It would be easy just to gawk at the strangeness of these syndromes, or to dismiss them as unscientific or psychosomatic. Bures doesn’t do that. He carefully considers the relationships between culture, health, the mind, and the body, which can lead people to experience seemingly impossible things.
I spoke to Bures about cultural syndromes, why the United States is not immune from them, and why asking if they’re “real” is the wrong question. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Julie Beck: The way I actually came across the book was, I guess a copy got mailed to The Atlantic and I was in our kitchen where we keep books and another editor held it up and was like "Well, this is a subtitle."
Frank Bures: [Laughs]
Beck: So I took it back to my desk because, well, that is titillating, and it turned it out that it circles around literally everything I’m interested in—belief, culture, stories, how all of those things affect our experiences. So I don’t know what the process was for trying to pick a title for this.
Bures: It was slightly random yes, but it worked, anyway, it gets people to pick up the book. So that’s the whole idea.
Beck: It’s not wrong—it does begin and end with magical penis theft. How much of your life have you spent looking into that condition?
Bures: A long time, I first read about it in the BBC in 2001 and I sort of filed those [cases] away and but I couldn’t get them out of my mind. So I just kept researching it little by little until I had to actually go there. Those things are so hard to research from afar, I really wanted to talk to somebody who’d experienced it and find out what is it like. It’s something we can’t really have in our culture because we don’t believe in the things that underlie them.
Beck: By giving it the designation of “culture-bound syndrome,” does that imply that it is a made-up condition or is it treated as “real?”
Bures: That’s always been the issue with the culture-bound syndromes. In the DSM-V they call them cultural syndromes, putting them in an appendix at the back, which implies that they’re not real. Whereas the ones in the main text of the book are real. Putting the ones in the back, saying these are from other cultures implies that those are less real or not real.
Beck: It seemed like most people you talked to were saying that these syndromes weren’t real, that people just believed in them because they were uneducated, and they tended to go away once people became more educated. And even people in the places where these syndromes used to be common were telling you this. This suggests that these syndromes are just a product of ignorance, which seems rude and overly simplistic. Why do you think people think that way?
Bures: That’s a good question, I don’t really know. That’s kind of the larger narrative of Westernization—that once we get the correct science and the correct view of things that these old primitive beliefs will all go away. And I tried to challenge that in my book because I don’t think that’s correct exactly.