New Publications January – March 2017

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from January to March 2017.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to before 7 July 2017.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions:




  • Douglas Cairns, ‘Metaphors for Hope in Early Greek Literature’, in R. R. Caston and R. A. Kaster (eds), Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 13-44.
  • Douglas Cairns, ‘Clothed in Shamelessness, Shrouded in Grief: The Role of “Garment” Metaphors in Ancient Greek Concepts of Emotion’, in G. Fanfani, M. Harlow, and M.-L. Nosch (eds), Spinning Fates and the Song of the Loom: The Use of Textiles, Clothing and Cloth Production as Metaphor, Symbol, and Narrative (Oxford: Oxbow, 2016), 25-41
  • M. Gendron and L. Feldman-Barrett, ‘Facing the Past: A history of the face in psychological research on emotion perception’ in The Science of Facial Expressioneds. James A. Russell and Jose Miguel Fernandez Dols (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Helen Hills, ‘Miraculous affects and analogical materialities. Rethinking the relation between architecture and affect in baroque Italy’ in Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200-1920, eds. K. Barclay & M. Bailey (Palgrave, 2017).
  • Anna Koivusalo, “‘He Ordered the First Gun Fired & He Resigned First’: James Chesnut, Southern Honor, and Emotion,” in The Field of Honor: Essays on Southern Character & American Identity, ed. John Mayfield and Todd Hagstette (University of South Carolina Press, 2017).
  • Oliva López, ‘Los significados médicos de las emociones en las enfermedades psiquiátricas en México. La histeria y la epilepsia (1900-1930)’, in Marina Ariza ed. Emociones, afectos y sociología Diálogos desde la investigación social y la interdisciplina (Mexico, 2016)
  • Charlotte-Rose Millar, ‘Over-Familiar Spirits: Seventeenth Century English Witches and Their Devils’ in Emotions in the History of Witchcraft, ed. Laura Kounine and Michael Ostling, (London: Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions, 2017)



Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural: The Concealed Revealed Project

Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, and a Co-investigator on the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900’ project.

Twitter @odavies9


Ceri Houlbrook is an Early Career Researcher in Intangible Cultural Heritage at the University of Hertfordshire, primarily interested in British rituals and folklore, from the early modern period to the present.

Twitter: @CeriHoulbrook


Project website:

Project Historypin site:

When Phil Bradley first found the bones, he thought they belonged to a child. The initial wave of horror subsided when he realised it was the skeleton of a cat, but there were still questions to be answered. Why was there a cat skeleton beneath the hearthstone of his 17th-century Cumbrian cottage? It couldn’t have become trapped in that airtight space by accident, so why would somebody put it there?

Left: Phil outside his 17th-century Cumbrian cottage; right: the hearth beneath which the cat skeleton was found

Had this cat been a one-off, we might contend that it was the sentimental interment of a household pet. But this isn’t the first cat to have been found hidden away within the fabric of a building, and nor is it likely to be the last. Cat remains have been found bricked up in walls, laid beneath floorboards, and placed in ceilings, in buildings that range in date from the 16th century to the Victorian period. And it isn’t just cats. Rats, chickens, horse skulls. Shoes, breeches, pantaloons. Poppets, bottles, and clay-pipes. A vast variety of objects, often dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, have been found in unusual locations: under floorboards, thresholds, and hearthstones; within walls; above ceilings and doors; up chimneybreasts; in the roof and thatching. Such odd places that many of them can’t have ended up there accidentally. They must have been deliberately secreted away many years ago.

58 shoes and 189 leather fragments found up the chimney and in the fireplace of a farmhouse in Nant Gwynant

But why?

It seems that very little was written about this practice at the time, so we have no text explaining exactly why these objects were being concealed; what the concealers were hoping to achieve; why those specific objects and those specific places were chosen. Without the written or oral testimony of the people who were concealing these objects, how can we hope to understand what beliefs motivated them? How can we access the emotions behind the custom?

I argue that we can’t possibly hope to know why people concealed these objects. But we can propose theories based on the body of evidence we have: the material culture of the hidden objects themselves. This is why the Concealed Revealed Project (sub-project of ‘Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900’), University of Hertfordshire, has been gathering as much data as possible on these objects. Trawling through old archaeology and folklore publications, digging through Northampton Museum’s index of close to 3000 concealed shoes, and searching for obscure references online, a growing archive of hidden objects is being compiled. It’s being transferred to a freely accessible Historypin site, and members of the public are encouraged to pin their own finds of concealed objects.

The map of pinned finds on the Concealed Revealed Historypin collection

Finders and scholars alike have been tossing around theories about concealed objects since the mid-20th century. The most popular proposal is that these items were hidden away to protect both home and occupants from malevolent forces, either natural or supernatural. Fire, disease, vermin; demons, witches, ghosts, and fairies. According to this theory, these items were apotropaic devices: objects used to avert evil forces.

The question remains: why would such items be considered effective supernatural safeguards? Concealed objects range from the mundane (shoes) to the distasteful (animal remains), but they certainly don’t seem inherently magical. Yet people went to the trouble of tucking them away up chimneybreasts, bricking them up in walls, or laying them beneath hearthstones. They must have invested them with some significance, some power.

Theories abound. Were shoes and other garments considered powerful because of their close association with their wearers? Were they imbued with the person’s agency? Did they act as supernatural surrogates for the people they represented, protecting the vulnerable points of a house through a process of distributed personhood? Or were they decoys, intended to lure and trap malevolent forces? And what of animal remains? Were they intended to repel vermin? If so, was it of the natural or supernatural variety?

A concealed cat found in the chancel roof space of a church in Cumbria, Keswick Museum

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, we have more questions than answers. And as I said above, we can’t hope to know why people in the 18th and 19th centuries were hiding these objects: whether it was fear that motivated them or some other emotion.

It wasn’t only the original concealers of these objects, however, who engaged with them. People are frequently finding these objects in their homes during renovations, and unsurprisingly such encounters engender a range of reactions. Horror at the bones under the hearthstone. Curiosity at the shoe up the chimneybreast. Excitement at the poppet balanced on the roof beam. Anxiety over the broken bottles hanging in the attic. Even when a concealed object is discovered, its biography continues. It carries on generating emotions in people.

Three broken glass bottles found – and left – hanging in the roof space of a 16th-century inn in Kirton, Lincolnshire

And so the Concealed Revealed Project is just as concerned with the objects’ contemporary finders as with their historical concealers. How do people react when they find such odd items within the fabric of their homes? What do they do with them? Do they believe in the objects’ efficacy – even on a subconscious level? And what might this tell us about how people today engage emotionally with objects – and, through these objects, with the people who once owned, wore, used, and concealed them?

Returning to Phil and his cat, I interviewed him back in February 2016, and when I asked why he believed somebody had concealed the cat beneath the hearthstone, this is what he said: ‘the idea of burying a cat skeleton to keep the house rodent free. And there’s never been a mouse in there, in those buildings, we’ve never seen any. We’ve had rodents in here. So we thought it maybe worked. So when we re-laid the floor we just kind of put it back again. Because it seemed to be the right thing to do I think. It had been there for 200 years plus maybe, I don’t know, so it just seemed right to put this little skeleton back and we buried it. And the interesting thing is this was probably 15 years ago and we’ve still not had a mouse in there, so we’re still convinced it works.’

Further reading

Hoggard, B. 2004. The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic. In Davies, O. & de Blecourt, W. (eds.) Beyond the Witch-Trials. Manchester University Press, Manchester: 167-186.

