The psychology of self-accusation, from 1902

Every month, the British Journal of Psychiatry has a section that prints 100-year-old excerpts from medical journals relevant to modern psychiatry.

They are usually both fascinating and shocking. As a brief window on the past, they can show a very different understanding of mental disorder, but not always the respect that people with psychiatric difficulties deserve.

This from a 1902 letter to the Lancet about people who go to court to accuse themselves of a crime that they haven’t committed.

The committal of a notorious crime which excites popular imagination and which remains undetected for a time often leads to the appearance in law courts of self-accusing culprits who charge themselves with being the authors of the crime in question. Dr. Ernest Dupr√© of Paris in a paper read before the Annual Congress of French Alienists and Neurologists recently held at Grenoble attempts to delineate with exactitude the psychological nature of “auto-accusation” and to show that certain morbid elements play an important part in it.

He points out that “auto-accusation” is not often or merely the result of a weak-mindedness; the subject of it is a person who has positively developed general ideas of unworthiness, guilt, and remorse, and in a word is suffering from mild melancholia with vague delusions of guilt and sin. Another type of self-accuser is the proud and vain “degenerate” who with a brain warped by congenital anomaly of development constructs romances of which he readily persuades himself to be the hero or the martyr.

There is, adds Dr. Dupré, a marked contrast between these two types. The one is abject, lowly, self-humiliating; the other proud, egiostic, and vain. Among other types of the same abnormality are found persons of alcoholic or hysterical character.

The full letter goes on to describe the supposed characteristics of the ‘alcoholic self-accuser’ and the ‘female self-accuser’ who was apparently likely to be suffering from ‘marked hysteria’.

One of my favourites is a curious case report of a Cambridge student who had seemed to have lost his identity.

There’s many more historical gems in the archives that are well worth checking out.

Link to ‘100 years ago’ section of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

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