Sometimes, over dinner, my great–grandfather, professor of anatomy at the University of O—, would describe to his wife the fruits of his most recent research. According to my great–grandmother's diaries, the Professor frequently became so absorbed in the subject which most exercised him, the structure and formation of the human brain, that he would begin to illustrate his points by arranging the food on the table in front of him. My great–grandfather would rise from his chair and, using a fork to pin down a side of lamb, a joint of pork, or a chicken, proceed to make expert incisions demonstrating the location of the cerebellum, the temporal lobe, or the medulla oblongata. A variety of vegetables, appropriately dismembered, might be added to dramatise the presence of special features, a tumour perhaps, or an evolutionary quirk. The monologues, rich in Latin terms and other archaicisms, continued for a number of minutes despite—if the diaries are to be believed—my great–grandmother's vocal protestations. Once finished he would sit in silence for a few moments, sipping wine and staring thoughtfully at the transmuted items on the table in front of him, before picking up his knife and fork and returning to his dinner with renewed vigour. On one evening, 5 August 1897, when my great–grandmother had returned to her room with a violently disturbed stomach, the diaries note: "Yet again the Professor's inability to leave his obsessions behind in the laboratory ruined a perfectly good meal. During his lecture I was tempted to describe to him in detail the results of my own extensive research into the anatomical curiosities and unusual proclivities of his faculty colleagues. I refrained only because of our daughter's presence at the dinner table and because I believe such information would do little to diminish my husband's appetite."
The diaries came into my possession six months ago on the death of my grandmother at the age of 101. In her will she bequeathed to me, her only granddaughter, a small sum of money and the thirteen volumes bound in red leather, presumably passed on to her by her own mother and eventually found mouldering in a box in the attic of her house. Somewhat miffed that the Victorian chaise longue I had coveted ever since I had played on it as a child had gone to a distant aunt, and that I would have to be contented with a merely sentimental gift, I dumped the box in a remote corner of my study. There it quickly became engulfed in books and papers, destined to be rediscovered only at some point in the distant future, perhaps upon my own death. I continued working on an essay, "The Fantastic Vagina: Sigmund Freud and the Narratives of Edgar Allan Poe," that I was writing for an American publication.
Then, a few weeks later, in an uncanny coincidence of timing, I received a phone call from a man introducing himself as Mr. H. G. Sutphen, secretary of Amicorum Cerologicorum, a society dedicated to "the appreciation and exploration of the ideas of Professor Frederick Zoosa, your great–grandfather." In a voice so frail, dusty, and formal that it might have been calling from another century, he invited me to attend, as honorary guest, an annual lunch held to honour the Professor's work. He had tracked me down through the unusual family name and with the help of a computer-literate niece. "Modern technology," he said, "wonderful thing . . ."
I was aware that my great–grandfather had been an academic of obscure interests. When I began my doctorate a number of relations, embarrassed by my field of study and desperate for something relevant to say, alluded to him as my professional predecessor. No one, however, seemed clear as to what these interests might have been, nor apparently were they very interested. Family lore had it simply that he was "rather eccentric"—a description they no doubt now applied to me—and he was otherwise a forgotten figure.
I gently declined Sutphen's offer and, after putting down the phone, continued work on my essay. Later that evening, however, when the final corrections were complete, I discovered that my interest had been piqued. I unearthed the box, sat down, and opened the first volume of the diaries.
In 1895—about three years after the birth of his daughter Alice—my great–grandfather, a precocious young professor, published a study entitled Cerology: Steps Toward a Science of Character
. He claimed to have come across this new field by accident while pursuing his more general research. He had, the Professor said, begun to notice certain correlations between what was known about the donors of the brains he was examining and the brains themselves. Following this intuition, he had set up a project to chart the features of over one thousand laboratory brains against detailed biographical information. In an introduction to the study, the Professor stated the basic tenets of his theory:
The brain is the organ of the mind. The mind is composed of multiple, distinct, and innate faculties which can be divided into the desirable and the undesirable, e.g., on the one hand, Benevolence, Virtue, Piety, and on the other, Mendacity, Madness, Sloth. The presence and proliferation of these faculties is represented by the brain's readily apparent physical properties—shape, size, colour, temperature, density, and odour. Therefore, examination of the exposed brain allows straightforward and accurate assessment of these faculties and, when properly analysed, can be used to construct a complete and scientific portrait of the character of the deceased.