Houlbrook, C. 2013. Ritual, Recycling, and Recontextualisation: Putting the Concealed Shoe into Context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23 (1), 99-112.

Howard, M. M. 1951. Dried Cats. Man 51, 149-151.

Hutton, R. (ed.) 2016. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford, London.

UFOs and the Historians

Greg Eghigian is Associate Professor of Modern History at Penn State University (USA). He specializes in the history of the human sciences and medicine. His most recent books include The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health (2017) and The Corrigible and the Incorrigible: Science, Medicine, and the Convict in Twentieth-Century Germany (2015). He is presently writing a book on the history of the UFO and alien contact phenomenon. His blog on the history of UFOs can be found at

Find out more! QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions is hosting a free talk by Professor Eghigian on 4 May, from 6pm. Register online here.

For several years now, I have been studying the history of unidentified flying objects and claims of alien contact since World War II. One of the most puzzling things I have encountered, however, is not a specific sighting of some odd aerial phenomenon, not a photograph of a flying saucer, not a report about being abducted by extraterrestrials. Rather, it is this: why have academic historians all but neglected this subject?

For seven decades, claims of UFOs from outer space and encounters with aliens have inspired amateur research, enthusiast periodicals and organizations, extraterrestrial contact support networks, government investigations, scientific and clinical research, bestselling books, news coverage, television shows, films, and websites across the globe. Surely a cultural phenomenon this large warrants our attention.

Yet, the last and only time a university professor of history published an English-language book on the history of UFOs was in 1975. This was former Temple University professor David Jacobs, and the book was The UFO Controversy in America, published by Indiana University Press. Jacobs, in fact, went on to become a leading proponent of the notion that aliens were in fact kidnapping people in order to colonize earth by breeding human-alien hybrids. While his subsequent involvement with “abductees” has brought him considerable ridicule from his academic peers, his monograph continues to stand alone as a well-researched history of the UFO phenomenon.

The absence of historians from the study of postwar interest in flying saucers and extraterrestrial visitors is even more glaring when you take into consideration that researchers in other fields have taken up the issue since the 1960s. Folklorists, psychologists, sociologists, religious studies scholars, anthropologists, political scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and journalists have all embarked on any number of research projects designed to understand and explain the perceptions, attitudes, and institutions that have gone into the making of the UFO craze.

I would argue, however, that historians have something unique to contribute to the discussion. One of the things we specialize in, for example, is the use of historical sources to explain social and cultural change. And archival sources clearly show that, while interest in the possibility of there being and in communicating with intelligent alien civilizations dates back to ancient times, stories of mysterious flying rockets, saucers, and discs had an identifiable beginning (the two summers following the end of World War II). Records also show that the stories about and responses to the UFO and alien contact phenomenon have changed over time. And in fact, there is reason to believe that interest and involvement in the world of UFOs has eroded over the past two decades. Thus, we need to explain how this all began, how it has changed, and why it may be dissipating at this time.

Another thing to explain is the phenomenon’s remarkable resilience. Folklorists, for instance, have sometimes relegated flying saucer sightings and alien abduction reports to the status of “urban legends.” This may well be true, but in my view, only in part. We have to acknowledge that the UFO and extraterrestrial contact phenomenon has flourished in a categorically different way from things like Slenderman or Satanic ritual abuse, for example, by giving birth to and sustaining a host of long-lasting, influential preoccupations, pastimes, and institutions. Somehow, the obsession with UFOs did not unravel over the years, despite numerous obstacles. How do we account for this?

Finally, there is plenty for the historian of emotions to explore as well. What kinds of anxieties, enthusiasms, and disappointments helped shape and sustain UFO buffs? What kinds of different affective registers did groups like the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA), the Raëlians, and Budd Hopkins’s Intruders Foundation call on to solidify their communities? To what extent have fears about changing political and social circumstances played a role in feeding conspiracy theories among ufologists?

So why then have historians been so silent on this topic? It’s difficult to say with any certainty. The experience of David Jacobs may be instructive. Throughout its history, the study of UFOs and aliens has been roundly dismissed by the academy as pseudoscientific silliness. To get near the subject makes one in some way suspect. I myself have experienced this at times with colleagues when I tell them about my research: some have asked if I am “one of those people,” while others have warned me to beware of “going native.” But as I noted earlier, a host of academic researchers from other disciplines have delved into the subject without any adverse repercussions. So professional stigma alone seems insufficient to explain historians’ silence. It would appear, then, that their silence also requires historical explanation.

Why getting out of our heads is good for us

At the end of last year, an unusual article appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. A single dose of a drug appeared to dramatically reduce anxiety and depression in those suffering from life-threatening cancer, far better than any other treatment. The drug was psilocybin, the psychedelic found in magic mushrooms.

The two trials, by NYU medical school and Johns Hopkins medical school, are the latest in a series of recent studies which claim psychedelics have remarkable therapeutic powers, helping people overcome chronic emotional disorders and addictions. So how exactly does a single dose of a psychedelic drug create such radical personality changes?

The Johns Hopkins study wrote: ‘This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness.’

Come again?

A late 19th century photo from the Salpetriere hospital showing a hysteric patient in ecstatic attitude

For over three centuries, western science – and in particular, psychiatry – has tended to pathologize ‘mystical experience’, to reduce it to a delusion or mental illness. In the Enlightenment, natural philosophers called it ‘enthusiasm’, and blamed on an over-active imagination or an over-warm brain. In the late 19th century, psychiatrists labelled it ‘hysteria’. In the 20th century, spiritual experiences were (and still are) reduced to brain disorders like schizophrenia or epilepsy.

The consequence of this long pathologization of ecstasy is that there’s a taboo around such experiences. As Aldous Huxley put it: ‘If you have an experience like this, you keep your mouth shut, for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’, or, in our day, a psychiatrist. And the result of that taboo is that western culture has become spiritually flat, afraid to let go, stuck in our heads and our egos, lacking a window to transcendence.

In the last few years, however, a consensus has begun to emerge in psychology and psychiatry that ecstatic experiences – moments when we go beyond our ordinary ego and feel a connection to something bigger than us – are often good for us.

Scientists can’t agree on what to call this sort of experience – it’s variously studied as self-transcendence; flow; mystical, religious, spiritual or anomalous experience; altered states of consciousness; or (my preferred term) ecstasy. But scientists do agree that it’s an important human experience that can be very healing. This is a big shift for western science, and western culture.

Breaking the mental loop

Ecstasy is good for us because it gets us out of our head. Emotional disorders like depression, anxiety and addiction are perpetuated by rigid and repetitive patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. We get stuck in loops of negative rumination, endlessly thinking about ourselves and our imperfections. We can free ourselves from these rigid mental habits by using rationality to unpick our beliefs – this is what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does.

But we can also get out of these loops by shifting our consciousness. To use the terminology of the New Testament, we can have sudden epiphanies which break us out of the tomb of our egos, giving us the experience of being born again. Being reborn – suddenly reconfiguring the self – is a fundamental human capacity, not found only in followers of Jesus.

There are shallower and deeper forms of ego-loss. At the lighter end of the spectrum, there are the sort of ‘flow’ states which we might find each day or week, where we lose ourselves in reading a good book, or walking in the park, or going for a run. These activities settle and absorb our consciousness, taking us out of the loop of rumination, helping us forget ourselves in the moment (here’s an interview I did with flow psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on flow and ecstasy).

