Capable but insane
- Dr John Launer, London Deanery, Stewart House, London WC1B 5DN, UK;
For anyone who is interested in personal narratives of illness, it is hard to find one that is more remarkable than Memoirs of my nervous illness by Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber was a judge in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. He suffered from what we would now call paranoid schizophrenia. At the age of 51 he was admitted to a psychiatric asylum—first voluntarily, then under a court order—for 9 years. Towards the end of this period, he believed himself to be recovering, but his doctors did not take the same view. Although his behaviour was acceptable at this stage, it was clear to them that his ideas were still bizarre. He thus began a prolonged legal battle for his release. To support his case, he wrote a book-length account of his experiences and beliefs, which he subsequently expanded and then published. In the last few years, this has been re-issued with an introduction by the writer Rosemary Dinnage, together with the medical reports that his psychiatrist submitted to the court and the final judgement releasing him to the outside world.1 It makes fascinating reading, not just for psychiatrists but for any doctor who may deal with disturbed people at times.
The opening pages set the tone for the book. They are articulate, compelling, coherent—and patently mad. Even though he …