The best of Slow Journalism: Rogue Wounds

AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

In his fascinating article for Lapham’s Quarterly, Daniel Mason offers a compelling historical overview of malingering – the feigning of mental or physical disorders.

His piece begins in the 19th century with the story of violent conman James Clegg, who repeatedly feigned insanity to avoid prison. After passing through various asylums, Clegg finally confessed to his serial malingering in 1876, revealing that he had spent 15 years studying seizures. He got his start as a malingerer at the age of 16 when he joined a gang of thieves whose preferred hustle was ‘dummy chucking’, feigning an epileptic seizure while an accomplice picked the pockets of distracted victims.

Mason writes about how Sigmund Freud moved beyond the widely-held view that malingerers were simply manipulative time-wasters. In 1920, he was called as an expert witness to defend a soldier accused of pretending to be ill. “All neurotics are malingerers,” Freud testified, saying that “they simulate without knowing, and this is their sickness.”

“Even when we are not ill, we tell ourselves lies about our achievements, our relationships, our invincibility,” writes Mason in his conclusion. “And we lie, in part because, like James Clegg, deception keeps us safe.”

You can read Mason’s piece here.

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