The study went on to establish a set of guidelines—"the Index to Character," he called it—which could accurately predict anything from temperament to social class to the subject's predisposition toward criminal behaviour. Much of the second half of the study was taken up by a comprehensive list of the "multiple, distinct, and innate faculties" and their corresponding physical manifestations. For example, a brain with a dullish purple tinge, an apparent enlargement of the left lateral ventricle, and a faint but detectable odour of cabbage was, the Professor alleged, conclusive evidence of a subject's proneness to bouts of melancholia and morbidity. Extensive appendices contained charts, logarithmic tables, and elaborate diagrams that allowed the cross-referencing of different faculties and provided the means to arrive at a "precise and nuanced" analysis.
Many of his colleagues at the university expressed astonishment that the well-regarded Professor had taken such an alarming turn into a field which had long been the preserve of quacks and cranks and gentleman amateurs and which, they said, was better suited to fairground tents and freak shows than to academia. In a letter to The Anatomist
, one eminent figure even went so far as to question the Professor's mental health, quipping, "It seems reasonable to wonder what an examination of Professor Zoosa's own brain might reveal."
My great–grandfather, however, was unrepentant, writing in return that "any apparent resemblance to the popular practices of Phrenology, Craniology, and Physiognomy, which are no more than pseudoscience and mumbo-jumbery, is entirely erroneous. My colleagues have failed to look at the substance of the research and have instead drawn conclusions based on their own prejudices and competitive jealousies."
All of this is a matter of public record. A visit to the university archives where my great–grandfather's papers are kept, a survey of the scientific literature of the period, a useful bibliography provided in the online journal of Amicorum Cerologicorum—it did not take much to unravel the details of the Professor's career. However, perhaps the fullest and most interesting insight to the story—what you might call an alternative history—and which until now has been unknown to all but the protagonists, comes from the diaries of my great–grandmother, Nancy Zoosa.
The diaries begin on 25 September 1891, the day after her marriage to my great–grandfather, and were written conscientiously every evening in red ink and a handwriting style weighted with baroque swirls, loops, and tails. They end abruptly and without warning on 6 November 1904. From the outset Nancy's interest in her husband's work, what she called "his brains," seems to have been minimal. When it is mentioned it is normally in a tone of mocking condescension, with the implication that men will be men and must be allowed their proud dreams of leaving a mark on the world. Instead, the greater part of the diaries concentrate on giving a full and, even by modern standards, remarkably frank account of her sexual exploits during the period of her married life.
Perhaps because she was bored, or because she was neglected by her hardworking husband—or perhaps for neither reason—Nancy began to develop an increasingly exotic appetite for carnal gratification in all its forms. In often pungent language the diaries record the details of numerous encounters—some engineered, but more often spontaneous. They include the occasional sketch to illuminate her descriptions, and a number of terms and expressions that either are of her own invention or have since fallen into disuse.
To a large extent her partners and accomplices, both men and women, were those with whom she came into contact socially via her life as an academic's wife, from an emeritus professor of antiquities ("remarkable stamina") to the Professor's own research assistant ("spirited but clumsy"). One entry, for 21 June 1895, a few weeks before the publication of the seminal paper, records the Professor's inopportune return from his laboratory to my great–grandparents' house.
Having completed a late breakfast of toast and kippers, I was enjoying the attentions of the cook when the Professor stepped into the drawing room, apparently looking for something he had forgotten or mislaid. Although I could see my husband clearly from my reclining position on the chaise longue, the young man's eyes were focussed elsewhere, and his ears were powerfully muffled, and he therefore did not pause in his—surprisingly adept—investigations. It was not shock on the Professor's face, but he stood for some moments or even minutes by the door bearing a most inscrutable expression before picking up the file he had returned for and leaving the room.
