Memorial Day BBQ Case Study: Hamburger Hoarding

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The bizarre case of a woman who used to buy 60 pounds of hamburger a day

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Hamburgers are the traditional food of the long Memorial Day weekend, which inaugurates the summer grilling season across the states. Being sort of a strange person, I wondered if the symbolic nature of hamburgers had ever found its way into the psychological case study literature. I mean, it seems there is no end to the list of phobias out there, couldn't someone be afraid of the lowly hamburger?

Well, no, but there's something even stranger reported in a 1966 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: hamburger hoarding. The case study, written by William Bolman and Andy Katz, of the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, is a fine example of the dry high-Freudian language of yore. In fact, if there is one thing stranger than carrying around raw hamburger in your purse, it's the bizarre connections that these psychiatrists made between that practice and cannibalism among the Ojibwa tribe and Cree Eskimos.

"Although it is common to find unusual or bizarre symptoms of behavior in schizophrenic patients, to the best of our knowledge the symptom of hamburger hoarding has not been previously described," they begin. Indeed.

The patient was a 37-year-old white woman who worked as a secretary. She entered psychotherapy in 1952 after developing "rather diffuse phobias, somatic symptoms, and anxiety" after a car accident during which her sister sustained minor injuries. Eight years later, a new things started getting weird.

In 1960, a new symptom developed, the buying and hoarding of large quantities of raw hamburger. The precipitating event again involved the sister, and the onset of the symptom was quite interesting. The week before the sister was to depart on an airplane trip, the patient bought a cooked hot dog, removed it from the bun, and carried it around in her handbag. This was repeated once when the hot dog spoiled, and after this the patient switched to raw hamburger. When asked later she said the hot dog wasn't quite right, the hamburger somehow seemed better.

The therapists note that they "initially reacted to the hot dog symptom with our own fantasy, that it represented a penis, but this missed the mark as badly as the anxiety-hysteria diagnosis of earlier therapists."

The hamburger hoarding narrative continues, but first consider that during the time described, the patient was able to "attend graduate school, obtaining straight As, and to have pleasurable heterosexual relationship which included moderate intimacy."

Once it began, the buying and saving of hamburger was inexorable. For about two years, it remained at two to five pounds a day, and then steadily increased to huge quantities. This increase mainly had to do with the patient's extreme, if not total, inability to manage ambivalence. As the transference began to change from that of ineffectual, passive "talker," her buying of hamburger increased to massive proportions, by her estimate, 60 pounds a day."

The patient would take that hamburger and stuff it into the back of her large, black, hearse-like automobile, which happened to be a replica of her father's. "As she had trouble parting with hamburger, even when it became rotten, it soon became clear that she had converted her father's automobile into a hearse in which she carried his rotting body and to which she gave renewed life in the form of fresh hamburger," they concluded.

When the habit got to the 60 pounds a day, the patient was told that she had to enter a mental hospital. The psychiatrists spin all kinds of stories about why hamburger had assumed such monumental importance in her life. Several episodes in the patients life had "further reinforced" a link between "blood, eating, and mother." But it's unclear that they really knew what they were talking about, at least by modern psychological standards. Take this passage, which follows a discussion of her relatively normal life outside the hamburger stuff.

These behavioral indications of genital psychosexual development were supported by fantasies that contained an oral-sadistic and genital components. For example, in one session late in treatment she associated to hamburger as being meat pushed through a screen, and then from the screen to sand and a summer house in the country, where there were many snakes. Her father used to drive her there in the car, and on the way she reported often seeing squashed snakes.

The psychiatrists also saw in her behavior a cannibalistic urge, though she never expressed the desire to eat the hamburger itself. That's because she told them that one time she had a vision at a market:

After nearly three years of treatment, the patient hesitatingly mentioned a fantasy she had while looking at a supermarket display of hamburger. She felt a sudden impulse to bury her face into this display full of meat and devour it.

They read this memory, along with some other descriptions, as indicative of an "underlying fantasy" that she was "a dangerous, murderous person, a kind of vampire (or Whitico) who killed and devoured people in their sleep."

And that's where the psychiatrists get really bizarre. Apparently, a psychiatrist had noticed that among some of the native groups of the Arctic, there was a condition who sufferers began to see themselves as "Whiticos," cannibalistic monsters "with viscera of ice. The afflicted person may flee his family commit suicide, or be murdered by others in the community." While the patient's case bore little resemblance (at least to me) to the Whitico psychosis, the psychiatrists drew the following link: "The cannibalistic wishes were converted into a more distant symbolic object, hamburger, with which she acted our her ceremonials."

Despite the wacky theories of the psychiatrists, it seems the patient got better. "The patient began to integrate herself, gave up her symptom (after switching from hamburger to bread!), and left the hospital to continue her job while continuing therapy."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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