital, about 1959 (Oswald’s time)

28 October 1959, one week after his suicide attempt, Oswald was released from the hospital. The Russian authorities made him check into another, more luxurious hotel and in the next days they let him know they would consider his citizenship application one more time.

Trying to force the issue, Oswald went to the American embassy to renounce his American citizenship, handing over his American passport.

In one sense, we may say that his suicide attempt was successful: for in the end it helped him get what he wanted. The next month the Russians gave him a one-year permit to stay. In January 1960 they got him a job, at an electronics factory in Minsk. Because by then he was broke, the Russians even gave him $500 to settle his unpaid hotel bill.

Surprisingly, Minsk soon began to bore him… In the summer of 1962 he would return (with his Russian wife and baby daughter) to the USA. This time it was the American embassy that loaned him $435 to pay for the journey home.

Oswald with wife and daughter (1962)Oswald with wife Marina and baby June, 1962

November 1963 was not far away.

Diagnosis?

The doctors in the Botkinskaya Hospital were right: Oswald probably was not truly suicidal. But was he sane?

Countless people have tried (and still are trying) to analyze him and his motives to murder JFK. A true diagnosis will forever remain difficult. Some conclude that Oswald was crazy indeed, while some others are sure there was nothing wrong with him.

However, many experts have come to the more-or-less final conclusion that while Oswald was not insane, he was not quite of sound mind either. I think I can agree with this more nuanced impression.

So to cap this off, here is a tentative diagnostic quote:

 
Based on his reported behavior, some of the early signs of sociopathy seem to have been present in Oswald, along with narcissistic traits, as evidenced by grandiosity, inflation, and his reportedly rude, egocentric, and arrogant attitude toward others, including his wife, whom he allegedly physically and emotionally abused on more than one occasion. This is a syndrome I have previously referred to as “psychopathic narcissism”.
 

Before I forget, sorry for the complete lack of conspiracy theories in this post.

No Conspiracy Theories?

No. Believe me. This is it.

REALLY? No Conspiracy Theories?

Well, if you insist. But listen carefully, for I will say this only once: this is a deeeep secret. They don’t want you to know this.

In truth, Oswald was no human being. Oh no no no no no! Actually Oswald was a very advanced cyborg. He was the very first result of a CIA experiment with electronic brain implants. The CIA had pulled this technology from the alien flying saucer that crashed in Roswell. Unfortunately, something went wrong with Oswald’s experimental brain implant. You know, Kennedy’s lover Marilyn Monroe had hired the Mexican drug mafia to kill her rival, Jacqueline Kennedy. As part of a devious plan, Marilyn first faked her own death, and then the mafia hacked Oswald’s CIA cyborg brain and programmed it to shoot the First Lady. But due to his android battery running low (it had been sabotaged by jealous anti-CIA FBI agents) Oswald missed the mark and by accident shot the President instead.

As for Jack Ruby… but need I say more? And when Ruby shot Oswald, why do you think he didn’t dare to shoot Oswald in the head? Right! That brain implant! The CIA has done everything to… No, for my own safety I cannot say more now.

Footnote:

  • The yellow quote is from a 2013 Psychology Today blog post that briefly analyzes Oswald’s life and his mental problems, by clinical and forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond: Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy?
    The bold emphasis in the yellow quote was added by me.

 


1970: Unica Zürn

Tormented Artist

October 19, 1970 – This day German-French artist, writer and poet Unica Zürn (54) killed herself by jumping from her 6th-story apartment at 4 Rue de la Plaine in Paris. Her death looked like taken from the story in her own book Dunkler Frühling (“Dark Spring”) that had been published the year before.

Here is not one portrait, but three. For viewed in sequence, they reflect a life that was a journey into ever more sadness and mental suffering:

Unica Zürn, about 1950about 1950

Unica Zürn, about 1960about 1960

Unica Zürn, about 1970about 1970

In 1949 (when she was 33) Zürn had separated from her first husband and lost the custody of her children. She began to move in German artistic circles and in 1953 she met surrealist artist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). She went to live with him in Paris.

Although sometimes they had difficulties and tried to separate, in fact they remained a couple until shortly before Unica’s death.

Bellmer’s work had strong sexual elements with explicit sadist and fetishist elements. He used Unica as a model; some think she must have been masochist to lend herself to it. There certainly were masochist fantasies in Unica’s own writings.

Notorious is a series of photos Bellmer took in 1958 of her nude body bound with thin, flesh-distorting string. These photo’s leave a shocking impression of degrading the nude female body (Unica’s head is not shown) in a deeply humiliating way. I find them disturbing enough to not show them here. If you insist on seeing some, Google Image Search will help you out.

