“The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes” is a book that challenges not a few assumptions. And Frank Bures is a writer for whom nothing is weird.
To research the book, seasoned traveler Bures criss-crosses the globe to probe the relationship between people’s physical experiences and their beliefs, ideas and narratives. He starts in Nigeria, where as late as the 21st century, various men’s penises had been stolen and the suspected thieves killed by mobs. He goes to China, where a group of about 60 school boys experienced penis-disappearance in 2004 (but no one was punished for causing it). He talks to dozens of people connected to the events, some of them victims. He studies hundreds of texts illuminating how different cultures understand the causes of maladies.
He examines how beliefs and ideas come into being. The book includes extensive research and the description of many, many studies done in the medical and social sciences, such as one that demonstrates that babies as young as 6 months have a sense of causality; it’s natural for human beings to see one thing as caused by another. As people grow up in a culture, their ideas of what-causes-what are shaped by the stories of that group. But the perception may not be “true.” In an interview, Bures said, “It’s easy not to look into the accuracy of your causal perception.” You might think he’s only talking about penis theft and voodoo death, for example, but he’s talking about ailments in Western culture as well.
In the book I understand him to say that humans are so intertwined, in ways that science has yet to explain—as scientists continue to study what a culture truly is—that it is perfectly possible for carpal tunnel syndrome or depression or penis theft to spread throughout a group of people, causing people real pain, suffering and discomfort. His description of studies about pain killers and placebos, showing the relationship between pain, pain medication and trust in the caregiver, is especially captivating.
Supporting his scientific discussion, Bures weaves in poetic, essay-like passages; searing, open-hearted autobiographical introspection (about his own culture shock, becoming a writer, a family tragedy, his brother’s conversion and his beloved wife and children); and a vivid travelogue.
One of my favorite travel moments was having a Raffles beer from the Seven Eleven sitting on the steps of the quay in Singapore looking out over the water and watching a laser light show. You go with him and hear his many conversations teetering on the edge of language barriers. You hear him talking with people who run health shops in markets, or with doctors and researchers in hospitals. You meet hip, young interpreters and ride along on assorted modes of transportation. When he defuses dangerous and difficult situations, we see how easily Bures is at home in the world.
Continuing in the line of the New Journalism that began in the ’60s and ’70s, Bures tells a personal story. He says, “It’s easier for the reader if you [the writer] can be a character in the story—and it’s easier for the writer if they’re good at it.” Clearly many readers (and editors) have already been convinced that Bures is good at it (google his bibliography).
For him, writing is about finding out what he needs to know. When he finds out, he lets you know what you also need to know but were hitherto unaware. By writing in first person he pulls the reader into the urgency of his quest. If you enjoy the stories in this work of narrative nonfiction, as Bures calls the genre, be sure to read the stories in the footnotes as well.
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Frank Bures has his writing studio in our Southside Pride office quarters. We see him fixing coffee and microwaving his leftovers from home. We make small talk. He’s witty and makes jokes at lunch. We’ve known his book was in the works for a long time and have been saying,“Yay, Frank!! Go, Frank!!” a lot. Now that his first book is out, I would like to recommend it heartily to all our readers—and not necessarily because we like Frank but because it’s a very substantially good book.