email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
12 and HoldingA Guide to Asperger SyndromeA Lethal InheritanceA Mother's Courage: Talking Back to AutismA Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning AutismA Special EducationA Toss Of The DiceA Tribe ApartA User Guide to the GF/CF Diet for Autism, Asperger Syndrome and AD/HDA Walk in the Rain With a BrainABC of Eating DisordersADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your LifeADHD Grown UpADHD in the Schools: Assessment and Intervention StrategiesAdolescence and Body ImageAdolescent DepressionAggression and Antisocial Behavior in Children and AdolescentsAll Alone in the UniverseAlpha GirlsAmericaAnother PlanetAntisocial Behavior in Children and AdolescentsAsperger Syndrome and Your ChildAsperger Syndrome, Adolescence, and IdentityAsperger's and GirlsAssessment of Childhood DisordersAttention Deficit DisorderAttention-Deficit Hyperactivity DisorderAttention-Deficit/Hyperactivity DisorderAutism - The Eighth Colour of the RainbowAutism and MeAutism's False ProphetsAutistic Spectrum DisordersBad GirlBeen There, Done That? DO THIS!Before I DieBetween Two WorldsBeyond AppearanceBig Mouth & Ugly GirlBipolar ChildrenBipolar Disorder in Childhood and Early AdolescenceBipolar DisordersBipolar KidsBlackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive DevelopmentBody Image, Eating Disorders, and ObesityBody Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in YouthBoy AloneBrain-Based Therapy with Children and AdolescentsBreaking PointBreathing UnderwaterBringing Up ParentsBullying and TeasingBullying PreventionBut I Love HimCan't Eat, Won't EatCaring for a Child with AutismCatalystChild and Adolescent PsychiatryChild and Adolescent Psychological DisordersChild and Adolescent PsychopathologyChild NeuropsychologyChild Well-BeingChildren and SexualityChildren Changed by TraumaChildren with Emerald EyesChildren with Sexual Behavior ProblemsChildren, Sexuality and SexualizationChildren’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness City of OneCommunication Issues In Autism And Asperger SyndromeConcepts of NormalityConcise Guide to Child and Adolescent PsychiatryConquering the Beast WithinConsuming KidsContesting ChildhoodCount Us InCrackedCrossesCutCyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy TeensDamageDemystifying the Autistic ExperienceDescartes' BabyDilemmas of DesireDirtyDisconnected KidsDoing SchoolDon't Bother Me Mom--I'm Learning!Don't Pick On MeDying to Be ThinEarly Intervention Programs and PoliciesEating an ArtichokeEducating Children With AutismEight Stories UpElijah's CupEmerald City BluesEmotional and Behavioral Problems of Young ChildrenEpilepticEthical Dilemmas in PediatricsEvery Girl Tells a StoryExiting NirvanaExploiting ChildhoodEye ContactFacing BipolarFamily HistoryFast GirlsForever YoungFreaks, Geeks and Asperger SyndromeFreewillFrictionGirl CultureGirl in the MirrorGirlfightingGirlhoodGirlWiseHandbook of Evidence-Based Therapies for Children and AdolescentsHandbook of Preschool Mental HealthHealing ADDHelping Children Cope With Disasters and TerrorismHelping Hyperactive KidsHelping Parents, Youth, and Teachers Understand Medications for Behavioral and Emotional ProblemsHelping Students Overcome Depression and AnxietyHelping Teens Who CutHollow KidsHope's BoyHow Infants Know MindsHow to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can'tHurry Down SunshineI Am Not Joey PigzaIdentifying Hyperactive ChildrenIf Your Adolescent Has an Eating DisorderIn the Company of CraziesIncorporating Social Goals in the ClassroomIntegrated YogaIntrusive ParentingIssues for Families, Schools and CommunitiesJake RileyJoey Pigza Loses ControlJoey Pigza Swallowed the KeyJuvenile-Onset SchizophreniaKim: Empty InsideLearning and Behavior Problems in Asperger SyndromeLearning Disorders and Disorders of the Self in Children and AdolescentsLearning Outside the Lines Let Kids Be KidsLiberation's ChildrenLife As We Know ItLisa, Bright and DarkLook Me in the EyeLoserLove and SexLove That DogMad at SchoolMaking ADD WorkMaking American BoysManicMastering Anger and AggressionMaverick MindMedicating ChildrenMind FieldsMind to MindMommy I'm Still in HereMore Than a LabelMy Flesh and BloodMyths of ChildhoodNew Hope for Children and Teens with Bipolar DisorderNew Look at ADHD: Inhibition, Time, and Self-ControlNo Child Left DifferentNo Two AlikeNon-Drug Treatments for ADHDNot Much Just Chillin'NurtureShockOdd Girl OutOdd Girl Speaks OutOne Hot SecondOne in ThirteenOphelia SpeaksOphelia's MomOur Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger SyndromeOut of the WoodsOvercoming ADHDOvercoming School AnxietyParenting a Child Who Has Intense EmotionsParenting Children With ADHDParenting Your Out-Of-Control TeenagerPediatric PsychopharmacologyPediatric