Caroline Crampton’s ‘A Body Made of Glass,’ a history of hypochondria

In the late 14th century, large numbers of patients scattered across Europe developed an unusual delusion: they came to believe that their bodies were made of glass. Those suffering from this bizarre affliction were terrified of breaking down – at least one of them insisted on sleeping on piles of straw to avoid any mishaps. But for today’s hypochondriacs, this archaic phobia could represent both a fear and a perverse fantasy. A glass person would be dangerously breakable, but their state would also be perfectly transparent.

Journalist Caroline Crampton often wishes she could see her own inside. She needs to know the darkest corners of her anatomy as much as she is terrified of her fragility. “I am a hypochondriac,” she writes in her new book, “A Body Made of Glass: A Cultural History of Hypochondria.” “Or, at least, I fear I am, which is really the same thing.” She has suffered from this secondary disease since she was diagnosed with the primary disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was a teenager. After months of treatment, her doctors assured her she was in remission, but a year later the disease returned. Crampton beat him again, but his anxiety still lingers today. Is his apprehension irrational?

“A Body Made of Glass” proposes that this exists and that it does not. On the one hand, Crampton often experiences symptoms that she later recognizes as psychosomatic; on the other, his hypervigilance after his first, supposedly successful, cancer treatment allowed him to spot a suspicious lump a second time. “My health fears are persistent and sometimes intrusive,” she concedes, “but they are not necessarily unjustified.” She concludes that “diagnosable illnesses and hypochondria can coexist.” Although “we tend to think of hypochondria as shorthand for a disease that is in the head,” the people who are most worried about their health are very often those who have the most reason to be.

Unfortunately, many of us have reason to ruminate on the indignities of incarnation. Crampton writes that “it is much easier to manage serious illness if it can fit into a familiar structure with a beginning, middle and end”, but she knows that the comfort of recovery and resolution is denied to an ever-increasing number of people. of patients with chronic or autoimmune diseases. Like these conditions, hypochondria is “a story without a plot.”

“Without a firm diagnosis of my unreliable symptoms, I am stuck in the first scene of the drama, endlessly circling around the same few lines of dialogue,” Crampton writes. “The need to recount this experience is always present, but always thwarted. » There is no satisfying ending, no definitive interpretation of a vague pain or a mysterious twinge.

Indeed, there is no absolute agreement on what constitutes a diagnosis and what constitutes delusion. In a society riddled with prejudice, credibility is not distributed equally and marginalized populations are often seen as hysterical. Numerous studies have shown that doctors are less likely to listen to women and non-white people, and Crampton knows that she is “taken more seriously during medical exams” because she is white and belongs to the class upper average. This bias cuts both ways: Patients, too, rely on “irrelevant details like self-confidence, behavior, and body language” to determine whether a doctor is trustworthy.

And of course, illness itself – and therefore hypochondria – is a culturally specific construct that is always subject to revision. The catalog of medically reputable diseases expands and contracts as research advances and outdated theories are debunked. “It is now possible to test for conditions that were previously undetectable,” Crampton writes. The novelist Marcel Proust was considered by his contemporaries (and even his father) to be disturbed because he took great precautions to avoid coughing fits, but contemporary medicine could have justified his concerns. The hypochondriac of one century is the confirmed patient of another.

In 1733, the physician George Cheyne described hypochondria as a “disease of civilization.” According to Crampton, he meant that it was “a consequence of the excesses of an imperial, consumerist society which had abandoned the simplicity of previous human existence in favor of an indulgent diet and inactive lifestyle” , but hypochondria is also a disease of civilization because it increases as our knowledge increases. The more we understand the countless ways our bodies can fail, the more we have to fear.

Because the boundaries demarcating hypochondria and verifiable illness are not fixed, it is difficult to define either concept with precision. Crampton acknowledges that his favorite subject “resists definition, like oil sliding on the surface of water.” She’s right that hypochondria is a moving target, but her refusal to risk even tentative characterization can make for frustrating reading.

“A Body in Glass” is the product of incredibly thorough research, but it is sometimes circuitous and digressive to the point of frenzy. It blends memoir and literary criticism with micro-histories on topics of varying relevance, including the emergence of quack medicine and the medieval theory of humors.

“Hypochondria” is an old word but a relatively new concept, and it is not always clear whether Crampton’s book traces the history of the phenomenon or the history of the term. Sometimes her concern is etymological: she informs us that the word first appeared in the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical treatises produced and distributed in ancient Greece, where it designated “the place where hard ribs give way to place in the soft abdomen. Elsewhere, however, Crampton speaks not of language but of terror in the face of mortality. His wide-ranging thoughts touch on figures such as John Donne, Molière, and Charles Darwin, all of whom suffered from both palpable illnesses and debilitating anxiety about their palpable illnesses. (Turns out it’s hard to have the former without the latter.)

Yet “A Body Made of Glass” is full of fascinating incursions. While it is difficult to read for its assertions or conclusions, it can nevertheless be difficult to read for its many sobering observations about the disease – a misfortune that will eventually befall even the warmest among us. After all, as Crampton darkly notes, “Hypochondria is just the human condition, stripped of comforting fictions.” Whether we choose to think about it all the time or not, we are just one freak accident away from the end. »

Becca Rothfeld is a nonfiction book reviewer for The Washington Post and author of “All Things Are Too Small: Essays in Praise of Excess.”

A cultural history of hypochondria

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