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Book Forum: Life Stories   |    
Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903)
GLENN H. MILLER, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:1943-a-1944. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.11.1943-a
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Bethesda, Md.

By Daniel Paul Schreber. New York, New York Review of Books, 2000, 454 pp., $14.95 (paper).

This book, written a century ago by a man confined to an asylum, was selected by Amazon.com as one of the 100 finest nonfiction books of the 20th century. This must be the first time a madman has made a "Great Books" list. Psychiatrists know Schreber through Freud’s case study, but scholars of all types have read him. Memoirs of My Mental Illness is surely the most studied text ever written by a psychiatric patient.

Daniel Paul Schreber was born in 1842 to an upper-class family in Leipzig. His father was a physician who was famous in Germany for his work in health and education. After finishing law school, the younger Schreber entered the service of the Saxon Ministry of Justice, where his career steadily advanced. At the age of 42, he ran for a place in the Reichstag but was overwhelmingly defeated. Shortly thereafter, he developed multiple depressive symptoms and admitted himself voluntarily to a psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Paul Flechsig, whom he later regarded as his persecutor. After a 6-month hospital stay and a convalescence, Schreber resumed his duties at court. No one reported psychotic symptoms during his illness.

So far as we know, Schreber remained free of psychiatric disorder for almost 10 years after his first psychiatric hospitalization. Shortly after becoming a presiding judge, he became symptomatic and was readmitted to Flechsig’s asylum. Thereafter, Schreber developed a very rich, very complex, and very bizarre delusional system.

He believed he was connected to God through nerves or "rays," which, he thought, made up the human soul. He feared that his soul would be handed over to Flechsig, who would either abuse his body or let it rot. This was "soul murder." Schreber developed an array of messianic ideas, including the belief that he was to be fertilized by God in order to create a new race of beings.

Schreber wrote his manuscript in an attempt to win his freedom. He hoped it would demonstrate that he was sane enough to leave the hospital. In 1902, the court released him. No one thought that he was sane, but the judges believed he was harmless. (Ironically, he was freed by the same court in which he had served as a presiding judge.) Five years later, Schreber was readmitted and remained hospitalized until his death.

Why has this book captured the attention of so many academics? First, it is a vivid and articulate description of psychosis. Schreber’s psychosis is manifest throughout, but he writes like a scholar; everyone who reads Schreber notes the peculiar combination of the most unbelievable delusions within a logical and eloquent literary form. When he can free himself from his more personal beliefs, he writes persuasively, as in his essay on why "cases of harmless insanity" should not be involuntarily hospitalized. After a time, reading Memoirs of My Nervous Illness becomes tedious because Schreber frequently repeats or contradicts himself. Few will want to read this book cover to cover, but anyone who picks it up will be fascinated by the author’s delusional symptoms.

A second and more important reason for the popularity of this book is that Schreber offers penetrating insights, however bizarrely they are presented. The reader gains a deeper understanding of madness. Indeed, the reader gains a deeper understanding of whatever topic the man addresses. Schreber’s influence is evident, for example, in Freud’s interpretation of paranoia and Lacan’s views of paternal representations. As Professor Zvi Lothane (1) has pointed out, Schreber is a master thinker and interpreter who should be heard on his own terms. Freud (2) recognized this when he concluded at the end of his monograph on Schreber,

It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe.

Lothane Z: In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry. Hillsdale, NJ, Analytic Press, 1992
 
Freud S: Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides) (1912 [1911]), in Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 12. London, Hogarth Press, 1958, pp 3-82
 
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References

Lothane Z: In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry. Hillsdale, NJ, Analytic Press, 1992
 
Freud S: Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides) (1912 [1911]), in Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 12. London, Hogarth Press, 1958, pp 3-82
 
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