Iris Murdoch called it ‘unselfing’. She wrote:

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world…The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind…Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.

Nature is the most reliable route to this sort of ego-dissolving wonder. When we go for a walk, run, ride or swim in nature, we might discover what Wordsworth called ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’. We get into the ‘reverie’ that Rousseau wrote about when he went walking, feel a mind-expansion at the beauty of the landscape, and this breaks the loop of rumination. Here’s a 2015 study on how a 90-minute walk in nature reduces rumination.

The arts can do something similar – absorb our consciousness so that we lose ourselves in the moment, in the book, poem, play, painting, song, cathedral etc – and this shift in consciousness breaks the loop of rumination and takes us somewhere quieter, better, more spacious. A 2016 mass survey by Durham University found reading and nature were our favourite ways to rest – and switching off the restless ego-mind is an important part of that. Likewise, meditation and prayer can help us find the space between our ruminating thoughts. Many of us use sport as a way to get out of the noise of our head and into our bodies.

Such moments of absorption can be very socially connecting. Suddenly, we’re taken out of our ego-loops and joined in what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called ‘the hive mind’. That’s a great antidote to the chronic western affliction of loneliness. We might get that experience singing, dancing, marching or playing music together, which studies shows helps to synchronize people’s breathing and even heart-beat. We might get collective flow from playing or watching sport together, or participating in a concert or political rally. Or – the oldest route – we might get it by worshipping the divine in some form or other.

The deep end of absorption

And then there are deeper moments of self-transcendence, which the mystics call ‘ecstasy’, in which one becomes so absorbed in a moment or activity that one’s identity and conception of reality are radically altered, perhaps permanently. Such moments are rare, but they can be life-changing. At this deeper end of what I call the ‘continuum of absorption’, one finds experiences like strong psychedelic trips, moments of deep contemplation, spontaneous spiritual experiences, and near-death experiences.

Take spontaneous spiritual experiences. In surveys, between 50% and 80% of people say they have experienced a moment of ecstasy, where they’ve gone beyond their normal sense of identity and felt a deep connection to something greater than them. Here’s one example:

During my late 20s and early 30s I had a good deal of depression. I felt shut up in a cocoon of complete isolation and could not get in touch with anyone…things came to such a pass and I was so tired of fighting that I said one day, ‘I can do no more. Let nature, or whatever is behind the universe, look after me now.’ Within a few days I passed from a hell to a heaven. It was as if the cocoon had burst and my eyes were opened and I saw. Everything was alive and God was present in all things….Psychologically and for my own peace of mind, the effect has been of the greatest importance.

In a survey I did, agnostics and atheists also reported moments where they felt a deep connection between themselves and all things – indeed, arch-rationalist Bertrand Russell had a mystical moment where he suddenly felt profoundly connected to everyone in the street. He said that experience turned him into a pacifist. We might make sense of such moments of connection differently, but they seem very common, and on the whole good for us.

Psychedelics are similarly effective at giving people a sense of spiritual connection and oneness. Comedian Simon Amstell has spoken of how a psychedelic brew called ayahuasca, found in the Amazon jungle, helped him overcome depression: ‘Before I left I felt broken. After I came back, I didn’t feel broken anymore…I felt like I was part of the world, not disconnected from it.’

After 40 years in the wilderness, psychedelics are rapidly returning to the mainstream of western medicine. Just this month, the Lancet published a trial showing the effectiveness of ketamine at treating chronic depression, while BBC One’s main daytime TV show, Victoria, had a segment on the benefits of LSD microdosing in managing emotional problems. Other trials have found psychedelics effective at treating depression and addiction.

One of the most powerful forms of ecstatic experience is the ‘near-death experience’. Thanks to improved resuscitation procedures, NDEs are increasingly common and there are several academic research units studying them. They seem to share common features, particularly an encounter with a white light and a sense of being profoundly loved. People typically return from NDEs less afraid of death, because they no longer think it’s the end. I had an NDE myself when I was 21 – that’s how I became interested in this topic – and it helped me recover from PTSD. After five years of feeling my ego was permanently broken, I realized there was something within me bigger than my ego, which was loved and OK.

Other forms of ecstatic experience seem to work in a similar way – they take people beyond their constructed ego and give them a sense of love-connection to some greater whole. In the trials I mentioned at the start of this article, psilocybin seemed to give the participants an NDE-type experience. Here’s the report of one participant in the NYU study:

For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving. I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realize all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.

Now, this poses a challenge for western science. It appears that moments of ecstasy or ‘mystical experiences’ can be very therapeutic. But are they true? Are we really connected to all beings and the universe in some kind of psychic love-connection? Is there really a loving God beyond our ego? Tucked away in the formal language of the Johns Hopkins study is the comment that one psychedelic trip increased people’s belief in the afterlife (see the passage below), and this was one of the factors in the reduction of death-anxiety:

Remarkable: a material that makes us believe in the immaterial. But is that just a placebo-delusion?

We don’t know. Maybe such experiences give people an insight into a genuine connection between our consciousness and all things, a connection that materialist physics doesn’t yet understand but might in the future. Or maybe the experience of oneness is really in our head – recent studies appear to show that both LSD and meditation improve brain connectivity, so parts of the brain that don’t normally talk to each other come online and connect. Maybe that’s what the blissful feeling of oneness ‘is’. We don’t know. But we do know such experiences are often healing.

However, there are risks to ecstasy as well. Ego-dissolution is a form of radical surgery, as it were, which shakes people out of their usual habits of thinking and feeling and allows them to press re-set. That can be dangerous if it’s not done with proper therapeutic support. It can release buried trauma, or latent psychosis. It can be difficult to go back to one’s previous life.

I’ve had personal experience of the negative effects of psychedelics, for example, after I had a bad LSD trip when I was 18 which left me struggling with paranoia and post-traumatic stress for several years. Scientists have also studied frightening experiences of ego-loss that emerge from meditation. Spontaneous spiritual experiences can be terrifying and hard to integrate or explain to other people, particularly in a highly secular and ecstasy-averse culture like Europe.

Even some communities which put a positive value on ecstasy can be harmful. New Age or charismatic Christian communities are one of the few places in western culture where we still have permission to trance out and dissolve our egos. But such communities can put a rigidly dogmatic interpretation on ecstatic experiences – either they’re Jesus, or the Devil. They may foster an ecstatic sense of togetherness, but at the cost of demonising outsiders. They may lead to the toxic worship of a guru-figure who triggers the ecstasy. They may cash in on people’s craving for exaltation.

Having studied ecstasy over the last five years, I’ve come to two conclusions. Firstly, we need a more balanced relationship with ecstasy. We shouldn’t be averse to it or embarrassed to talk about it. Ego-transcendence is not bonkers, it’s natural and good for us. But we shouldn’t get hung up on it either, and start thinking we’re incredibly special for having a spiritual experience (we’re not). They’re just part of the long journey towards awakening.

I feel like western culture is a bit like a balloon – because there’s such a flattening of the ecstatic in the mainstream of our culture, it bulges out in other areas (the New Age, charismatic Christianity), in which there’s too strong an emphasis on it.

Secondly, we need to develop controlled spaces to lose control. That’s what religious rituals have provided humans for millennia, and what the West lost in the Reformation and Enlightenment. Since then, we’ve improvised many new places for transcendence – from cinema to New Age cults to acid house to football hooliganism. But not all of these new places are healthy.

