23 July 2016


Frank Bures. The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes. Melville House. 2016

Frank Bures was inspired to begin his investigations into the effects of culture in different parts of the world when he left his home in the American Midwest to spend a year in Italy as an exchange student. He writes: "After one short year immersed in Italian society I felt like a different person, and I was disturbed by the depth of this change". 
He starts his description of his investigations by describing how he followed up a newspaper report headlined: 'Court Remands Man over False Alarm on Genital Organ Disappearance'. The young man was on a bus in Lagos, Nigeria, when he cried out that his penis had disappeared and accused the woman sitting next to him of having stolen it.

For several years, Bures had followed reports of similar cases from Nigeria, after reading an article on the BBC website describing an incident in which at least twelve people had been killed by an angry crowd in souhwestern Nigeria after having been accused of "making people's genital organs disappear". These people had been burnt alive.

Bures investigated similar incidents in ther countries, including China and Hong Kong, and in the course of his travels came to realise that the key to understanding different peoples was not only to study their languages but also their cultures. He made the main theme of his investigations, at least as described in this book, his studies of strange panics about allegedly disappearing penises, known to Chinese-speaking people as koro. In such cases the victims of these panics usually had the impression that their penises were retracting into their abdomens, which they believed would prove fatal.

A particularly interesting case occurred in 1967 when "in one of the best-documented cases of koro ever, hundreds of people rushed to hospitals in the city-state of Singapore, deathly afraid that of they loosened their grip, they would die". Bures wanted to find out if the people of Singapore were still susceptible to such panics. He discussed this with a psychiatrist named Paul Ngui, who had researched the 1967 epidemic. This started when a 16-year-old boy heard rumours that pork from pigs that had been inoculated against swine fever could cause koro, and that he had the symptoms, as he had eaten a bun with pork in it that morning. Eventually the panic died down after medical authorities, using radio and television, assured people that koro was a purely psychological condition.

Bures started by having the impression that his native America was the norm, while other parts of the world had strange cultures. But on travelling to foreign parts and returning to America, he became much more aware of the distinctiveness of its culture. He also learned much about the extent to which various illnesses, both mental and physical, were sometimes apparently related to cultural differences.

This book is rather autobiographical in style, containing much material which the appropriate experts will want to follow up in their own investigations. Bures hopes that we will "come to see the part we all play in creating worlds that look strange from outside but that make perfect sense from within..." 
  • John Harney.

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