Playing the Indian Card

Monday, June 05, 2017

Go Nuts

Martyrdom of St. Dymphna

The town of Gheel (also Geel), in Belgium, has one great distinction. As the local saying goes, “half the inhabitants are mad, and the rest are half-mad.”

For uncounted centuries, Gheel has taken in the “mentally ill.” They are boarded with local families, and by and large allowed to live a normal life. They get better, sometimes, and sometimes they don’t—but still lead a better life than they would in an asylum.

They come because Gheel is home to the shrine of Saint Dymphna, the traditional patron saint of those with mental problems. Her martyred corpse is preserved in the local church.

St, Dymphna Church, Geel.

We hear of Dymphna first in the 13th century. But by then her local cult was said to be well-established. There had already been, the chronicler asserts, a history of miraculous healings of the mad (Wikipedia). She was believed to have actually lived in the seventh century, in Ireland.

Devotional image of St. Dymphna

I have written of Saint Dymphna before. Here is her story, in brief:

In the seventh century, in what is now County Tyrone, Ireland, a small kingdom named Oriel was ruled by a king named Damon. Himself a pagan, Damon had a beautiful Christian wife, and together they had an equally beautiful Christian daughter, the princess Dymphna. 
When she was only fourteen, Dymphna’s mother died. King Damon decided that he would take his daughter as his new wife; because she reminded him so much of her mother. Dymphna, horrified, fled with her confessor Father Gerebernus, two servants, and the court jester. They ended up in the town of Gheel, near Antwerp in Belgium. There, having taken with them a fair bit of the king’s treasury, Dymphna and Gerebernus set up a local hospice and developed a reputation for their devoutnesss and charity.
Unfortunately, however, their generosity left a trail of distinctive Irish gold coins that Dymphna’s father was eventually able to follow. He showed up one day with his military retinue, again demanded marriage, and was again refused. So he beheaded his daughter on the spot, as well as the venerable Gerebernus. She was fifteen years old.

So—how did this experience qualify Dymphna as the patron saint of the mentally ill? She was not, after all, mentally ill herself, so far as we can tell. What does any of this have to do with mental illness?

But then, how would we know? In this Year of Our Lord 2017, our brilliant scientists still do not know—they really have no idea—what causes what we call “mental illness.”

This is probably because they are brilliant scientists.

Science, by its nature, knows nothing of the soul. It is always looking in the opposite direction, at the physical world.

Their latest idea is that all mental illness is essentially PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. This is fashionable, and has grabbed their attention, because we are seeing a lot of PTSD in the US since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the obvious fact has occurred to the doctors that the symptoms of PTSD are all the same as those of depression. Moreover, the standard anti-depressants usually work on PTSD.

If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck…


So depression, at least, if not mental illness in general, is now held to be a consequence of a traumatic childhood. A childhood about as frightening as a war.

The Wikipedia entry for “Depression” now gives, under “Causes”:

“Adversity in childhood, such as bereavement, neglect, mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and unequal parental treatment of siblings can contribute to depression in adulthood. Childhood physical or sexual abuse in particular significantly correlates with the likelihood of experiencing depression over the life course.”

A recent Catholic article on overcoming depression begins with:

“This might be due to Adversity in childhood, such as bereavement, neglect, mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and unequal parental treatment of siblings.”
For what it is worth—and it seems to me to obviously be worth a great deal—the Dymphna legend strongly suggests we are finally on to something.

It is about time we turned to the Humanities, and to religion, for an understanding of the soul, the psyche. They have known about it all along. It is their area of expertise. Casting out demons ‘R us.

I imagine that, in the very early days of the Dymphna cult, people struggling with what we now call “mental illness” learned her story, and immediately saw in it their own experience. It is the archetypal story of the abused child.

No, she apparently never suffered herself from mental illness. That is what suggests her power to heal. She is often portrayed with a little demon on a chain. Demon—Damon. She beat the rap, although at the cost of her life.

However, if we are to take the Dymphna story as archetypal, we have not quite scored a bullseye yet.

Dymphna’s story involves a bereavement; the death of her mother. But, although it clearly alludes to sexual abuse, and child abuse, nowhere in the story does Dymphna actually suffer it. She flees the kingdom to escape it, and accepts first exile and then death to avoid it. “Saint Dymphna is known,” an entry on the saint suggests, “as the Lily of Éire, due to her spotless virtue.” In other words, the idea that she never actually was sexually molested by her father is an essential part of the legend. She was not subject to prolonged mental or physical abuse: she was killed outright. In her infancy, she most probably would have appeared to the world as a little princess, obviously beloved by Dad, fawned upon.

Dutch image of Dymphna

This strongly suggests that the issue is not the abuse, per se, but the attitude of the parent, and the psychic rather than the physical trauma that involves.

Odd that—the soul being primarily concerned with spiritual things. Who could have expected it?

Speaking symbolically, King Damon, her father, wanted to devour Dymphna—like Saturn devoured his children. He wanted to own her, completely. He wanted her to exist only as an extension of himself. He allowed her no independent existence, even if she left his presence. If she did not exist only to give him pleasure or personal staisfaction, she had no right to exist.

This motif is doubled in the idea that Dymphna was the incarnate image of her mother, and was intended to be her continuation. Not only was her father attempting to fully assimilate her identity to himself, but to fully assimilate her identity to the person of her mother. No matter what she tried, what she did, where she went, Dymphna was simply not allowed to exist. She would be killed the one way, or killed the other. She was being devoured by both parents.

Goya paints it as he sees it.

The story is also an analysis of counterfeit love. Under the guise of affection, Dymphna was destroyed. This must be especially sinister to a child: the enemy posing as parent, the ultimate protector. He or she cannot be expected to understand. Nor is the world beyond the family likely to understand what is going on: from the outside, it all no doubt looked like a loving family, until the final act. Babies, they say, live on love. But her father’s love was the love of a gourmand for a rare steak: the slaughtered cow does not really get the warm fuzzies.

Barbaric and inhuman as it sounds, this is an obvious risk in any family. A parent who is selfish enough is even naturally going to think this way. He or she made the child, after all, did they not? So it belongs to him or her. And the great thing about it, from his or her perspective, is that, in the family context, he or she has absolute rein, like a king, to exploit the child toy as he or she pleases. 

If only one parent is depraved in this way, the child has a chance. But if both parents are this depraved, or if the one dies, God help little him or her.

If the child survives physically, lifelong struggles with mental illness of one sort or another are most likely to ensue: a kind of living martyrdom to the parent or parents.

And the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, unto the third or fourth generation.

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