email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BodiesBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecause We Are BadBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGetting OffGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am Dynamite!I Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMaybe You Should Talk to SomeoneMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNever EnoughNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Apparent DistressNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsRXScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabServing the ServantSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family GeneThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Neuroscientist Who Lost Her MindThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou All Grow Up and Leave MeYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
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,