One new place for ecstasy is therapy and medicine. Ecstasy is returning to the mainstream of western culture thanks to medical research in fields like psychedelic science and contemplative science, which shows ecstasy is healing. The benefits are potentially huge, but the risk is that scientists become priests, and the Gospel of Mindfulness or Psychedelics becomes the new dogma.

A second new ‘space’ for ecstasy is the internet, where people come together to share their ecstatic experiences online. We’re in an era of mass experimentation in ecstasy – rather than look to priests or gurus, we self-experiment, then sharing our results with others through online and offline communities like, where users share their trip experiences; or meditation sites like; or in self-help groups like the Hearing Voices network.

Such communities are an example of a new, wired spiritual democracy: no one is in charge, everyone is an expert. I imagine virtual reality will take this online mass ecstasy one stage further – though here the replacement for the church will be the corporation (Facebook etc) which manages and monetizes the online communion. And there’s a risk that, in our desperation to share our ecstasy online, it ends up being just another selfie.

Alongside these new spaces for ecstasy, I think we in the West need to find a way to re-engage with existing religious traditions, particularly our inherited tradition of Christianity, which we mock in public while endlessly stealing from the backdoor. Christianity, for all its flaws, teaches us how to embed ecstasy in an ethical context of humility, charity and surrender to Something More than the self.

Some modern forms of ecstasy – the New Age, the occult, the human potential movement, transhumanism – often encourage humans to get pumped up on ecstasy to try and become super-powered gods. This seems like dangerous ego-inflation to me. We have something godlike within us, but the way to connect to it is not by flying off into ungrounded superhero fantasies, but by sitting down quietly and accepting our weakness and imperfection. ‘We descend by self-exaltation’, said St Benedict, 1500 years ago, ‘and ascend through humility.’

This article summarises some points from my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which explores how people find ecstasy in modern western culture. You can buy the book here (it’s also available in Kindle and paperback).

Addressing domestic abuse in general practice: The emotional labour of being a GP

Anna Dowrick is a doctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London in the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health. Her research is interdisciplinary, using anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies, gender and feminist studies, and health services research to explore the work of improving the care of victims of abuse by health professionals. Before undertaking her PhD she developed UK health policy on a range of issues, including dementia and cancer.

We’re sitting in Joanne’s consulting room. A tall cheese plant (officially a ‘monstera deliciosa’ she informs me) sits on her desk next to a picture of two young children, taking attention away from the computer, papers, charts, and other medical paraphernalia that share the space.

Joanne is a GP in a north London practice, She’s been qualified for about 10 years. We’ve met to discuss her experiences of providing care to patients who have been victims of domestic abuse. This is part of a wider project exploring the implementation of a programme called IRIS, which aims to increase referrals between general practice and domestic violence support services.

Joanne was shocked to discover the prevalence of domestic abuse. 1 in 4 women in the UK are expected to experience a form of abuse across their lifetime. She’d learnt this during the training she’d received the previous year, offered as part of the  new IRIS domestic violence service. As part of this service, specialist domestic violence workers train primary care staff and offer them a referral pathway into support for their patients.

Before the training, she hadn’t realised what a big problem it was, or that the prevalence in general practice is even higher than the general population (1 in 3). Many people experience physical and mental health problems as a result of abuse which bring them to their GP. Depression, anxiety, chronic pain, IBS, headaches, tiredness. All things she saw regularly.

Health services, particularly general practitioners, have been positioned as important for improving the care of people affected by abuse by UK and international health organisations. The GP is considered a trusted figure and the practice a safe, accessible space to. A doctor’s visit can be the only opportunity someone has to be alone with a professional who could help.

My research explores the emotional labour that GPs do to as part of their job to present an appropriate emotional front to their patients.  While emotionally investing in patients is seen to be a core part of nursing and allied health professions, the historic Cartesian split between reason and emotion rests strongly on the side of reason for doctors. Good care is presented as a careful balance of empathy and objectivity.

Joanne doesn’t do this work because national guidance tells her to. She sees addressing domestic abuse as part and parcel of being a good GP. She differentiated herself from other GPs who were more ‘mechanistic’ and didn’t try and see patients as people.

Addressing domestic abuse didn’t feel different from the rest of her work. She sometimes worried about asking about abuse, appreciating that it was a stigmatised issue, but described feeling the same when discussing sexual health, drug and alcohol use, lifestyle choices. Being a GP was about creating a context to ask difficult questions.

In asking, she didn’t know what she might hear. Over her years as a practitioner she had become accustomed to her consulting room becoming a place of sanctuary, where tears could fall without judgement. Sometimes her patients’ stories affected her more than others, but she felt a professional responsibility to maintain emotional composure. It was after her surgery was finished that she might feel those emotions, often deciding to walk home rather than take the bus.

Though domestic violence was something that she felt a particular moral objection to, and would stir up feelings of sorrow, anger and frustration, knowing that she had a service she could offer to her patients made her feel better. Similarly to how her patients would describe disclosing abuse as taking a weight from their shoulders, she felt that having a referral pathway offered a way to share her own burden. She cautiously admitted that before the IRIS service she rarely asked about abuse because. She had been anxious about what she would be able to do about it.

She joked that her patients rarely did what she expected, and felt it was her responsibility to empower them to make their own choices. However, she saw a distinction between negotiating someone’s management of their diabetes, for example, and witnessing ongoing suffering resulting from domestic abuse. She felt domestic violence to be an injustice, an affront to her values. She had to draw a line between the things she could fix as a doctor and the things she couldn’t, and sometimes this recognition was painful. She felt fortunate to have a team that was supportive, with colleagues she could discuss complex cases with and acknowledged that not all doctors were so lucky.

Others of the 14 GPs I interviewed for this study offered a similar narrative. Caring for patients in abusive relationships fit neatly with what they understood about being a ‘good GP’.  The things that were difficult about it – asking personal questions, offering a empathetic but practical response, maintaining confidentiality, providing consistent ongoing care, bearing witness to their suffering – were also satisfying parts of medical professionalism. The challenge was having the emotional energy to invest in this work in the face of growing pressure on their time and a fragmented service environment.

In 1967, John Berger reflected on the work of his good friend and GP John Sassall:

What is the effect of facing, trying to understand, hoping to overcome the extreme anguish of other persons five or six times a week? I do not speak now of physical anguish, for that can usually be relieved in a matter of minutes. I speak of the anguish of dying, of loss, of fear, of loneliness, of being desperately beside oneself, of the sense of futility.

 John Berger (1967) A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor

National and international policy-makers demand that GPs take a more central role in the response to domestic abuse. If we want them to face, understand and hope to overcome the extreme anguish of abuse, recognition of the emotional labour that this requires, and the support professionals themselves need, is vital. IRIS, as a service that shares the burden of care, is one step towards this but many more need to be taken.


Translating therapy

Depression is the leading cause of ill-health worldwide, but therapy is little known or practiced outside the West. If psychotherapy is going to become more popular in the non-western world, it needs to build bridges and find cultural parallels in local spiritual traditions. This is totally doable.

The UK has had a good last decade when it comes to mental health awareness. The Brits don’t talk about our emotions? We never shut up about them these days! Not a week goes by without some official or celebrity – Theresa May, Prince Harry, Rio Ferdinand – saying we need to talk more about mental health. That’s a good thing. It’s good to talk, though it’s even better when that talk is backed up by increases in government spending on mental health services.

