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Bad Medicine

By Robert M. Kaplan |

my current job, The King Who Strangled His Psychiatrist and Other Dark Stories, is a journey through the three elements of illness – doctors, diseases and patients – packed with remarkable conditions, cases and individuals. The famous or infamous described are not all sick but exhibit behavior that illustrates the human condition.

These elements come together in Ludwig II. The mad monarch who built those enchanting castles in Bavaria was imprisoned in a palace coup before strangling his psychiatrist and drowning himself – the only known case in history of a psychiatrist being killed by a royal’s own hands (so far). My colleagues should read this with trepidation.

Otto von Bismarck (the man, not the herring), the Chancellor of the German Empire and the greatest politician of his day, was slurping and sozzling to death before the eccentric doctor Ernst Schweninger saved his life.

Half-forgotten adventurers whose dreams turned into nightmares were Harold Lasseter – throwing his life away in search of a non-existent gold reef in Central Australia – and Maurice Wilson, driven by a messianic dream to climb Mount Everest unaided and succumb after a day climbing from the top.

Doctors include psychiatrist Johan Scharfenberg, a hero of the Norwegian resistance; Bernard Spilsbury, the CSI pioneer whose evidence led to at least three men being falsely hanged; Humphry Osmond, who tried LSD in a remote Canadian province; Max Jacobson, who pumped John F. Kennedy full throttle (and nearly destroyed the president’s 1961 summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna); the charismatic Leander Starr Jameson, who started a war with his impetuous assault on the Transvaal Republic; and Arnold Hutschnecker, Richard Nixon’s therapist.

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The early psychoanalysts were an interesting bunch. The brilliant Viktor Tausk, rejected as an analysand by both Freud and Helene Deutsch, died by shooting himself and hanging. Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, the first child analyst, was killed by the cousin she had written about. Hermann Rorschach, the inkblot man and cult enthusiast, died tragically young and never learned how his work had become a meme.

Deception is always present. Czech-born criminal Milan Brych, the fake cancer specialist, filled a graveyard with his patients in the Cook Islands. In the age of the internet influencer, the cocky Belle Gibson attracted hundreds of thousands of followers with her claim that she could cure brain tumors through diet and a healthy lifestyle before being exposed as never having had cancer. The book Sybila literary fraud, led to a famous movie and to a diagnosis: multiple personality disorder.

Criminals whose exploits are described in the book include Hawley Harvey Crippen, a British doctor who was hanged on disputed evidence provided by Spilsbury; Lowell Lee Andrews, the killer who shared a cell with the killers written about in Truman Capote’s In cold blood; and Ira Einhorn, the American New Age guru who beat his girlfriend to death and lived in Europe for two decades before being extradited. Not forgotten is mass murderer Louis van Schoor, who ended up in the same prison as his mother-murdering daughter.

Other assassins not ignored include Dimitri Tsafendas, who answered a worm in his stomach telling him to kill apartheid architect Hendrick Verwoerd. Lee Harvey Oswald is mentioned, as are doctors Edward Charles Spitzka and Edward Anthony Spitzka, father and son, who respectively testified at the trials of the assassins of 18th century US presidents James Garfield and William McKinley.

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Some treatments and cures come from strange ideas. Bernadette Soubirous’s visions created the healing spa of Lourdes, but failed to prevent her early death. Milton Rokeach brought three patients with schizophrenia, each of whom believed they were Jesus Christ, together for two years and finally came to the conclusion that he had been as deluded as she had been in trying to heal them. Aristocrat Amanda Feilding ran an election campaign to allow trepanning (drilling holes in the head).

Compiled with the indecent panache that pervades my writing, would The King Who Strangled His Psychiatrist and Other Dark Stories not be a book worth publishing and getting the public to show its approval? I do not doubt. No publisher would know this; they do not read, answer or reject my sincere pleas.

Meanwhile, after remembering everything and learning nothing, I write about Helen Flanders Dunbar, the beautiful polymath who discovered the tendency to accidents and fell victim to her own discovery. It’s better than living a life of quiet writer’s desperation. And who knows? Maybe another rejection form will arrive tomorrow to cheer me up. In all likelihood, self-publishing is in the offing.

A version of this article appeared in the 11/21/2022 issue of Publishers weekly under the heading: Bad Medicine

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