Losing our Heads

I bet you didn’t know that I’m a double Pisces, an astrological term for someone who has their sun and moon in the same sign.  I only know this obscure bit of information because I went through a brief, slightly embarrassing period in high school when Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and Parker’s Astrology were my sacred texts.  When I was 16 I actually ordered my birth chart and had it sent in the mail, a bland document which arrived in an ordinary envelope with a typed list of planets and signs.  I had been hoping for something more spectacular, something with an embossed sketch of Saturn or a unicorn, at the very least some written reassurance that I’d been born with a good astral mix.  Instead, I found myself staring at the words on my chart with the same perplexity that I stared at myself in the mirror.

I think what drew me to astrology as a teenager was my fascination with people.  As an insecure teenager I was not only interested in my compatibility with the boy in my biology class who I fancied in secret, I also wanted to know about the nature of people, what made one person awkward and  another person talkative and confident.  I never doubted that the way I perceived people was the way that they were.  I just wanted to know how the whole thing worked. 

Interestingly, I came across a strange exhibit in the wood panelled library of the Scottish National Portrait Society that got me thinking about the flaws of human perception.  In the library there were two glass cases on opposite sides of the room, both of them displaying the plaster casts of people who’d lived at least 200 years ago.  The first case had twelve well known artists, poets and statesmen: Felix Mendelssohn, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge…  I spent a long time looking at Keats who looked peaceful, his features surprisingly feminine.  His face had apparently been cast from life.

In the display case on the other side of the room I was shocked to find three shelves of murderers, though none of the names seemed familiar.  What struck me when I first looked at them was how normal they appeared.  I found myself looking for physical attributes that tied them together, crooked noses, deep eye sockets, strong jaws, fleshy lips.  The more I stared at them, the more vulnerable they became. Frozen in plaster, closing their eyes tight against the memory of what was probably their very worst mistake, they appeared to be more human than monster no matter how hard I tried to scare myself with the imagined details of their crimes. 

One murderer at the top of the case had had his face cast from life, which begged the question: Who had been given the task of coating murderers, both dead and alive, in plaster?  After questioning a tartan-clad museum attendant I was handed a booklet of information.  Apparently all of these life and death masks had been part of a collection formed in the early nineteenth century by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. 

Phrenologists believed they could discover the function of different parts of the brain by studying the bumps on the head.  After dividing the brain into regions, they assigned particular mental characteristics to different areas of the skull.  A person with a particularly bad temper, for example, might have a larger than average brow.    In its heyday in the 1820’s and 30’s, it was common practice for employers to ask prospective employees to be assessed by a phrenologist, presumably so they could be assured the new cook or clerk didn’t have an enlarged bump proving his propensity for stealing or deception. 

I found one account of a seven year old girl whose future prospects were being assessed by the bumps on her head.  Nature versus nurture did not enter the equation.  Most phrenologists believed that your ‘type’ was fixed at birth.   It wasn’t much of a leap, then, to assume phrenology had the power to predict the degree of success you would have in the future and the nature of the mistakes you would inevitably make.  By the end of the 19th century phrenologists were grouped with fortune tellers and clairvoyants, having never been taken seriously by the scientific community.

In order to bolster what they considered an established scientific theory, the phrenologists needed heads to examine. And thus they began to compile an impressive collection of plaster casts.  There were particular ‘types’ of people who were sought after: poets, musicians, murderers, doctors, lawyers.  One of the few female casts on display was labelled: female of cunning, a label which made me both laugh and shiver at the same time.  Presumably females capable of deception all had the same pronounced bump and were to be avoided at all costs.  (I’ve kept this bump well hidden from my husband!)

What astounds me about phrenology and astrology and so many other types of pseudoscience is the presumption they make about the human personality, that it is fixed and inflexible, something which can be summed up in an arbitrary list of traits,  something capable of being fully known.  I used to read about Pisceans in my books, astonished at how accurately I was being described.  I assumed that the traits that didn’t fit would show up later in my life.  I made allowances for the holes in the theory.

But the danger of labelling ourselves, or worse of being labelled by someone else, is that we carry around those beliefs like weights.  We tell ourselves: I am a shy person.  I am a loud person.  I am a negative person.  The more we tell ourselves that this is so, the more it becomes the truth, and the truth is a very dangerous thing when it is based on something as slippery as human perception.

Unfortunately I will never know exactly who I am.  Perhaps it is out there waiting to be discovered, or maybe it is like a vapour cupped in my hands.  If, in centuries to come, a plaster cast of my face makes its way into a museum, I hope the caption will read: a life too beautiful and complex to be fixed in words.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Losing our Heads

  1. Dad

    Great Blog….. After all these years, I am still learning things about my daughter… Amazing!!

  2. Sue

    I am scared that this is how some jurors work – studying defendants’ faces for signs of guilt.

  3. Andrew O'Hara

    I have a 5cm groove on my forehead. I was told once – by a women in a pointy hat – it was the cause of my lifelong naughtiness. Or maybe I was just born groovy.

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