Pseudologia phantastica

Graham Reed

Chairman of the Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto

The author was once due to test a young lady who arrived at the clinic rather late, giving the impression of one who is distraught but bravely fighting back the tears. After sitting down, she requested time to compose herself because: “I feel a bit shaken. You see, I’m afraid something has just happened that rather upset me.” After a show of decent reluctance, she then explained that she had caught her bus to the clinic in good time. Her lateness was due to the fact that, as she was about to alight, the conductor had brutally ravished her. The author agreed that this was conduct unbecoming to a municipal employee, and remarked that it was particularly unusual in mid-afternoon, on a main road in the city centre and in the setting of a crowded bus. He inquired whether she had reported the outrage to the police, to which the young lady replied, with wide-eyed sincerity, that she had not done so because: “That would have made me late for my appointment here.” The author’s scepticism was confirmed after the session, when he took the young lady back to the waiting-room. For there was her mother, who had accompanied her to the clinic that afternoon and had noticed nothing untoward during the journey. The young lady was not at all disconcerted by her mother’s amazed denials of her story. The rape, she explained, had taken place as she was about to follow her mother down the bus stairs. She had not mentioned the matter as they walked from the bus stop to the clinic, because the conductor had also tried to strangle her with his ticket-punch strap, so that she was temporarily unable to speak.

The rape tale above may reasonably be interpreted as a hastily invented excuse which got out of hand, coupled with a more general need to gain attention. The young lady in question was physically ill-favoured, and lacking in sparkle. It could be that if she had had enough wit to make up a better story she would not have required such attention-seeking devices in the first place. But this is not necessarily so, because the problem is one of self-evaluation. It is not uncommon for individuals who are attractive and (at least initially) interesting to others to regard themselves nevertheless as social nonentities.

The direction taken by such attention-seeking fabrications naturally also reflects individual wish-fulfilment. The male equivalent of our young lady is that man who haunts most clubs and ‘locals.’ According to him he is, to all intents and purposes, in hiding from a veritable legion of love-crazed women. Oddly enough, these are for the most part film stars, prima ballerinas, Italian countesses or the glamorous wives of eminent men. Every hint of doubt from the listener merely elicits more colourful details and additional persona. But the content of pseudologia phantastica is of course not restricted to sexual exploits. Heroism, martyrdom, distinguished origins, scientific invention, financial coups or social fame – all are grist to the mill. Very often the claimant becomes the butt of his fellows, who discover that in the face of scepticism or interrogation he is spurred to even giddier heights of implausibility.

In other instances, however, the fictional character of the ‘reminiscences’ may not be appreciated by the audience. It is ironic to realize that the term ‘pseudologia phantastica’ is applied generally to the behaviour of patients merely because their reports are demonstrably untrue. There must be many people who are not under psychiatric treatment because their reports have not been recognized as untrue. Hysterics are notorious for their histrionic talents and for their apparent sincerity. On superficial acquaintance they tend to be very convincing, so it is likely that for every patient under treatment there are many non-patients whose equally fantastic reminiscences are accepted as genuine.

Graham Reed, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience, Prometheus Books, New York, 1988. In The Penguin Book of Lies, pp. 527-529.

A Millie Tant cartoon on the theme of rape from Viz circa 2005

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