Contrary to the obscurity that many had predicted for him, in the few years following his initial study the Professor found his ideas taken up by a motley collection of maverick scientists, thinkers, and political factions. If the varying agendas of his new allies—an unlikely mixture of the progressive, the reactionary, and the hare-brained—troubled him, his papers do not record it. The website of Amicorum Cerologicorum provides biographies of many of these supporters, among them "spiritualist and inventor" Godfrey Hallberg, who had become infamous for his proposal to "construct, for the purposes of travel and commerce, a tunnel linking the south coast of England to Continental Europe." Then, in 1899, the University of C—, arch-rival of my great–grandfather's current employer (and with a reputation as a centre for radical thought), offered to create for him a professorship in the field he himself had discovered.
Soon after my great–grandparents' arrival in C— it became clear that, by "happy accident," the university's radical agenda was matched by an enlightened attitude toward sexual habit. "It is most refreshing," notes a diary entry one week after their arrival, "to find such an intellectual openness toward fornication, even if the scholars do not always complete the transition from theory into practice successfully." It is hard to gauge the Professor's own attitude toward this permissive environment, except what might be speculated on the basis of his later actions. The diaries omit any mention of marital conjugation, beyond a passing reference in the very first entry to "the disappointments of my wedding night" (which, nevertheless, produced my grandmother). It is unclear whether this was because it had ceased to take place or because Nancy regarded the act occurring within the sanctity of wedlock as too banal to merit recording.
In C— the Professor was soon consumed by his work, publishing a paper that listed a number of additional faculties within the brain and their corresponding physical manifestations—all undesirable—among them: vanity, venality, and vulgarity. Nancy pursued her own distractions. Meanwhile, Alice, their only child, was growing into a happy, healthy girl. The diaries note that in contrast to my great–grandfather's aloofness toward his wife, he was not a distant parent. Striking a begrudging note, Nancy wrote: "The Professor, despite his characteristic coldness and pomposity, demonstrates a surprising tenderness toward his daughter. When he plays with her and teases her, it is possible to see traces of the human feeling that is at almost all other times absent. It is clear that he is moved by her guilelessness and innocence, although of course she is growing up fast and will not be a child forever. On the whole, however, he still prefers the company of his brains to that of his family." In the evenings the Professor returned to his study, leaving his wife and daughter to sit by the fire in the drawing room where, while my grandmother drew childish pictures and wrote in notebooks, her mother would leaf through books of drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, which she confessed to finding "so delightful," or lose herself in the verse and novels of various French writers of the period.
"I would like," the Professor began the University of C—'s 1901 lecture for The Furtherment of the Public Understanding of Science, "to say a little more about the physical properties of the brain and the relative implications for the behaviour and character of the individual." The Professor pulled on some curtain cords to reveal an enlarged scientific drawing of a human brain. "Here, for example," he said, pointing at the image with a cane, "is the brain of a man convicted of stealing a crate of herring and various other minor offences. We can see a flattening of the anterior horn. There is a small depression here in the substantia corticalis. On initial examination the brain also gave off a strong metallic odour. All of this is consistent with a life of petty thievery and common fraud. However," he went on, "it is in fact the case that in the most fundamental areas this brain differs only superficially from the brain of a normal, that is to say law-abiding and socially well-adjusted, individual."
Then, in what according to contemporary newspaper accounts appeared to be a carefully choreographed moment, the Professor paused to put on some laboratory gloves while an assistant wheeled out a trolley upon which sat a large glass jar. Inside the jar a brain could be seen floating murkily in a viscous orange fluid. One eyewitness described how, still rocking from the movement of the trolley, the brain would emerge every few seconds to bounce gently against the glass. "Here," the Professor said, abruptly unstopping the jar and retrieving the brain, "we have something quite different—the brain of a man convicted and hung for treason and other crimes of the most serious nature." He walked to the front of the podium holding the brain aloft. Fluid dripped from it, observers noted, and ran down the lengths of my great–grandfather's gloves. He turned it around so that his audience might view its various aspects. "Even to the unscientific eye," my great–grandfather went on, "radical differences from the archetypal brain are immediately evident, almost as if it belonged to a different species—an interesting debate we will not delay ourselves with here. The squared-off rather than gently curved contours, the excessively swollen frontal lobe that finds expression in the abnormally high forehead, the scaly appearance of the organ's surface, and the sharp tang of mustard that even now greets the nostrils: all these are evidence of chronic deviancy, a man, were he not already dead, entirely without hope of rehabilitation."
