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Saints and Madmen: How Science Got Religion

Saints and Madmen: How Science Got Religion

by Russell Shorto
Russell Shorto’s engrossing look at the ever-changing border between psychiatric disorders and religious revelation
In Saints and Madmen, bestselling author Russell Shorto explains how modern science is beginning to reconcile centuries of religious experiences with current psychiatric theories. Psychotic patients sometimes believe they’re


Russell Shorto’s engrossing look at the ever-changing border between psychiatric disorders and religious revelation
In Saints and Madmen, bestselling author Russell Shorto explains how modern science is beginning to reconcile centuries of religious experiences with current psychiatric theories. Psychotic patients sometimes believe they’re developing mystical powers, speaking to animals or conversing with God during their episodes. As one patient said, psychosis can be life’s greatest joy, and also its worst hell. Traditional psychiatry has approached the existence of these occurrences as a treatable medical problem, a case of unbalanced chemicals in the brain. But could it be more?  In Saints and Madmen, Shorto writes about the scientists who reject the Freudian view of religious experience as narrow-minded, and shows us how their findings could change how we understand our own minds and spirits.

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Saints and Madmen

How Science Got Religion

By Russell Shorto


Copyright © 1999 Russell Shorto
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-6591-8


The New Psychotics

Consider that you are in God, surrounded and encompassed by God, swimming in God.


Space is the place.


The cracking open of Joshua Beil's world began on a thick August day in 1996, in New York's Central Park. Actually, depending on how you figure these things, it could have started at the beginning of that summer. No one knows why a large percentage of what psychiatrists call psychotic episodes occur at the coming-of-age stage of life—late teens to early twenties—but one guess is that the unhinging of one's sense of reality is in these cases related to that first significant severing of connection to home and parents. Going out on your own, planting your identity in new soil, giving it new air to breathe, a chance to grow in new directions, not necessarily the straight-up path your parents encouraged but maybe sidewinding, maybe forgoing the air altogether and burrowing down, exploring the soil itself—such wild freedom may be just too much for some psyches.

In Joshua's case there was an extra dose of disorientation. He had been born and raised in Honolulu, where body-boarding, pottery, and Bob Marley were his major interests. The only other part of the world he knew was the even more laid-back surf town of Santa Cruz, California, where he had spent his first two years of college at U.C. Santa Cruz. But his father thought he could do with a bit of real-world experience, so he arranged a summer internship at Citibank in New York City. Out of filial duty, Joshua went along with the plan, but the new environment was almost overwhelming; he had never been to the East Coast, and the throbbing, broiling, stiff-necked skyscraper cauldron of Midtown Manhattan was like another planet. He had no friends in the city, no points of contact with anything he knew, and the pin-striped account jockeys that surrounded him might as well have been zoo creatures.

On that day in August, his wandering around the city landed him in Central Park. He was wearing sandals and had cut his foot; he asked someone nearby if he happened to have a bandage. In answer, the fellow handed him a rolling paper. Joshua grinned and said thanks, whereupon the stranger gave him a shaka, a waggle of the thumb and little finger, the Hawaiian "be cool" sign. They began talking; the guy had been to Hawaii. Joshua fell in with the young man, whom we will call Alan, and who turned out to be "temporarily homeless and temporarily unemployed." He had an interesting potential business, though, selling quartz crystals, which he said he had mined himself. He took Joshua to a truck; indeed, the back was filled with crystals. He just needed a little money to get things off the ground. Joshua loaned him two hundred dollars. He was beginning to feel a little light-headed. "Let's go clubbing tonight," Alan said.

They ended up at Wetlands, a downtown club that showcased world music. Late in the evening, after a few drinks and a modest amount of marijuana, Joshua found himself in a separate room in which a "drumming circle" was taking place. He picked up a drum and joined in. And then it happened. He doesn't know how much time passed, but he began to feel part of the rhythm, that he was the rhythm, that he was carrying the whole drumming circle. Very quietly, as if tiptoeing across an unnoticed line, his personality unhinged.

Standing outside the door of his apartment building at four o'clock that morning, he noticed a shadow on the back of his hand. As he watched, it took the form of a falcon. Then the falcon flapped its wings and transformed into a bear, then a bull. He was mildly astonished, and went inside to get a better look at himself. In his apartment, he saw a "rainbow of electrical beams" shooting through his palm. He held his arms out to the sides and watched light pass through his body. He examined his mood, and realized that he felt exhilarated and wonderfully peaceful at the same time. He had enough attachment to reality to understand that something unusual was going on, but he felt sure—and continues to this day to be sure—that he wasn't delusional. "These were not hallucinations," he said, "because I definitely saw them." Instead, he had the strong impression that this was "the beginning of some sort of enlightenment process."

Hold it right there. The glossary of the American Psychiatric Association defines psychotic as "grossly impaired in reality testing," meaning that a person loses the ability to tell the difference between the real world and the fairies of the mind. Psychosis involves delusions or hallucinations; one common manifestation of psychosis is "hyperreligious ideation": believing you are God, seeing angels, believing you have a special mission to save humanity. Throughout the past century, and right up to the present, psychiatrists and psychotherapists have done a lot of hand-holding with people in psychotic states, listening to reports of their ecstatic visions, their accounts of meetings with Jesus and Lao-tzu, nodding a great deal, and then beginning the slow job of grounding the person, encouraging a reconnection with ordinary reality by talking about the weather or common objects. There is even a (rather grotesque-sounding) term for it in behavioral psychology: extinction; the goal is to extinguish the delusional behavior with a bucket of cold, bracing mundanities. The strategy has been to get the patient out of the state, the way one might climb out of a ditch, and forget about it.

