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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Proclamations of the Red Queen

29th February 2008

The Dance of Danielle Pauline (Schreber)

Posted by: Craig Young

Sigmund Freud and his followers labelled Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge, as ’schizophrenic’ and a ‘repressed homosexual.’ However, she may have been a pre-surgical transwoman caught in the wrong body, as well as suffering from schizophrenia. And thanks to Douglas Wright’s ponderings about Schreber and his experiences, which inspired this little piece.

Schreber accepted her vocal and visual hallucinations as everyday behaviour, so she would meet the diagnostic characteristics of schizophrenia. In itself, that does not render her beyond the pale for interested transgender rights advocates. In today’s world, she would have access to antipsychotic medication to deal with her schizophrenic symptoms, which should be disentangled from what sounds remarkably like current DSM IV categories of ‘gender identity disorder.’ I am certainly not implying that all transwomen are “schizophrenic”. Rather, I am dealing with a single influential clinical case, and I do not intend to argue that Schreber was representative of all transwomen.

Why do I regard Daniel Paul Schreber as a possible proto-transwoman? Granted, reassignment surgery was still fifty years or so in the future when she began to perceive herself as gradually, spontaneously transitioning into a woman. In fact, Schreber regarded herself as the ‘Bride of God,’ who verbally abused and insulted her, and wanted to impregnate her. But Schreber was no passive victim, nor was ‘God’ universal ruler. In fact, God could often get tangled in human ‘nerves’ and got confused easily due to its absence of short-term memory. Schreber merrily insulted it back, but specified that she was the only one who was able to do so.

It should be noted that Schreber could still function as a judge, despite her delusional beliefs, which included fantasies of bodily decay and replenishment as ‘God’ remade her into a woman, who underwent orgasmic raptures when she imagined herself in her “divinely appointed” role.

True, Schreber died in an institution, but she was reconciled with what she perceived as her transformed body, however delusional that transformation was. It’s instructive to compare this with Michel Foucault’s autobiographical account of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth century French intersexed woman. Herculine was coerced into accepting a male gender identity after she had been brought up as a female, despite her anomalous genitals. Her new ‘male’ self didn’t work out, and tragically, Herculine committed suicide.

The nineteenth century had different ways of recognising gender and its instabilities, but Schreber might be reclaimed for the transgender community. Why not? Despite her schizophrenia, she believed that she was undergoing spontaneous gender reassignment. Despite her sensory hallucinations and egotistic self-concepts about “divine involvement” in her ‘transition,’ Schreber seems to have been at peace with herself when she died in 1911.

It would be nice to think that in some transgender afterlife paradise, Danielle Pauline Schreber is pirouetting around a celestial ballroom in a resplendent evening gown. It’s what one would wish for her.

Recommended Reading:

Michel Foucault: Herculine Barbin: The Memoirs of A Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite: New York: Pantheon: 1980.

Sigmund Freud: The Schreber Case: Penguin: London: 2003.

Daniel Paul Schreber: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness: New York: Review Books: 2000.

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