The onstage drama produced murmurings of both assent and unease from the gathered audience. However, Nancy, who was sitting in the front row, does not seem to have been paying close attention. She remarked in the diaries that evening: "The Professor's lecture went on interminably. I drew some satisfaction from observing the ranks of the cultivated and respectable, some of them well known to me. Their moustaches waxed to an absurd and improbable stiffness, their bodies contorted into poses of earnest concentration, I could not help but think of them as so many beasts dressed up to be men, their true natures scratching and inflamed underneath their heavy suits, constrictive collars, and pressed shirts." As I turned to read this entry for the first time, a folded piece of paper fluttered out. It was a copy of the programme for the lecture, on the rear of which were a series of sketches that, though crudely done, were unmistakable as representations of male genitalia. Above each sketch was the scrawled name of an individual, many of whom are known to have been present in the hall. Below the sketches was written one sentence enclosed in quotation marks: "It is unequivocally true to say that the differing sizes and shapes have a direct relationship with the kind and degree of pleasure produced." Whether these approximations were based on personal enquiry, or simply her undoubtedly vivid imagination, it is not possible to say.
"I am obliged at this stage," the Professor continued, having laid the brain back on the trolley, "to admit to a mistake in my original formulations. At that time I had concluded, somewhat hastily and in the belief that I could not have stumbled quite by accident on a discovery of such astonishing significance, that these physical properties of the brain acted as a reflection, if you like, a map, of the different human faculties. However, my research has now led me to precisely the opposite conclusion. The physical properties exist prior to, and in fact govern, the expression of these faculties." The Professor picked the brain up from the trolley. "I have established absolutely," he said, "that antisocial behaviour is caused by physical abnormality." He paused to survey his audience. "I need hardly say that the implications of this are dramatic."
At this point a great fuss broke out among the audience. There was heckling. A woman vomited into her lap, and an elderly man shouted a stream of abuse before fainting in the aisle and having to be carried from the hall. Amidst the fracas the Professor stood unmoved at the front of the stage, still holding the brain aloft, the orange fluid gathering in a puddle at his feet.
The professor had become energetic in the public promotion of his work. Encouraged by his supporters, he began to extend the scope of his theories beyond the purely scientific. He was mocked by many who worked in other disciplines, but there were those, internal university documents reveal, who were alarmed at the wide sympathy his views attracted and were no longer sure whether to find him ridiculous or dangerous.
There was no thaw in relations between my great–grandparents. They ate evening meals in silence, sitting far apart at opposite ends of the dining table. The Professor took to reading books, journals, and newspapers as they ate, apparently scouring them for mention of himself or his work and muttering or exclaiming at what he found. Afterward he would retire to his study or the laboratory he had created in the basement of the house. Nancy, for her part, had begun developing ideas, in the form of sketches and descriptions in her diaries, for a range of sexual positions based on the shapes and actions of musical instruments. Having by accident—during an interval between the third and fourth movements of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
and with the assistance of the vice-chancellor's wife— arrived at what she called "the tuba," she began to experiment with models for the oboe, violin, and trumpet. In an entry for 19 December 1902, she declared her intention to "document and personally execute a position for every instrument in the orchestra—a symphony of pleasure, if you will." While some of these positions are relatively conventional, differing only in detail from the mainstream, in other cases I am obliged to salute my ancestor's athleticism and spirit of adventure.
