Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.
Most people have known of someone who was either erotomanic in some way, or have at least known someone who was victimized by the often absurd, often comic, and sometimes darkly terrifying and dangerous delusional disorder.
Technically, erotomania is a variant of delusional disorder, which is described by the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, as “ the presence of one or more false beliefs that persist for at least 1 month. Delusions tend to be nonbizarre and involve situations that could occur, such as being followed, poisoned, infected, loved at a distance, or deceived by one's spouse or lover” (http://www.merck.com/pubs/mmanual/section15/chapter193/193f.htm). Suffering from delusional disorder can be problematic for the individual, and lead to negative consequences. The Merck Manual describes behaviors and beliefs ascribed to erotomania: In the erotomanic subtype, the patient believes that another person is in love with him. Efforts to contact the object of the delusion through telephone calls, letters, surveillance, or stalking are common. Persons with this subtype may have conflicts with the law related to this behavior” (http://www.merck.com/pubs/mmanual/section15/chapter193/193f.htm).
In most cases, the disorder manifests itself as quirky and sometimes socially embarrassing beliefs that can result in uncomfortable responses from friends and loved ones. Thank God I’ve not suffered from erotomania – at least as far as I’m aware.
However, I’ve seen it around me. I’ll never forget the 50ish poetry professor with thinning hair and a budding paunch who was convinced that all his female students were secretly in love with him. The truth was, nothing could have been further from reality – most of his students loathed him in secret – his pompous pronouncements that there were “no great women poets in the 20th century” and “just because a woman committed suicide did not make her intrinsically interesting.” He also had an annoying way of drawling his words when he spoke so that his comments, no matter how innocuous or benign, became instantly patronizing. For some perverse reason, I liked the guy – perhaps because he made me see the ordinary through completely new eyes, and a fresh frame of reference. While taking an independent study course in writing poetry with him, he suggested that we take a road trip through the rural regions of central Oklahoma, and the downscale fringe suburbs that flanked Oklahoma City. We passed trailer homes, trash heaps, rusty cars, weather-beaten billboards advertising beer and whiskey, car lots, rundown roadside diners, and mile upon mile of trash-lined rural roads.
“Just look at the industrial decay and clutter,” he said. “It’s gorgeous – it’s like an earthwork or a living abstract expressionist painting – a tableaux vivant! There’s nothing like it – the muted grays, browns, and fading neons!”
When I began to look at Oklahoma’s rural poverty as the contents of a painting or an art project, I was able to distance myself from the immediacy of it all. Somehow the poverty in my own backyard that frightened me so lost its sting. It became exotic. Perhaps that is the charm of the delusional disorder.
Likewise, all the 20-something young women who worked hard at being desirable and desired, could have been deeply threatening to this professor, who would never rate high on anyone’s desirability index – not for looks, or for personality (!) How much easier it would be to convince oneself that they all were secretly in love (with an emphasis on the “secretly”), but for a myriad of reasons, could not actually permit themselves to display or even express their true feelings.
It reminded me of Vladimir Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita, whose horror of fully mature women triggered his perception that their daughters (specifically Lolita) were in love with him, and shamelessly trying to seduce him. Of course, the question is, in Lolita, if Humbert Humbert is truly an erotomanic pedophile, or simply a man with an advanced case of delusional disorder (erotomania) that has crossed the line into an active form of schizophrenia, replete with auditory and visual hallucinations.
Perhaps the most classically textbook film depiction of erotomania is in the 1995 film, Don Juan de Marco, directed by Jeremy Leven, from the original novel of the same name by Jean White Blake. Don Juan de Marco is the nom de guerre of a young man admitted to a psychiatric hospital due to the fact that he believes, with all his heart, that he is the original Don Juan, the ultimate knower and seducer of all women, the only man alive who is privy to the secret heart of the female. In the film version, Don Juan (played by Johnny Depp) is a gentle, soulful, and sincere man. In the book, his persona is a bit more complicated – he is a manipulative deceiver of women who, in his heart of hearts, despises and fears them.
Sadly, the primary motivation is the same for both Humbert Humbert and Don Juan. Their fear of women, often coming from troubling incidences in their adolescence, causes them to go to any lengths necessary to control them. If this means “checking out” of reality, and being convinced that all women love them, or can be easily seduced, then life is much easier.
As the Merck Manual points out, erotomanic behavior can be frightening. Stalking is often perceived as a logical response to rejection. Sadly, the person being stalked never even met the stalker, and thus could have no idea whatsoever that someone was watching them and judging their behavior to rejecting, indifferent, disrespectful, or even cruel. It is usually a shock to the object of the delusion that such feelings exist. When they find out, they soon realize there is little or nothing they can do to alter the erotomanic person’s delusions and thought processes. Film examples are many, and include Fatal Attraction, The Crush, American Beauty, Sweetie, Taxi Driver, to name a few. Many times, the erotomanic delusion goes hand in hand with the desire to “save” or “rescue” the person from a situation (or clutches of a loved one) that is “keeping them apart.”
Perhaps the most bizarre case of erotomania copying art erotomania was in John Hinkley, who became convinced that Jodie Foster required rescuing just as the 12-year-old prostitute she played in Taxi Driver was targeted by Robert DeNiro, who wanted to “rescue her.” As you may recall, Hinckley shot President Reagan. He explained that he “did it for Jodie.”
Does popular culture function as an advertisement for deviant behavior, and does it inspire copycats? Needless to say, it can, particularly if one actually enjoys the notion of the 15-seconds of fame that such notoriety engenders. Film and popular music have taken a self-reflexive tack and have examined the psyche of the person who does it either as a perfect replica of the original act (and thus the performative elements can be considered, at least in the mind the individual, either living theater or art), or in response to an obsessive love from afar. The films Copycat and Seven are two in which the obsession takes on a game-like aspect. The intentionality of the acts makes the work “art” (at least for the soi-disant artist, not for the victims!). In Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers Album, “Stan” is an obsessed fan who is convinced that his idol is snubbing him when he does not respond immediately to his letters. He emulates the behavior he associates with his idol in order to gain favor (at first). Later, as time passes, and the fan has not received the desired responses to his letters, he copies what he believes to have been the pop star’s actions (which are portrayed in a song which falls into a rap-confessional genre), he does his actions to punish and to act out his own rage.
Probably the most widely-read recent book on erotomania is Doreen Orion’s 1997 I Know You Really Love Me, which is a first-hand chronicle of her own experiences with a deeply disturbed patient. Orion, a psychiatrist, was treating a patient for delusional disorder, when he began to fix his obsessive delusions on her. The experience was harrowing and dangerous, and it left the victim further victimized by a situation where there is very little protection that anyone can offer. In her case, the obsession was long-lived, and he was both intelligent and cruel. The book is fascinating.
Obsessions are difficult to overcome. Perhaps erotomania is one of the more difficult of the obsessions to cure, since it has an automatic “reward” built in as the limbic system is triggered, and adrenaline rushes into the system of the disturbed patient. Adrenaline coupled with the sexual gratification associated with this disorder provides a very powerful biochemical trigger. In certain terms, erotomania is an addiction, with equal parts pain (rejection) and pleasure (thinking of the object of the delusion).
I personally think that this sort of delusion could be almost incurable. What can you do? Mild erotomania could be harmless and make the world a more enjoyable place. What are we without dreams, anyway? But full-blown delusional disorder of the erotomanic variety – all I can say is, look out for a long and difficult road ahead – or simply RUN (unless, of course, you are the one suffering from the delusional disorder).