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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #79, 1/31/2007

Folie à Deux:
The Exquisite Madness of the Family

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

In clinical psychology, folie à deux ("madness of two") refers to a mental illness shared by two or more people with close emotional ties to each other. An example would be a cult leader who believes the world is coming to an end and who convinces his followers to commit mass suicide together before it happens. The primary illness is in the leader; in the others, the delusional system is "induced" and would not have happened without the leader's influence. The phenomenon is also known as Induced Delusional Disorder, and in the psychological community the diagnosis is regarded as "uncommon."

Uncommon, my ass! This has to be the most prevalent mental disorder out there—given that every other mental illness has profound and debilitating effects on the family members of the person afflicted. I contend, in fact, that folie à deux is what creates most mental illness to begin with: a wacko parent inducing life-long dysfunction in their son or daughter. Apart from genes, folie à deux is the main "vector" or "carrier" of mental illness from one generation to the next. It can also transfer delusions and mental illness laterally between romantic partners, which I would call folie à marriage.

In the idealized Norman Rockwell view of family life, a man and a woman of good moral character work together to teach their offspring the fine points of responsibility and good behavior, using both their words and their example. In reality, parenting is more often a breeding program for psychopaths and neurotics. People who have no business having children nonetheless produce them and then proceed to turn them, through their unenlightened words and actions, into messed up copies of themselves.

The kid is powerless to resist. For the first few years of life, the power relationship between parent and child is huge. Whatever the child experiences at the hands of the parent he is going to accept as the natural state of the universe. You can go through decades of therapy in adulthood, but you can never really erase those early years.

Folie à deux is the essence of the family, for better or worse. Once people become bonded to each other, they begin to share each other's values and delusions. This is part of the socialization process by which infants with unlimited potential are turned into relatively restricted adults performing limited roles in society.

Folie à deux is also an inevitable effect of any romantic relationship. Any two people who are closely tied to each other are going to start cross-pollinating their ideas and perceptions, not always to good effect. Any mental illness or delusional system in one is going to transfer in some way to the other. If a husband has some kooky ideas, his wife is going to try her best to believe them. So much of her own ego is tied up in her spouse that she may be able to overlook or gloss over some glaring insanities.

Love is usually thought of a uniting the strengths of two people, but often it does the opposite: reinforcing their weaknesses. Delusional ideas expressed by one are absorbed and repeated back by the other, who desperately wants to believe in the person who they have invested in or depend upon. "Of course, you are right dear," says the supportive spouse. The other then takes this as confirmation of his delusional beliefs, and he is now even stronger in holding them.

That is the dark side of attachment: Not only good qualities are transferred from one to the other, but also distorted worldviews and dysfunctional modes of behavior. Violence breeds violence; sex offenders breed sex offenders, and drug addicts breed new drug addicts. If you marry a drug addict, you might not become one yourself, but it is easy to become sucked into enabling the addiction and inadvertently reinforcing it. Deeply entangled relationships often bring loss of control over the other, so that even if one partner can see what is happening they are often unable to do anything about it.

Folie à deux does not necessarily mean that the same mental illness is shared by the two parties. Sometimes the diseases are complimentary, like masochists and sadists reinforcing each other. Even a healthy, mentally sound family member is going to suffer from the stress and lost resources of dealing with a mentally ill member. If one partner is a diagnosed schizophrenic, other family members may know that they are not to blame, but they still face the trauma and depression of dealing with the disease. An otherwise sane adult may also experience the yet-unclassified illness of not being able to do their best at parenting or exercise their normal moral judgment in public because the dysfunctional family member is holding them down or contradicting them.

By definition, folie à deux is reversible. If you remove a young child from a dysfunctional family and place them with a more stable one, they are likely to thrive (until they are returned to the original family again). The same recovery is often possible after divorce or escape from a cult. At a certain point, however, the "induced" mental illness becomes a "native" one and it continues to persist even after the inducer is long gone. After someone has spent his whole childhood in a dysfunctional family, then the illnesses that they donated to him become his own. It is not a "madness of two" anymore but a "madness of one."

Then these people get married and have children, and the cycle starts over again.


Reader Comments

“Excellent observations” — 2/2/07 (rating=4)

“it answerded my questions.” —sharon 2/7/07 (rating=3)

“You hit the nail on the head.” — 3/2/07 (rating=4)

“all lives give part of their own journey and learning of life as they see it. Mistakes happen.” —High school diploma person, and years of mistakes and learning to respect everyone on their own journey in life. mental health in soc service is another cult now alientating parents from children. 12/4/07 (rating=1)

“It totally answered my questions about two family members” —concerned parent 1/11/08 (rating=5)

“Really interesting, but you miss a few things. The real root of these kinds of illness are frequently spiritual. I have seen many people who have been completely cured and liberated from these situations with spiritual counseling, sacramental confession and prayer therapies.” —AnneG 7/23/08 (rating=3)

“i just happened to be trying to remember the name for the madness of two, but this is so the story of my life” —pumpmar 8/12/08 (rating=5)

“Thank you” — 9/24/10 (rating=5)

“Rings true to my own experiences with a schizophrenic ex boyfriend, It makes things that occured alot easier to understand. Thanks” — 12/6/10 (rating=5)

“I thought it was very good, but a bit negative in that it didn't discuss treatment options. reatment options” —Retired Mental Health Social Worker 12/29/10 (rating=3)

“it is absolutely splendid...I'm stunned by it's "right on" precision!” —Gail from Brooklyn 2/24/11 (rating=5)

Ratings so far: 4 4 4 3 0 4 4 1 5 3 5 5 5 3 3 2 5 3 5 5 3 5 4 (Average=3.6)

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