Of Alice at this time, the diaries note:
She is ten years old now and is developing, as has been noted with approval by others, and to my own relief, far more in the mould of her mother than in the image of the Professor. However, my husband and our daughter remain as close as ever. They have, at his suggestion, been taking long walks in the hills and forests of the local countryside. I have been able to glean little about what transpires on these walks except that the Professor speaks to her of the natural world and its scientific mysteries with the knowledge and passion that once, although it seems a lifetime ago, endeared him to me. Also, she says, he asks her questions and then listens carefully to her responses. As to the nature of these questions she will not be drawn. On their return the Professor's perennially grey and stony countenance is instead pinkish from the country air and appears softened with traces of pleasure or satisfaction. It is not long, however, before he disappears once more into the laboratory.
By 1904 the Professor claimed to have identified absolute and significant differences between the male and female brains, and the brains of different races. He had also determined, as he wrote in his notes and underlined heavily, that "most, if not all, abnormalities are inherited." His supporters, who liked to mention my great–grandfather's name in the same breath as Darwin or Marx, were many of them men of wealth and influence—industrialists, philanthropists, politicians, artists. Nancy, who seems to have remained entirely indifferent to the storm blowing around her husband, described a reception held in order to announce the convening of Amicorum Cerologicorum.
28 August 1904. The Professor was in his element, full of smiles and bonhomie, a sight quite as gruesome and disturbing as anything his critics might accuse him of. Our daughter, her presence requested by the Professor himself, wandered through the room carrying trays of canapés and hors d'oeuvres and attracting the complimentary words and glances of the assembled guests. They were not a promising bunch, red-faced and overfed sycophants, hanging on the Professor's every word. The evening dragged profoundly and I found myself trapped in a windowless corner between the twittering pomposities of the vice-chancellor and, not for the first time, the predatory intentions of Gilbert Sutphen, the wet-lipped mayor of C—. In my boredom I fell to idly arranging a plate of food in such a way that it presented an image of edible coitus. It was almost a relief when I saw that the Professor had moved to the centre of the room and was addressing his guests. "It is, I admit, a utopian vision," he intoned in his new afected style. "We are not ashamed of being utopians. Crime, political unrest, juvenile delinquency, antisocial behaviour of all kinds. We can treat these problems before they occur. There will be no need for the inexact methods or false comforts of law and order, psychiatry, or religion." The Professor paused and beckoned to Alice, standing at the back of the room. The guests parted to let her through, their eyes ranging over her as she walked toward her father. "Throughout history," the Professor said, taking her under his arm, "individuals have been left to suffer at the hands of their abnormal behaviours and debased desires. Many would seem to prefer that it remained so. And yet we would not let a lunatic suffer in this way, or indeed a horse that was lame, or a dog afflicted with the mange. You would not deprive it of treatment to relieve its pain. It is vested interests who oppose our aims—the judges, doctors, and priests whose status and authority depend on the perpetuation of unnecessary evils. Imagine, gentlemen, the society we could create. Imagine the society we could create for our children." During the Professor's speech I had become aware of something stuck in my throat, part of the collage of food that I had previously created. I began to cough and choke, and the mayor slapped me on the back and then helped me to the door. The Professor, meanwhile, had gone back to mingling with his guests and was oblivious to my discomfort. Alice had disappeared. Still coughing fitfully I asked the mayor to accompany me into the garden. After a few minutes I began to feel somewhat recovered and there, under the boughs of the lime tree, and with the complicity of the mayor himself, I was able finally to expedite the contortions necessary for "the bassoon," thereby completing the symphony and somewhat redeeming the evening.
Tucked inside the back cover of the thirteenth and only half-completed volume of the diaries is a photograph of my great–grandparents. On the reverse, in Nancy's handwriting, is written simply "The Wedding." She is sitting in the centre of the picture while the Professor stands to the right, one hand gripping the top of her chair. The pose, with its vase of flowers and table of ornaments, is stiff and formally arranged but Nancy appears relaxed. Only nineteen, dark haired, liquid eyed, and with the small bright red mouth I have inherited in common with all the women of the family, she looks directly into the camera with an expression of ironic amusement. My great–grandfather appears as uncomfortable as she is at ease. He seems to have been in receipt of an uncompromising haircut and, although he was nearly ten years older than his wife, his posture and features have the awkward rawness of an adolescent. He is looking away from the camera, frowning slightly, preoccupied.
