23 March 2016
The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes by Frank Bures
Jon Ronson meets David Grann in this fascinating, wildly entertaining adventure and travel story about how culture can make us go totally insane
The Geography of Madness is an investigation of "culture-bound" syndromes, which are far stranger than they sound. Why is it, for example, that some men believe, against all reason, that vandals stole their penises, even though they're in good physical shape? In The Geography of Madness, acclaimed magazine writer Frank Bures travels around the world to trace culture-bound syndromes to their sources—and in the process, tells a remarkable story about the strange things all of us believe.
While I was traveling to and from Book Riot Live, I read Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I was really intrigued with the way a non-Westernized culture viewed illness and how those views clashed with the medical establishment. So when I saw Melville House (a favorite publisher) was putting out a book about culture-bound syndromes - those conditions that seem to exist in the psychology of a culture that contribute physical morbidity or mortality - I was immediately interested.
The Geography of Madness begins as Bures is searching through Lagos, Nigeria, for someone to talk to him about "penis theft" - yes, that's a thing, and it's generally been covered in the Western media with ridicule so Bures has a bit of trouble getting someone to admit it has happened to them. He also visits rural areas of China searching for sufferers of similar types of syndromes and practitioners who treat them. In between Bures discusses his own life living outside the US and the culture-shock he has felt.
This wasn't the book I was looking for - I was looking for something with more science and less memoir. However, the concept is very interesting, how our cultural beliefs play upon the mind and body to create syndromic diseases with physical symptoms that are unique to time and place. The syndromes don't have to be fantastical, either. Bures cites syndromes like "lower back pain" - which can have myriad causes and manifestations - where the incidence varies from country to country even among those populations with shared cultural backgrounds (the US vs Germany, for instance).
I could have done without constant comment on whether the brown and/or non-US people he communicated with spoke quality English. That got annoying.
Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.