PsychopharmacologyPediatric PsychopharmacologyPeople with HyperactivityPhobic and Anxiety Disorders in Children and AdolescentsPINSPlease Don't Label My ChildPraising Boys WellPraising Girls WellProblem Child or Quirky Kid?Problem GirlsPsychotherapy for Children and AdolescentsPsychotherapy with Children and AdolescentsPurgeRaising a Moody ChildRaising BlazeRaising Generation RxRaising Resilient ChildrenReady or Not, Here Life ComesReclaiming Our ChildrenRedressing the EmperorReducing Adolescent RiskRemembering Our ChildhoodResilience in ChildrenRethinking ADHDReweaving the Autistic TapestryRitalin is Not the Answer Action GuideRitalin NationRunning on RitalinRunning with ScissorsRutter's Child and Adolescent PsychiatrySeeing EzraSex and the American TeenagerSex, Therapy, and KidsSexting and Young PeopleSexual Teens, Sexual MediaShort Term 12Should I Medicate My Child?SmashedSnapshots of AutismSongs Without WordsSophie Spikey Has a Very Big ProblemSpeakStaying Connected to Your TeenagerStick FigureStraight Talk about Psychiatric Medications for KidsStraight Talk about Psychological Testing for KidsStraight Talk about Your Child's Mental HealthStrange SonStudent DepressionSuicidal Behavior in Children and AdolescentsSurvival Strategies for Parenting Children with Bipolar DisorderSurviving OpheliaTaking Charge of ADHD, Revised EditionTaming the Troublesome ChildTemple GrandinThe American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook Of Child And Adolescent PsychiatryThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bipolar ChildThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Boy Who Was Raised as a DogThe Buffalo TreeThe Bully Action GuideThe Bully, the Bullied, and the BystanderThe Burn JournalsThe Color of AbsenceThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Depressed ChildThe Developing MindThe Dragons of AutismThe Einstein SyndromeThe EpidemicThe Evolution of ChildhoodThe Explosive ChildThe Eyes of van GoghThe Fasting GirlThe Field of the DogsThe Flight of a DoveThe Hidden Gifts of the Introverted ChildThe Horse BoyThe Identity TrapThe Inner World of a Suicidal YouthThe Inside Story on Teen GirlsThe Kindness of StrangersThe Last Normal ChildThe Little MonsterThe Medicated ChildThe Myth of LazinessThe New Gay TeenagerThe Nurture AssumptionThe OASIS Guide to Asperger SyndromeThe Other ParentThe Perversion of YouthThe Philosophy of AutismThe Psychoanalytic Study of the ChildThe Real Truth About Teens and SexThe Ride TogetherThe Rise and Fall of the American TeenagerThe Science of ADHDThe Sex Lives of TeenagersThe Survival Guide for Kids With LD*The Unhappy ChildThen Again, Maybe I Won'tTherapy with ChildrenThings I Have to Tell YouThings Tom LikesThrough the Glass WallThumbsuckerTotally WiredTouching Spirit BearTrauma in the Lives of ChildrenTreating ADHD and Comorbid DisordersTreatment of Childhood DisordersTwistedUnder the Wolf, Under the DogUnhappy TeenagersUnstrange MindsWastedWe've Got IssuesWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWhat about the KidsWhat in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online?What Works for Whom?What Would Joey Do?What's Happening to My Body? Book for BoysWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for GirlsWhat's Happening to Tom?When Nothing Matters AnymoreWhen Your Child Has an Eating DisorderWhose America?Why Don't Students Like SchoolWill's ChoiceWinnicott On the ChildWorried All the TimeYou Hear MeYoung Minds in Social WorldsYoung People and Mental HealthYour Child, Bully or Victim?
I enjoyed reading this very interesting book and
found it thought-provoking. The author,
a journalist, tells the story of Mollie Fancher, who spent fifty years without
leaving her bedroom after an accident in 1865.
She became a celebrity for her claims that she was in contact with the
spirit world and that she survived in spite of eating nothing. The tale is told in a manner which is
sympathetic to all its participants and is especially well set in the
medical-historical context of the late nineteenth century, with implications
for the early twenty-first century.
Fancher was a well-educated 18-year-old who was
engaged to be married and living with her aunt in Brooklyn (her father had
remarried after Molly's mother's death, and had moved away). In 1865, she had a terrible accident with a
horsecar and was dragged many feet. She
was treated in her home for these serious injuries and then developed
dyspepsia, weakness and "failing health". The author recreates the medical and psychological mise-en-scene
-- Beard's neurasthenia, the many train and horse-car accidents which occurred
and the post-traumatic stress disorders which developed after these incidents,
as well described by Freud, and the many protracted, disabling illnesses
without known pathology which were prevalent at the time.