The situation is a lot worse elsewhere. As the World Health Organization highlights today in its World Health Day campaign, depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people. While only around 50% of people with depression get therapy or medication in high income countries, in middle and low income countries, the percentage is closer to zero.

In half the countries in the world, there’s only one psychiatrist per 100,000 people. In India, where I spent the last three months, the country spends 1% of its GDP on health (the OECD average is 9%), and 0.1% of that on mental health services – one of the lowest figures in the world. There’s one psychiatrist for every 300,000 Indians, though in fact most psychiatrists are based in the big cities. In poorer rural regions, there might be one psychiatrist for every million people.

There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness around the world, and little awareness of psychotherapy. And there’s a cultural and language problem for both psychiatry and psychotherapy. Sadia Saeed Raval, who runs the Inner Space therapy centre in Mumbai, says: ‘Therapy in India is mainly Anglophone. The training is in English, the terminology is English, and the therapy techniques tend to be developed in the West.’

At a recent event I attended on mental health in India, the discussions were almost all in English, and even when a psychiatrist spoke in Hindi, he still used English words like ‘stigma’ and ‘depression’. The WHO’s own campaign posters, ‘Let’s Talk’, are also all in English. Imagine if we in the UK only had Indian words for depression, anxiety or other internal states.

This Anglicisation of therapy has limited its cultural dispersal in low and middle income countries to affluent, westernized elites. So how does everyone else cope with mental illness? In large part, by turning to religious or spiritual healing. This might sometimes work – it can help provide meaning, community support, meditation, and the powerful placebo of hope. But it doesn’t always work, and in some cases can be harmful.

What to do? Obviously, the best thing would be for countries to increase their spending on mental health services. I imagine the WHO is trying to get its member states to do that. But we shouldn’t assume that western psychiatry has all the answers to the meaning of life (look at suicide rates, where some Western countries do worse than many non-Western countries).

We can also try to help bridge the cultural gap between western psychiatry and psychotherapy, and non-western cultures. And here the medical humanities can help.

In the UK, the most popular and evidence-based therapy for depression and anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). As I and others have researched, CBT has its roots in the ‘healing wisdom’ of Stoicism and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism.

That means that it is easily translatable into other cultural contexts, because the idea of ‘healing wisdom’ appears not just in Greek philosophy but also in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and many other religious and spiritual traditions. Indeed, Stoicism was a big influence on therapeutic wisdom books in Christianity (Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, for example) and Islam (eg Al-Kindi’s On Dispelling Sadness).

There is also a great deal of similarity between Stoic-CBT therapeutic ideas and those found in the wisdom texts of Hinduism and Buddhism. For instance, Stoicism / CBT is based on Epictetus’ idea that ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’. Likewise, the Buddha taught: ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world’.

Many different wisdom traditions recommend learning detachment, both from one’s own thoughts and desires, and from the ups and downs of fortune, and learning to accept the limit of one’s control over the world – both of which are central concepts in CBT and Positive Psychology. Many also recommend some form of mindfulness and techniques for improving it – Stoicism-CBT recommends keeping track of your thoughts and behaviour in a journal, Jesuits practice ‘recollection’ at the end of the day, Orthodox Christians practice ‘nepsis‘ or watchfulness, and so on.

Many different wisdom traditions emphasize that changing the self takes repetition and practice (askesis in ancient Greek), as CBT does. Proverbs, in the Bible, talks about seeking wisdom, and inscribing wisdom on the ‘tablet of your heart’ through memory and practice. The Bhagavad Gita says: ‘It is difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by constant practice and by detachment’.

There is some evidence that CBT works better when its basic ideas and techniques are connected and translated into local language and local culture. Here, for example, is a paper on Islamically modified CBT. Others have developed Christian CBT, and of course mindfulness-CBT now has a strong evidence base, although ironically it is barely known or practiced in India, where Buddhism originated.

Medical humanities scholars can help explore the cultural connections between western psychotherapy and various wisdom traditions around the world, and help to discover the local vernacular for local emotional states.This will help people overcome their suspicion of therapy. Speaking personally, for example, I’ve done workshops on healing wisdom for evangelical Christians, where you can describe the basic ideas of CBT purely using quotes from the Bible and Christian wisdom literature. That is helpful for an audience which has traditionally been wary of psychiatry and psychology, partly because of psychiatry’s long history of hostility towards religion.

At the same time, we should remind ourselves that cultures aren’t static and monolithic. There is no such thing as ‘Indian culture’, for example, there are many Indian cultures, all in flux. A 2013 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry calls for the ‘Indianization of psychiatry’ to take account of cultural differences such as the greater emphasis on traditional family structures. Fine – but Indian therapists also tell me of the stress and suffering caused to some Indian women by the traditional understanding that their role is entirely to support their husband and his family. Therapy can help people not just adjust to traditional roles, but also help them evolve into new roles, new identities, a new place in society.

Working with local spiritual healers

A second way that medical humanities researchers can help to bridge the cultural gap between non-western cultures and western psychiatry / psychotherapy is by working with local religious and spiritual leaders, facilitating dialogues of mutual respect to work together.

Aaron Beck, one of the inventors of CBT, with the Dalai Lama, who has spoken about the close similarity between CBT and Buddhism’s theories of the emotions

At my university, Queen Mary University of London, a team of psychiatrists are working with local Muslim spiritual healers, to try and improve relationships with a community that has traditionally been very wary of psychiatry. The latest issue of the WHO’s Panorama magazine has an article on psychiatrists working with Kyrgyz spiritual healers. In India, I think it would help to work with local spiritual leaders like Sadhguru, the best-selling yogi who regularly speaks on yoga as a means to mental health. We already know how fruitful the dialogue has been between western psychiatrists and psychologists and the Dalai Lama – it has helped western psychotherapy advance.

Finally, I think technology has a role to play in improving global mental health. Governments are spending far too little on mental health services, and should be encouraged to spend more. But could the WHO or other organizations like the Wellcome Trust help to develop apps, websites and online courses, in local languages and local cultural terms, to disseminate basic therapeutic ideas and techniques? It would not be enough, but it would be something. And it would be cheap.

I’m working with the WHO on a project called the Cultural Contexts of Health. Find out more about it here.

Autism, Neurodiversity and the ‘Neurotypicals’

Bonnie Evans is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions. Her book, The Metamorphosis of Autism: A History of Child Development in England, was recently published by Manchester University Press. This blog post is based on a talk she gave for ‘The Museum of the Normal’, which can be found online here.

Evans is organising a conference at QMUL on 20-21 April: The Globalisation of Autism: Historical, Sociological, and Anthropological Reflections. On the evening of 20 April, there will also be a free public lecture by Steve Silberman, bestselling author of Neurotribes.

Autism is now the most diagnosed psychological condition in childhood, with population studies putting the rate at 1 in every 64 children.  Adult diagnoses are also increasing apace, with women becoming the new ‘underdiagnosed’ group, often receiving later life diagnoses.  In 2009, the Autism Act was hailed as the first ever ‘disability-specific’ legislation to be passed in the UK, indicating the significance of autism to shaping individual rights to public services.  Yet, it was not always like this.  Just forty years ago, barely anyone had heard of autism.  It is only very recently that autism has become such a central concept for thinking about human difference.  Yet there is actually very little consensus amongst psychologists, geneticists, and autistic people themselves, over what, exactly, autism is.

