Nine Tormented Lives
Email this review


The story of hypochondria through the lens of a few of its famous sufferers.

Though the concept has evolved over the centuries, its victims have continued to suffer horribly and to make enormous demands on others. The hypochondrium, the area of the abdomen housing the liver, gall bladder and other organs, was initially conceived as the seat of human melancholy and, in that quaint term, the vapors. As Cabinet magazine U.K. editor Dillon (In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory, 2005) demonstrates, it is not difficult to see how the term has transformed to mean what it has today. He playfully defines hypochondriacs as “other people,” then offers a more generic definition: persons who suspect that diseases—or mental illness—have moved in permanently. He examines the cases of nine cultural celebrities from more than two centuries, including Boswell, Darwin, Proust and Warhol. In each of the essays he covers much of the same ground, including the person’s family history, symptoms, treatments (from physicians and others), death and, finally, the significance. The author includes excerpts from letters, diaries and other biographies and books by physicians, psychologists and quacks from all relevant periods. He also identifies a problem inherent in his analysis: Because medical knowledge and terminology have changed dramatically, it’s very difficult to tell exactly what, if anything, was ailing Charlotte Brontë, Darwin, Alice James and others. Nonetheless, he dives into their stories and turns up some intriguing facts and trends, though he addresses diet insufficiently—with the exception of Proust and Andy Warhol, both eccentric eaters. The cumulative effect of these stories is a surpassing sadness—poor Glenn Gould and others, retreating from a world in which they could not adequately function.

Sturdy research and subtle analysis of these extreme cases produce some startling insights into human suffering.

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-86547-920-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2009