There is little to remark upon in the last volume of Nancy's diaries between the evening of the symphony's completion and the diaries' sudden cessation three months later. The final entry is itself innocuous. "A day of reading and relaxation," Nancy wrote. "The doctor came around by appointment in the afternoon to perform his regular examination. He commented that the Professor's daughter, who opened the door to him, is becoming a comely young girl and inquired as to whether she had begun her womanly cycle. The Professor himself has not been seen for days, as he is preparing for another public lecture to be given at the University tomorrow evening. I daresay I will be obliged to be there in body, if not in spirit."
Despite the diaries' silence, the scenes in the University's main hall on 7 November 1904 can be easily recreated from court records: my great–grandfather's appearance on the lecture hall stage to warm applause; the introductory remarks regarding the perfection of new surgical techniques; the screen set up to one side of the stage and eventually removed to reveal a body, that of his twelve-year-old daughter, lying heavily sedated on the operating table. The lecture, if it can be called that, never got underway. It is clear that the authorities had prior intelligence as to my great–grandfather's intentions, for as he pulled on his apron and gloves and instructed his assistant to pass him a scalpel, a dozen or so plainclothed policemen swarmed onto the stage. The testimony of several witnesses describes how, at this point, realising that his career was about to reach a premature climax, the Professor brandished the scalpel in an unambiguous fashion and turned to meet his assailants. This last image, however, I tend to attribute to the excitability and rather gothic imagination of these observers, for I believe my great–grandfather was not, at heart, a violent man. Indeed, there is no clear evidence of a descent into this kind of farce, nor of any blood being spilt, and I think it more likely that he allowed himself to be led peacefully from the building. Amid the drama, Alice herself seems to have been forgotten. Contemporary accounts make no further mention of her and I can only assume that she continued to lie there, drugged, on the operating table, blissfully unaware of her narrow escape, no more or less innocent than any sleeping child.
Months later at his trial, the Professor's lecture notes, recovered from the hall at the time of the raid, were quoted in evidence against him. They make uncomfortable reading. "Until the present time we have been confined to drawing conclusions about the character of the deceased. Now, with the advances gained from research and experimentation, we can examine the living brain and, more significantly, we can operate to eradicate the cancer of abnormal behaviour." The notes—I can hardly bare to read them—anticipate the findings of the operation that was never carried out. "An inflamed occipital lobe, governing sexual impulse . . . the atrophied semiovale, seat of moral sensibility . . . the telltale whiff of ammonia."
My great–grandfather did not go to prison. He insisted throughout the trial—and right up until his death—that he had been attempting to heal my grandmother of an affliction that would otherwise scar her life, and the judge accepted his lawyer's plea of diminished responsibility. He was instead confined to a Swiss sanatorium where he continued his scientific studies, publishing papers on the unusual pollination habits of a particular mountain wildflower,
Zoosa, which to this day bears his name.
The operation that my great–grandfather intended to perform, had it gone ahead, would almost certainly have lobotomised his daughter, perhaps condemning her to the kind of imbecilic innocence that his vision seemed to favour. Alice is dead now and unable to answer questions about her childhood or the events that dramatically marked its end. Presumably she had read her mother's diaries. I can only guess at her intentions in passing them on to me.
In the melee following the Professor's arrest, Nancy's reaction—for she was undoubtedly present in the hall—goes unrecorded. Within two years, however, she had divorced the Professor and was married again, to the heir of an American railroad fortune who brought Alice up as his own child. Did Nancy continue the promiscuous habits of her first marriage? In the absence of further testimony there is no way of knowing, but I prefer to think that she did. Regardless, the diaries are her legacy. Now that my research is complete I intend to publish an illustrated edition of my great–grandmother's Symphony
, both for its value as a historical document and—I can vouch for this personally—the benefits of its application.
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