In my recent book, The Metamorphosis of Autism, I consider the meaning of autism not from a psychological perspective, or a biomedical perspective, but rather from an historical perspective.  When considered in relation to the history of child development, it becomes clear that autism has always been a tricky concept to pin down. It has always been difficult to distinguish between ‘normal’ thinking, and ‘autistic’ thinking.  And autism has always been controversial.

The controversy started in the early twentieth century.  The word ‘autism’ was first coined in 1911 by Eugen Bleuler as a response to Sigmund Freud’s work on early ‘autoerotic’ thinking in infancy and childhood.  Freud had argued that infants were fascinated with their own bodies and thought of these as love objects in this early stage of thought.  Bleuler, however, argued that Freud was too obsessed with love and sex – a claim that many have since also leveled against him. Bleuler took the ‘erot’ part from the word ‘autoerotism’ and renamed this ‘autism’.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the famous child psychologist Jean Piaget, and many others understood autism as just an early stage of human thought that children ‘grew out’ of when they began to form relationships with other people.  However, there was still a huge degree of controversy over this early stage of thinking.  Freud’s daughter, Anna, and her followers, threw insults and vitriol at the followers of a prominent psychologist, Melanie Klein, in endless debates over what children were really thinking in the early stages of their life.  Klein said that children could conceptualise objects and parts of people from the day they left the womb, whereas Anna Freud said they were incapable of such a thing.  However, all psychologists in the early twentieth century argued that children spent a lot of time in dream-like fantasies imagining part objects and bodies around them, and that autism was just a feature of this ‘primitive’ thinking.

Anna Freud, c. 1970.

Anna Freud. Credit: Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin

Leo Kanner is often hailed as the first person to properly describe ‘autism’ as a medical condition in 1943. However, this is a myth.  The moment that autism became fixed as medical diagnosis was not when a psychologist articulated children’s thought more successfully than anyone else had ever done before.  In fact, autism was only acknowledged as an exclusive diagnosis when it was used to grant particular children rights to education and access to social services.  The impetus for this was actually the closure in Britain and in many other parts of the Western world, from the late 1950s onwards, of institutions for children and adults with what was then called ‘mental deficiency’ or ‘mental retardation’. The closure of ‘mental deficiency’ institutions encouraged radical overhauls of the techniques for measuring and understanding child development. This encouraged psychologists, parents, and others, to create new diagnostic categories to advocate for the rights of children who had previously been ignored within established models of education and democracy as ‘ineducable’.  In particular, they wanted to turn autism into a category that could be defined, calculated and counted.

As an historian, I have trawled The National Autistic Society archives and the National Archives and found countless examples of parents and psychologists petitioning the Departments of Health and Education, arguing that autistic children required services that were specific to their needs.  When Edward Heath refused to provide such specific services in 1970, the National Autistic Society campaigned again and again, and counted more and more cases of autism, until the government had to respond.  When the pioneering parent and psychologist Lorna Wing argued that autism was a kind of ‘social impairment’ that could be quantified, and rectified via targeted policies, the government were finally listening.  Her proposals had a huge influence on Margaret Thatcher’s education reforms in the early 1980s, in which autistic children were granted unique rights to educational services, as well as unique protections from the expanding threat of neoliberal markets.  Wing’s work also influenced global definitions through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), also known as the ‘psychiatric bible’.  Autism then no longer referred to a stage of normal thinking but became a unique ‘impairment’.  Once this model of autism was established, as a means to carve out and protect a supposedly ‘impaired’ section of society, the numbers of reported cases began to increase.  By the 1990s, cases were sneaking up further, and by the 2000s, many began to talk of an ‘epidemic’.  Yet autism, this thing that was ‘epidemic’, was still not clearly defined.

National Autistic Society ‘Too Much Information’ campaign (2016)

In the 1990s, growing numbers of individuals with the autism diagnosis began to challenge the idea that people with autism were different, disadvantaged, disabled, or sick.  They argued that autism often represented merely a different way of thinking, which could in many cases be advantageous.  This was the birth of the ‘neurodiversity’ movement, in which autism is recognised as a variation within normal thinking rather than a categorical medical problem.  The neurodiversity movement then also created the category of ‘neurotypical’ to describe people who think typically, or normally, rather then those who have autistic traits or who represent a wider ‘diversity’ of thought.  Although at first the psychological establishment resisted this challenge, they eventually conceded that they couldn’t maintain the higher ground and researchers from Francesca Happé to Simon Baron Cohen now talk of the ‘neurodiverse’ and the ‘neurotypical’.

The neurodiversity movement never had a problem with the category of autism, per se, but merely the idea that autism was definable.  We have thus arrived back at some of the problems first laid out by psychologists in the early twentieth century when they debated our ability to define the early stages of children’s thought, and to understand the trajectories that that may take in later life.  Perhaps it is still the case that much of children’s early thought, together with the patterns and forms that it takes, is still indecipherable.

Emotional Experience as a Site of Agency

Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University (St. George, UT, USA) and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).  He earned his Ph.D. in United States history at Indiana University in 2013.  He is a historian of the 19th and 20th century United States, with particular interests in the history of emotions, social movements, and political communication.

In 1914, twenty-one-year-old Carl William Aschan watched evangelist Billy Sunday’s train depart from Des Moines, Iowa with a sense of spiritual emptiness – “as though the very soul of the city went away.”  Dejectedly, Aschan and his friend H. E. Benson wondered aloud, “What are we going to do now we can’t go to the meetings any more[?]”  “Let’s write to Mr. Sunday,” Benson suggested, “and perhaps he could give us some work to do, so we could be trying to do some good for humanity.”  Aschan put the question to Sunday in a letter.  “Mr Sunday if you have any thing for a couple of clean cut fellows to do would be more than glad to hear from you and do any thing for you we can.”[i]

Historians tend to think of emotions as an effect of cultural changes.  In many cases, we focus on the emotions that are considered acceptable or desirable within a culture, and we study how those emotional standards change over time.[ii]  It’s easy to view Aschan’s anguish over Sunday’s departure as conditioned by a largely Protestant society that privileged religious conversions, leading Aschan and Benson to lament the newfound lack of religious experience in their lives.  But what if we instead imagined emotions as a site of agency – as the cause of social and cultural shifts?  What if, simply by experiencing the influence of Billy Sunday, Carl William Aschan changed the course of history?