The author develops the theory that Molly suffered
from la grande hysterie
of Charcot, as further developed by S. Weir Mitchell in the United States. She had the arc en circle, a feature of hysteria which is rarely seen
today but which I have observed, many sensory findings, paralysis, and
trances. Observers said that she had
five distinct personalities. The author
cites feminist theories about this type of historical hysteria -- but she could
have explored other theories as well.
Molly was prescribed several somatic therapies, without much
response: hydrotherapy, electrical
treatments, heat, and ice jackets.
While classical hysteria may be gone forever, it is interesting that the
author cites Briquet on this topic; while Briquet subscribed to some classic
nineteenth century views of hysteria, he really described somatoform disorder,
which remains with us today, and a good case can be made that, at least today,
this would be Molly's diagnosis.
Irritatingly, the author provides all this rich information in a chapter
which also contains far more details about Molly's house and neighborhood than
will interest most readers.
Thirteen years after her injury, Molly Fancher
became a public figure, claiming to be clairvoyant, involved in metaphysical
travel -- including travel to the afterlife -- and also claiming that she
existed without eating. These
assertions were fomented in the newspapers, which found the situation
fascinating (and undoubtedly these claims sold newspapers!)
An excellent chapter on William Hammond
follows. He had been Surgeon General of
the army during the Civil War and was a founder of the discipline of
neurology. He wrote a fascinating book,
(1879). He was a debunker of
spiritualism and is viewed in the book as a somewhat hostile man. He tried hard to expose Mollie Fancher as a
fraud and said she was "a perfect humbug -- a clear case of
insanity." This chapter is flawed
because of the amount of unnecessary biographical detail about Hammond. The
author next includes a chapter on George Beard. This great physician, who died at age 43, did many studies of
nervousness and so-called neurasthenia.
He also studied many unusual syndromes such as the "jumping
Frenchmen" of Maine. He was a
proponent of electrical treatments for patients like Mollie, and he, like
Hammond, debunked Mollie's claims of surviving without eating.
next section of the book considers the background of anorexia nervosa and
develops the concept that in Victorian culture, meat and a hearty appetite were
associated with sexuality and were shunned by "proper" young women. This is debatable, and the presentation is
one-sided. The author provides an
excellent discussion of chlorosis, a syndrome which peaked in the 1870's and
1880's and which featured decreased energy, amenorrhea, weight loss, diminished
appetite, depression, and a faint, green tinge to the skin. Chlorosis may have been related to iron
deficiency anemia. It was NOT anorexia
nervosa -- unlike patients with chlorosis, anorectic patients often have a high
energy level and a normal appetite, and they are certainly not always depressed
-- but it may have been an eating disorder.
She then discusses anorexia nervosa itself, including a good account of
the priority dispute between Lasegue and Gull, and fair credit to the usually
forgotten Chipley. She raises the
question of whether Mollie Fancher might have had anorexia nervosa.
author goes on to discuss biological manifestations of starvation, including
death from starvation as described in the Warsaw Ghetto. She discusses the strange attitudes and
eating behaviors of St. Catherine of Sienna and then provides case studies of
several "fasting girls" -- adolescents who claimed not to eat. Some of these fasting girls were displayed
at county fairs, etc., and several challenged the medical profession to
disprove their claims -- which frequently happened. This discussion strays quite a bit from the case of Mollie
At the end of the book, the author discusses modern
views of hysteria, and we learn of Mollie's demise -- after a party celebrating
her fiftieth year of living in one room of her house, attended by a great many
people. (Molly had even invited
President Wilson, but he did not attend.)
I enjoyed the book tremendously, but it has serious
flaws. Mollie Fancher's story is not
really enough to hold the wide-ranging discursions together. While it is interesting and troubling to
read of how starvation killed in the Warsaw Ghetto, this really has very little
to do with Mollie: from a great many
photographs, she certainly appeared well-nourished throughout her lengthy
"fast". We learn far more
than is relevant to her situation about Hammond, Beard, and the early
literature on anorexia nervosa. The
discussion on hysteria is very interesting but does not include formative
modern views such as that of Slavney.
Although Briquet is briefly discussed, there is no significant
consideration of Mollie's case as an example of somatoform disorder.
On the positive side, the case of Mollie Fancher is
fascinating. A journalist herself, the
author is at her very best when she is discussing the way the newspapers dealt
with this case and brought it into the public eye over many years. We are left with a thought-provoking -- even
haunting -- account of one woman's life and its meaning, in the context of the
late nineteenth century. Reading this
book is time well spent, for mental health professionals, philosophers, and the
The "father" of psychiatry, Johannes
Weyer, devoted a prodigious amount of time to the study of a young woman, who,
like Mollie, claimed not to eat. He
exposed her as a fraud and wrote about it.
These patients have been with us from the start of the profession. It is interesting that the same issues crop
up in very different social climates -- even today, in New Zealand, there are
"Breatharians" who claim to be able to maintain their weight and
health without eating at all.
We need to eat.
I don't think Mollie Fancher had an eating disorder, and I think she ate
well. Kudos to the author for this fine
book, with all its interesting digressions.
© 2003 Lloyd Wells
A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic,