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Tales of the unexpected

29 March 2003

12:00 AM

29 March 2003

12:00 AM

From the Edge of the Couch Raj Persaud

Transworld, pp.492, 12.99

How’s this for a good opening? ‘I took out a gun and painted the bullets gold.’ If that were a novel the author would win prizes; but he isn’t a novelist, he’s a nutcase. Let’s call him ‘J’. J was convinced that his wheelchair-bound grandmother was a vampire. He visited her one morning, did her laundry and asked if there was anything else he could help her with.

She said ‘No’. So I put on my suit and shot her in the heart. She was wiggling and screaming at me. Then I shot her three more times real fast.

After this he laid her body on the bed, drank some of her blood, uttered a prayer and torched the house. What makes this testimony so vivid and compelling is the detail: the laundry, the suit, the prayer. A fiction writer might not have had the daring to mingle the commonplace with the heinous quite so casually.

J is an average loony by the standards of Dr Persaud’s casebook. Every page teems with scenarios for sick movies. We hear of a psychotic who was discovered interfering with his best friend’s girlfriend. Stricken with remorse he sliced his entire face off and fed it to his dog. Or there’s the Japanese video-game enthusiast who grew bored of flying virtual planes and hi-jacked the real thing. He stabbed the pilot in the neck and guided the plane earthwards for a display of low-level acrobatics. Thankfully he was unable to disengage the auto-pilot and he was overpowered by cabin crew. The plane landed without further mishap. Commenting on his day’s work, the hi-jacker shrugged: ‘Sorry about the pilot. I wanted to demonstrate to the public that planes are safe.’

And there’s the bizarre phenomenon of apotemnophilia – the love of the limb-stump. In extreme cases this mania induces sufferers to seek an above-knee amputation. Nearly all doctors refuse. One frustrated fetishist drove a steel tube into his thigh bone and decanted his acne pus directly into the marrow. His leg began to hurt. He was hospitalised for a time, but to his great distress the limb healed and he was discharged. As Dr Persaud points out, there is only the most spurious moral difference between sawing off a healthy leg and sawing off a healthy penis. In the 1960s few surgeons would consider performing gender reassignment – or ‘orchidectomy’, to give it medicine’s more comely label – but by the 1970s the operation had become acceptable. Perhaps we should apply the same standard to those who have tired of two legs.

Although Dr Persaud is a celebrity shrink, he has resisted the temptation to write a populist book. This is a serious and absorbing analysis of modern psychiatry intended for post-graduates, clinicians, criminologists, law lords, jurisprudential philosophers and writers of Peak Practice. But it’s not all doom and self-mutilation. Persaud is a natural entertainer and he leavens our progress through the work with playful excursions into Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.

Neurologists have analysed The Idiot and concluded that Dostoevsky suffered from a type of epilepsy that caused divine hallucinations. The same was true of St Paul, Mohammed and Joan of Arc. The good news is that you don’t have to be an epileptic to benefit. You can reproduce the effect at home by bombarding your temples with electromagnetic waves. It’s easier than it sounds. Simply assemble a transcranial magnetic stimulator in your workshop or study-area. Carefully lower the apparatus onto your skull and plug it into a light socket using a shaving adapter. Switch on. You will experience a mild warming effect as the electric pulses shoot across your brain and stimulate your post- erior superior temporal lobule. This suspends your awareness of the distinction between self and not-self. You will be overwhelmed by an exhilarating feeling of oneness with the universe. ‘I sensed God for the first time,’ declared Dr Michael Persinger, the Canadian clinician and DIY specialist who devised the equipment. The question is how to harness this amazing discovery for the benefit of mankind. I feel sure these Professor Brainstorm helmets would greatly enhance parliamentary discourse, for example. Then again perhaps they wouldn’t make any difference.

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