Converts such as Aschan generally expressed their desire to convert in personal terms, as a response to internal emotional crises.  Prior to his conversion, schoolteacher Edgar G. Gordon wrote, he had been consumed by self-loathing for his “pool-playing, card-playing, dancing, ‘suds’-sipping” ways.  “I had long had a vision of service and of my duty,” he wrote to Sunday in frustration in 1913, “but until you challenged, until you dared me to be a man, I had not the decision [to act upon it].”[iii]  Similarly, Charles H. Thurston detailed his struggles with alcoholism prior to his encounter with Sunday.  “In spite of all I could do the appetite [for alcohol] held me fast,” he lamented.  “This continued for seven or eight years” until a tabernacle conversion finally sobered him up.[iv]

Once they listened to Sunday’s emotional sermons and underwent powerful religious experiences, however, converts often found personal transformations to be inadequate expressions of their newfound selves.  Many were like Aschan and Benson, burning up for “any thing for a couple of clean cut fellows to do” – longing for a great collective work that would invest their conversions with an enduring sense of purpose.  Many found such a mission in Sunday’s exhortation to convert others.  William Ward Ayer, converted by Sunday at the age of nineteen, became a prominent New York minister and converted thousands or his parishioners.  “What happened to them,” he explained in 1960, “happened to them because of what happened to me through Billy Sunday.”[v]  Syracuse bank president Lucius A. Eddy, another Sunday follower, singlehandedly procured over four thousand converts over a twelve-year period.[vi]  Sunday followers who lacked the prominence of Ayer or the wealth of Eddy worked on a smaller scale, founding Billy Sunday Clubs designed to continue the work of conversion.  In a letter to Sunday, new convert Jamie Goldsmith confessed that he had not “done very much in trying to save souls” before he went to the revival meetings; now, however, Sunday had “shown me where I stand.”[vii]

When Sunday’s followers were not converting their neighbors, they were enthusiastically promoting the evangelist’s political platform – particularly his support for prohibition legislation.  Sunday revivals often doubled as political campaigns for local or state prohibition legislation, and converts’ sheer numbers and depth of commitment made their movement a force to be reckoned with.[viii]  Omaha mayor and prohibition opponent James C. Dahlman, responding to a report in the Omaha Bee that Sunday would like nothing better than to “inundate Jim and sweep him out of the city hall,” was so afraid of the Sunday revival in his city that he sang hymns in the front row of the tabernacle, praised Sunday in the press, and provided city facilities for the revivals free of charge.[ix]  Similarly, Sunday’s comment to a Columbus, Ohio reporter that mayor George Karb might have been “elected by the whiskey ring” was enough to send Karb skittering to address the tabernacle crowd in that city.[x]  Dahlman and Karb were right to fear the political power of Sunday’s movement.  In November 1916, Michigan voters passed a statewide ban on alcohol after Sunday preached in support of the bill in three of the state’s largest cities. Similarly, voters in Decatur, Illinois enacted prohibition just months after Sunday had conducted a revival there; journalist Bruce Barton noted that Sunday’s presence had galvanized local churches and converted the city’s most important newspaper to the dry cause.[xi]

Historians should fight the urge to dismiss these activities as conditioned solely by emotional and cultural standards.  It’s true that turn-of-the-century Americans, particularly those in the middle class, longed for intense emotional experiences that would ground them in a newly unfamiliar society, and that most converts wanted to find emotional fulfillment, not to drive national policy debates – at least at first.[xii]  Yet by attaching themselves to a leader and movement with a definite political platform, many Sunday followers decisively entered the public sphere.  Sunday’s movement was only as strong as the number of followers he could muster.  Simply by connecting emotionally with Sunday and converting in his tabernacle, converts swelled the ranks of his movement and made him and his causes politically powerful; their desire “to do some good for humanity” under his auspices only augmented their influence.  The emotional experiences of Sunday’s followers redirected their internal conflicts toward external political goals and helped them to shape historical trends.  By transforming themselves, converts such as Aschan transformed their society as well.


[i] Carl William Aschan to Billy Sunday, Dec. 22, 1914, folder 23, box 1 (reel 1), Papers of William and Helen Sunday, Grace College and Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, IN.

[ii] Peter N. Stearns and Carol Z. Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (October 1985), 813, 816, 825.

[iii] Edgar G. Gordon to Billy Sunday, Nov. 16, 1913, folder 42, box 1 (reel 2), Papers of William and Helen Sunday.

[iv] Charles H. Thurston, “From One of the Converts,” in “Personal Gains from the Sunday Campaign: A Sheaf of Testimonies,” The Congregationalist, February 22, 1917, 257.

[v] Interview with William Ward Ayer in The Billy Sunday Story, dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. (orig. pub. Chester Springs, Penn.: Sacred Cinema/Westchester Films, ca. 1960; Garland, Tex.: Beacon Video Ministries, 1989).

[vi] Homer Rodeheaver, Twenty Years with Billy Sunday (Winona Lake, IN.: Rodeheaver Hall-Mack, 1936), 125.

[vii] Jamie Biggerstaff Goldsmith to Billy Sunday, 1924, folder 33, box 1 (reel 2), Papers of William and Helen Sunday.

[viii] Rodeheaver, Twenty Years with Billy Sunday, 32.

[ix] Omaha Bee, Oct. 27, 1915, quoted in Leslie R. Valentine, “Evangelist Billy Sunday’s Clean-Up Campaign in Omaha: Local Reaction to His 50-Day Revival, 1915,” Nebraska History, 64 (1983), 222-23.

[x] “Sunday Comes Late Today,” Columbus Citizen, Dec. 28, 1912, 1, quoted in Donald Elden Pitzer, “The Ohio Campaigns of Billy Sunday with Special Emphasis upon the 1913 Columbus Revival” (M.A. thesis, Ohio State University, 1962), 95, 124.

[xi] Bruce Barton, “In the Wake of Billy Sunday,” Home Herald, Vol. 20, No. 22 (June 2, 1909), 4.

[xii] T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 8-11.

Faces that matter: history, emotion, transplantation

Dr Fay Bound Alberti has published widely on the histories of medicine and science, gender, the body and emotions. Fay co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London where she remains Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Other areas of interest include illness and disease, the history and ethics of cosmetic surgery and the relationship between mind and body and gender politics. Fay’s most recent book is This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016). She is a regular blogger for The History Girls, a group of best-selling, award-winning writers of historical fiction and non-fiction. Fay’s forthcoming monograph is a cultural and emotional history of face transplants.

This post contains graphic descriptions of facial injury.

Faces matter. They signal our individuality, genetic inheritance, emotions and identity. Little wonder that a disrupted or disfigured appearance is a source of social stigma and distress.[1] Yet faces are also matter; reshaped by cosmetics, art and surgery. Today, faces are transplantable, able to be moved from one human being to another, from the dead to the living. This brings extensive ethical as well as medical considerations. As the medical anthropologist Linda Hogle put it, ‘you’re really transplanting more than the tissue itself [with face transplants]. You’re bringing someone’s identity and overlaying it on the recipient’s body’.[2] That challenge was realised in the person of Isabelle Dinoire, the world’s first partial face transplant recipient.

In 2005, the 38-year old French woman was savaged by her pet dog after she had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. Whether the overdose was an accident or not has been a subject of debate. Dinoire described waking to find ‘a pool of blood next to me. And the dog was licking the blood. But I couldn’t imagine that it was my blood or my face. Or that he had chewed me.’[3] Still groggy and confused from her overdose, Dinoire sat up and tried to light a cigarette, an act she described as ‘an automatic gesture’. Confused that she could not keep the cigarette between her lips, Dinoire crawled to her bedroom to look in the mirror. That is when Dinoire discovered the full extent of her injuries. She had no lips, no chin and no nose. That was the moment she realised ‘it was not a dream, it was reality. I had no face.’[4]

Dinoire’s operation took place at a time of intense global competition to undertake the first successful face transplant; a development with echoes of the first heart transplant.[5] Images of Dinoire pre- and post-surgery and voyeuristic details of her rehabilitation were told by a mass media to a public repulsed and intrigued.[6]  When Dinoire died of cancer in 2016, her doctors denied it was in any way connected to the cocktail of immunosuppressant drugs she had been taking. Though those drugs are known to increase the risk of cancer.[7] I have written in detail about Dinoire elsewhere, for her case draws attention not only to complex, gendered assumptions about face transplant patients and the female body, but also to the political framework in which medical firsts take place.[8]

