Many people who were admitted into the asylums heard voices, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they were suffering from mental health problems. Throughout the nineteenth century, different explanations of voice-hearing existed alongside each other. Religious faith played a central role in most people’s lives and ordinary people made sense of their experiences in spiritual terms. Doctors, on the other hand, usually rejected religious explanations for voice-hearing, instead seeing such experiences as symptoms of a mental disorder.
Case Study: Daniel Paul Schreber
Daniel Paul Schreber was a distinguished judge who lived in Germany in the late nineteenth century. In 1893, shortly after a major professional promotion, he developed a sense that something was wrong. He dreamt that a previous illness had returned, suffered from insomnia, heard unexplained crackling in the walls and woke up one morning thinking “that it really must be rather pleasant to be a woman succumbing to intercourse.” This “implanted idea” was “so foreign to [his] own nature” that Schreber sought the help of his doctor. He was admitted first to a university clinic and later transferred to the Sonnenstein Asylum, for a period of eight years.
During this time, Schreber believed that God was constantly persecuting him, seeking confirmation he had lost his reason; that he was being transformed into a woman in order to redeem the world; that his doctor was attempting to commit soul murder; and that he was the subject of a range of bodily and mental afflictions or “miracles.” He suffered as “mental tortures” the “nonsensical twaddle of voices” which would also mock, scold and shame him relentlessly.
Schreber wrote Memoirs of My Nervous Illness to support his (successful) legal petition to regain his freedom and be recognised as able to manage his own affairs. He published the Memoirs in the year following his return home, and this vivid and insightful account of his extraordinary experiences has been analysed by Jung, Freud, Lacan and other famous psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and social theorists over the last hundred years. There has been fierce disagreement as to the nature, meaning and significance of Schreber’s “madness.”
Find out more
Alex Pheby (2016). Schreber the plaything. The Psychologist.