On the other hand, Bellmer also kept stimulating Unica to write and to make drawings. Expositions of Unica’s surrealist doodle-drawings soon became a success. Here is an example:

Drawing by Unica Zürn

She also became famous for her anagram poems, where every line is composed from the same series of characters. Here is one of them:

 
Wir lieben den Tod
 
Rot winde den Leib,
Brot wende in Leid,
Ende Not, Beil wird
Leben. Wir, dein Tod,
weben dein Lot dir
in Erde. Wildboten,
wir lieben den Tod
 
        – In my own rough translation,
        of course no longer an anagram:

 
We love death
 
Red threading the body,
bread change into sorrow,
end of distress, ax becomes
life. We, your death,
weave your lead-line
in soil. Wild messenger,
we love death
 

Illness

Some think that the sadomasochistic element in the personal and artistic relationship of Hans Bellmer and Unica Zürn may have contributed to her mental disintegration. I don’t think we can be entirely sure about that.

Anyway, Zürn became depressed in 1959 after Bellmer persuaded her to have an abortion. It was the first of several times they separated for a while.

Soon after, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her ensuing journey reads like a slow slide down into hell.

Bomhoeffer Nervenklinik, BerlinThe Karl Bonhoeffer psychiatric clinic: Zürn’s first one.

● October 1959-February 1960: stay in the Karl Bonhoeffer Nervenklinik, a psychiatric clinic in Berlin-Wittenau;
● September 1960-Augustus 1962: stay in the Sainte Anne psychiatric clinic in Paris;
● July 1964-November 1964: stay in the Lafond asylum in La Rochelle; she also became a patient of the famous Paris psychiatrist Gaston Ferdière (1907-1990);
● June 1966-September 1966: first stay in the Maison Blanche psychiatric hospital in Neuilly-sur-Marne;
● December 1969-January 1970: second stay in the Maison Blanche;
● April 1970-July 1970: third stay in the Maison Blanche;
● July 1970-October 1970: stay in a beautiful old country house that had been converted into a psychiatric clinic: the La Chesnaie clinic in Chailles.

La Chesnaie psychiatric clinicThe La Chesnaie psychiatric clinic: Zürn’s last stop.

In this last place Zürn’s condition seemed to improve. But when in October she got permission to go home for a few days, it gave her the opportunity to kill herself.

Amazingly, during all these years she kept writing and making drawings. She really remained very productive until the last.

In the interval between 1964-1966 (when she was largely out of clinics) she began writing The Man of Jasmine: Impressions from a Mental Illness.

This would become a lucid and touching description of her psychotic hallucinations, depressions and anxiety attacks – the “Man of Jasmine” was derived from a fantasy figure from her childhood dreams. The book would be published in 1977, seven years after her death.

And here is one of Unica’s last doodles, from a 1970 notebook:

Drawing by Unica Zürn

When in 1975 Hans Bellmer died, five years after Unica, he was buried next to her at the Paris Père-Lachaise cemetery. Their shared stone has an inscription originally written by Bellmer for Unica’s funeral wreath: “my love will follow you into Eternity”.

A Song

Unica Zürn’s person and her work have inspired many others, not just in surrealist art and poetry. For example, her anagram poems are quite popular with musicians who put them to music: several examples are mentioned on Unica’s German Wikipedia page.

But I always like something that’s a little, well, different. And so, out of pure contrariness, I present you with the song Hello Kitty by Homme Jasmin. This is French for the “Man of Jasmine”, the title of Unica’s book: and it also is the Zürn-inspired pseudonym of a Japanese singer-songwriter. She lives in Marseilles, France.

ジャスミン男 fuses modern rock and antique baroque music, accompanied by everything from electronics to age-old instruments such as clavichords. She covers a wide range of moods; Hello Kitty is one of her more quiet songs.

If you like this one, you can listen to many more songs at her Homme Jasmin Soundcloud page.

Homme Jasmin - Hello Kitty 
Homme Jasmin – Hello Kitty

Footnotes:

  • There is a wealth of Unica Zürn stuff online, but not yet her own books. At least the two most important of them have been translated and printed in English.
    They can be easily found at Amazon: Dark Spring, translated by Caroline Rupprecht, and The Man of Jasmine: Impressions from a Mental Illness, translated by Malcolm Green.
  • Zürn’s ingenious and often striking anagram poems ought to be read in the original German for the full effect. Hans Werner Lang at the University of Flensburg has several of them online: Unica Zürn Anagramme.
    Although much is lost in any translation, some well-translated examples can be found at Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems and Poetics blog: Unica Zürn: Nine Anagrammatic Poems, translated by Pierre Joris.
  • There are many, many sites that display their own selection of most beautiful drawings by Unica Zürn. Let me mention just one that I like, posted at the Strange Flowers blog by James Conway: Unica Zürn | drawings.
  • If you can read German and want to read more about Unica Zürn, here are two suggestions:
    – Amazon has a brief biography (print version only) Die Einzige: Begegnung mit Unica Zürn. This book was written by Ruth Henry (1925-2007) who as an art journalist in Paris in the 1950s-1960s knew Unica Zürn personally.
    – The interdisciplinary gender studies journal Freiburger Zeitschrift für GeslechterStudien offers a more academic analysis online in PDF format: “Der Körper hat es dann auszubaden” – zum Verhältnis von Körper, Sprache und (Re)Produktivität bei Unica Zürn, written in 1997 by Rita Morrien.
    Basically she concludes that Zürn had an “autoagressive”, self-harming tendency that expressed itself both physically and in her language.
  • For a little more about the sex-obsessed artwork of Hans Bellmer, see this essay (PDF file) for the Art Institute of Chicago: Hans Bellmer in The Art Institute of Chicago: The Wandering Libido and the Hysterical Body, written in 2001 by Sue Taylor.
    In the wider context of Bellmer’s work she also discusses some pen-and-ink portraits (no, not those nasty photos) that Bellmer made of Unica Zürn.