Since 2005 no more than forty face transplants have taken place around the world, in Spain, Turkey, China and Poland, with varying degrees of success.[9] Yet face transplants are a relatively neglected area of recent history, and discussion still revolves around medical and ethical rather than emotional and psychological concerns.[10] I am currently writing a monograph on the history and pre-history of face transplants that explores their affective and cultural context. For face transplants raise key questions about our identity as human beings, our relationships with others and the ways in which physical appearance is linked to experiences of anxiety, depression, fear and shame. Before her face transplant, Dinoire felt that her visage was ‘monstrous, traumatic, unshowable.’ After her transplant, she was still subject to the gaze of others, but now because she was a ‘circus animal.’ Her existence provoked mixed emotions in others: from her surgeons to her children, from the family of her donor to the unknown multitude who looked at her ‘before and after’ pictures and talked about medical miracles, the limits of science and whether she might ever ‘kiss again.’ This question does not seem to have been asked of male face transplant recipients.[11]

Dinoire’s experience is a reminder that facial disfigurement and reconstructive surgery does not take place in a vacuum. There are important historical accounts of facial disfigurement as a social and medical question, many of which show considerable nuance between medical and social models of disability. [12] Face transplants are both a continuation of the surgical reconstructive skills that developed after World War I and something else; the blending of two identities, old and new, and the creation of a ‘hybrid-being.’[13] While post-war reconstructive surgery primarily took place on soldiers returning from battle, informing a gendered narrative of disfigurement and heroism, today’s face transplants raise a different set of questions about gender, identity and emotion. Moreover, today the very act of getting older triggers fear and disgust, let alone a traumatic facial disfigurement or a surgical procedure as radical as a face transplant.[14] In writing the emotional and ethical history of face transplants, then, it may be society as much as surgery that needs to come under the spotlight.

[1] R. Lansdown et al (eds), Visibly Different: Coping with Disfigurement (Oxford; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997); A. Clarke et al (eds), CBT for Appearance Anxiety: Psychosocial Interventions for Anxiety due to Visible Difference (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); N. Rumsey and D. Harcourt, The Psychology of Appearance (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2005).

[2] J. Bowen, ‘Gaining face,’ 19 May 1999: 1999/05/19/ face_transplants/ accessed 24 February 2016 and F. Baylis, ‘A Face is Not Just Like a Hand: Pace Barker,’ The American Journal of Bioethics, 4 (2004), 30-32.


[4] ‘La femme aux deux visages,’ [‘The Woman with Two Faces’] Le Monde, 7 July 2007:

[5] See Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, Emotion (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2010). Introduction.



[8] ‘From Face/Off to the Face Race: The Case of Isabelle Dinoire and the Future of the Face Transplant, BMJ Medical Humanities, 9 December, 2016:

[9] S. Khalifian, P.S. Brazio and R. Mohan et al, ‘Facial Transplantation: The First 9 Years,’ The Lancet, 2014; 384: 2153-2163 and M. Sosin and E.D. Rodriguez, ‘The Face Transplantation Update: 2016,’ Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 2016, 137: 1841-1850

[10] A recent exception is Sharrona Pearl, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other (forthcoming, University of Chicago, 2017).

[11] Bound Alberti, ‘From Face/Off to the Face Race.’

[12] M. Gehrhardt, ‘Gueules Cassées: The Men Behind the Masks,’ Journal of War and Culture Studies, 2013; 6: 267-281, S. Biernoff, ‘The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain,’ Social History of Medicine, 2007; 24: 666-685 and Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2016

[13] This term is explored in Samuel Taylor-Alexander, On Face Transplantation: Life and Ethics in Experimental Biomedicine (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).  

[14] C. Saunders, J. Macnaughton and D. Fuller eds. The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 2015

The Museum of the Normal – What You Said





This is a post by Sarah Chaney and Helen Stark, both project managers in the Centre for the History of the Emotions.

‘I realised how normative, pseudo-scientific the idea of normal can be… Also that normal doesn’t necessarily equal healthier or better. There is a very subjective and biased sense of what normal is or should be.’

So commented one attendee at our drop-in late, the Museum of the Normal, a public event designed to address the history of being and defining normal. We wanted to measure whether there was a change in attitudes and the quotation above, taken from a follow-up survey, shows how this person’s perception of normality shifted – we might say, became more critical – as a result of the event.

We used 20 spot interviews on the night and a follow-up online survey, completed by 44 people, to assess responses to ‘The Museum of the Normal’. In the spot interviews, participants commented on activities they had enjoyed, but only a few looked at the wider concept of challenging what is normal and how this might change in different cultures and time periods. However, the follow-up survey showed much more reflective thinking. It might be that reflection was needed before changes in thinking could occur, or that those responding represented a different section of our audience or were reluctant to confess to a naivety about normativity in person.

I tell you what’s interesting about it, if you think about cultural norms and then like personal norms, and all the other, like, norms, then there must be some sort of like hierarchy, I don’t know, which overrides stuff. I don’t know, it’s just making me think about other stuff. So if you think it’s normal to go out on a Saturday night and have a few beers you know in some cultures they think that’s a bit weird, right, so that’s abnormal in that culture. But personally that’s ok. And culturally, like in Britain, that’s what we like to do, we like to go to the pub on Saturday, don’t we? So it, it’s quite interesting when you start to think about it in those terms. (transcribed from spot interview)

The results of our follow-up survey provide strong and cumulative evidence that participants experienced a change in attitude about ideas of the normal and healthy as a result of attending the event. One attendee commented ‘[The event] challenged my view immensely. Being normal is multi-faceted.’ Another wrote ‘It made me think about the historic concept of “being normal”, which I hadn’t really done before.’ In both the follow-up surveys and the audio interviews from the evening itself, participants reflected on the extent to which what is ‘normal’ is culturally constructed: ‘It highlighted how subjective normality is and how current trends are born out of cultural contexts rather than having any basis in hard fact. It was helpful to be reminded of this, making me feel more comfortable in being myself, whatever that is, rather than trying to conform to some constructed idea of how I should be.

Participants in the follow-up survey also indicated that the event had make them think more both about where our ideas of what is “normal” or “healthy” come from and the role of medicine and psychology in creating these norms. ‘It made me realise how difficult it is to define ‘normal’! While I had some understanding of it from a medical/mathematical perspective, it was really interesting to throw social, cultural, historical and linguistic ideals into the mix too – and realise that there really is no such thing as truly “normal”.’ ‘I realised how normative, pseudo-scientific the idea of normal can be… Also that normal doesn’t necessarily equal healthier or better. There is a very subjective and biased sense of what normal is or should be.’

Some audience feedback also supported the contention that challenging the emotional nature of normality is helpful – and can even be therapeutic. ‘It shed light on fresh dimensions of being, and not being, normal; how, in some ways, it is normal not to be normal. I feel it would have given reassurance to people who may often feel excluded from the mainstream.’ ‘It made me think that normality is a product of your surroundings – you gravitate towards situations or groups of people that are in some way similar to you, so you feel normal around them. A lot of problems have been caused by people being or feeling forced to conform to somebody else’s idea of normal.’

From audience feedback after the event, it was clear that a number of visitors had reflected on the themes of the event, considering where our ideas of what is normal and healthy come from, and how these change historically and across different cultures.

Wordcloud of responses to the Museum of the Normal follow-up survey

Want to know more? Read other posts about ‘The Museum of the Normal’ or listen to our Psychic Driving audio track.