 


1673: Thomas Clifford, Lord Chudleigh

October 17, 1673 – Today Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron Clifford of Chudleigh (43) killed himself. His suicide came just four months after his resigning from the top government position of Lord High Treasurer.

This painting from a year before shows him holding the white staff that was the exclusive symbol of the High Treasurer office:

Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron Clifford of Chudleigh

Clifford’s resignation had been a consequence of his strong Roman Catholic sympathies; it was even whispered he might actually be a closet Catholic. Since 1673, a new so-called Test Act required any government official to take the following oath to prove he did not share Catholic beliefs:

 
I, [name], do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.
 

Clifford had refused to take this oath (a courageous decision, according to some) and therefore he had to resign. And apparently, this sudden undeserved end of his distinguished political career had reduced him to a state of deep depression.

Handling the Problem

Suicide was a crime at the time, and people who had killed themselves were by definition denied to right to a proper Christian burial. Often they were buried in an ignominious manner. But somehow this never happened when members of the upper class killed themselves.

After an upper class suicide, there were two potential ways out of the dilemma. Either it was established that the deceased had killed himself in a bout of insanity (meaning he could not be held responsible for his act) or else the suicide was simply hushed up.

In this particular case, the second route was chosen: a hush-up. The alternative (asserting a temporary bout of insanity) would have looked a bit implausible, because there were indications of premeditation. Ten days before, on October 7, the 43-year-old Clifford had dictated his last will (referring to his being “of sound mind though weak in body”) with explicit instructions for his funeral.

Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron Clifford of Chudleigh

The hush-up did serve its purpose. Clifford could be buried normally in his family chapel on his estate at Ugbrooke (near Exeter). His 10-year-old son Hugh inherited the Baron title.

However, one problem with hush-ups such as this was that the upper-class always had many servants around who often were in the know. If just one of those servants started to talk, this could start rumors about what actually happened.

“After an Extraordinary Melancholy”

The well-known English diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) knew Clifford personally. In his private diary he described his last meeting with a very depressed Clifford, and how a few months later the rumors about Clifford’s suicide reached him – complete with details about how a servant had tried to save his master’s life:

 
Taking leave of my Lord Clifford, he wrung me by the hand, and looking earnestly on me, bid me God-b’ye, adding, “Mr. E. I shall never see thee more;” “No!” said I, “my Lord, what’s the meaning of this? I hope I shall see you often, and as greate a person againe.” “No, Mr. E. do not expect it, I will never see this place, this Citty or Court againe,” or words of this sound.
 
In this manner, not without almost mutual tears, I parted from him: nor was it long after, but the newes was that he was dead, and I have heard from some who I believe knew, he made himself away, after an extraordinary melancholy.
 
This is not confidently affirm’d, but a servant who lived in the house, and afterwards with Sir Robert Clayton, Lord Mayor, did, as well as others, report it; and when I hinted some such thing to Mr. Prideaux, one of his trustees, he was not willing to enter into that discourse.
 
It was reported with these particulars; that causing his servant to leave him unusually one morning, locking himselfe in, he strangled himselfe with his cravatt upon the bed-tester; his servant not liking the manner of dismissing him, and looking thro’ the key-hole (as I remember), and seeing his master hanging, brake in before he was quite dead, and taking him downe, vomiting a greate deale of bloud, he was heard to utter these words, “Well, let men say what they will, there is a God, a just God above,” after which he spake no more.
 
This, if true, is dismal.
 

Footnotes:

  • The portrait of Clifford as Lord High Treasurer was painted in 1672 by Dutch-English Baroque painter Peter Lely (1618-1680, birth name Pieter van der Faes).
    As a part of the British Government Art Collection, today this is one of the paintings on the walls of 10 Downing Street, the official London residence of the British Prime Minister. Source: the Government Art Collection website.
    The other, engraved Clifford portrait is just a romantic impression from a much later date. It was included in an 1823 printed collection of historical British portraits. Unfortunately I could not retrace the exact source for this one.
  • John Evelyn’s personal diary remained unpublished for over a century. A selection from the it was printed for the first time in 1818. Recognized as an interesting historical source, the diary was reprinted several times since then.
    I used an 1827 edition that is online in e-book format at archive.org: Memoirs of John Evelyn Comprising his Diary from 1641 to 1705-6, Volume II.
    The quoted part relating what Evelyn heard about Clifford’s suicide can be found at page 387-388.
  • The British History of Parliament website has a detailed biographical overview of Clifford’s political career in its Member Biographies: Clifford, Thomas (1630-73).
    Among Clifford’s many formal achievements this biography also mentions how in March 1662 in the Upper House of Parliament he came to blows with fellow member Andrew Marvell, who later called Clifford “a tall louse”.

 


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