In the days following his drumming circle experience, Joshua found himself submerging more and more frequently into his sublime state of awareness:

I might be staring at a tree, and all of a sudden I see the spirit of the tree manifesting itself, the God-createdness of the tree. I see how it relates to the tree next to it, the roots and branches touching the next tree. I see the meaning in that, and it flows over to touch events in my own life, how things that have happened to me are related to other things in the world. People say that everything happens for a reason—suddenly I really believe that. From out of nowhere I'm plunged into moments of spiritual truth and awareness of the interconnectedness of matter and mind and of my place in this beautiful universe—moments of totally feeling the presence of God. I don't need any proof of the existence of God.

But the bliss soon took on a jagged edge. "Ideas of reference" is a psychiatric term meaning that in a delusional state people often think that other, seemingly unrelated things—song lyrics, TV news commentators—are directed at them. Joshua began "referencing like mad"—he became convinced that radio DJs were communicating coded messages to him; he interpreted casual references to religious figures—the prophet Mohammed, Jah Rastafari—as pointed at him.

Two weeks after the drumming circle experience, Josh's summer was over and he was due back at school in Santa Cruz. In Hawaii his parents had begun to suspect that something was wrong, however, and asked him to come home before he returned to college. Up to this point, Joshua hadn't talked to anyone about what he was experiencing; he was convinced that if he did so people would try to halt his journey to enlightenment. In Honolulu, he did what he called a "red shirt/blue shirt routine" for his parents' benefit: "You know, it's like, you wake up one morning and put on a bright red shirt, and everyone compliments you on your beautiful blue shirt. You're confused so you look in the mirror, but you keep seeing a red shirt. The point of the parable is, what color is the shirt? While I was in Hawaii, I told my parents what they wanted to hear. I said, 'Yeah, it's a blue shirt.'"

Having successfully ducked his parents' fears, he went back to Santa Cruz, where he roamed the beach and wandered in the redwood forests, dumb with wonder and feeling "this intense connectedness with everything around me." He reviewed his past, particularly episodes that had troubled him, and saw them with a new, broader vision. He asked for forgiveness for past wrongs, and felt cleansed.

The semester started, and he found that schoolwork was much more difficult. A single sentence in a homework assignment might arrest him with its cosmic significance, so that he could go no further. He could see the auras of professors; he became convinced that one professor, whose aura appeared as a beam of light coming straight down from the ceiling to engulf her, was an angel. He developed an elaborate angelology: the unseen spaces of the universe were peopled by hosts of good and evil creatures, and they liked to place bets over his smallest actions. The act of putting on shoes became a moral battle, with phalanxes of cosmic creatures casting bets on which shoe would go on first. He would go catatonic, rigid in fear that he might choose the wrong shoe and send the universe out of moral alignment. One way out of the dilemma was to decide not to wear shoes; he frequently opted for this solution.

Things descended quickly. Televisions, telephones, microwave ovens—any electrical device might be bugged or used by one or another angel gang to coerce him. He started to rave. He stopped bathing; for several days he didn't eat, sleep, or change his clothes. He was too far gone to even know who reported him, but on October 22, Santa Cruz police officers came to his dorm room and took him into custody on California Code 5150, being a danger to oneself.

One might think the nightmarish aspect of the experience was over at this point, but in fact it was just beginning. As he was taken away—barefoot, filthy, in ankle restraints and handcuffs—he remained very still and tried to keep his mind from exploring the depths that had become normal: "I felt that anyone of any importance could read my mind. It seemed natural that they were doing this to me. It was Christ-like. It confirmed the delusion that I was important. They were going to crucify me."

If the fact that he had become godlike was now known by his enemies, whose agents were about to torture him and experiment on him, he could at least tell them that he understood their game. At Belmont Hills Psychiatric Hospital in Santa Cruz, psychiatrists administered a standard reality test called Draw a Person; they gave him a piece of paper and a pen, and asked him to draw a human figure. He swiftly drew a clear, recognizable body with all of the major features, then he asked them for a second sheet. With this one he took his time, covering it with circles, eyes, linked infinity symbols, connecting arrows. He handed both sheets to the doctor, leaned in close for emphasis, pointed first at the man and then at the other drawing, and said, "This is what you wanted me to draw. This is what it is." His initiation in the mysteries had progressed too far for him to humor anyone with any more games of red shirt/blue shirt.

His psychiatrist at Belmont Hills believed he was in an acute manic episode with schizophreniclike symptoms, and that he showed signs of schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, a condition from which a large percentage of patients do not recover. She prescribed Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic medication designed to grip the reins of the mind, pull the charging teams of ideas to a halt, and blinker them to prevent any straying. The side effects of Haldol can include, in the words of the Synopsis of Psychiatry, "acute dystonic reactions and Parkinsonian symptoms"—neck and tongue spasms, face twitches, and stiffness, as well as "cognitive dulling." At large doses it produces what mental patients refer to as the Haldol Shuffle, a zombie-like walk, eyes down, slippers scraping along linoleum floors, facial features giving the distinct impression that very little is going on upstairs. The psychiatrist also put him on lithium to control his mania and regulate his mood.

Meanwhile, Drake and Judy Beil sat at their son's bedside stricken with anxiety. "It was absolutely frightening to think that we had sent off into the world a gifted kid and what came back was a vegetable," said Drake Beil. "We were overcome by guilt. Did we fail in preparing him to deal with the real world? And through it all was the thought that he might not come back, that this might last forever." The emotional low-point was the day Drake Beil pulled out the same building blocks Joshua had played with as a two-year-old and carefully stacked them up in front of his debilitated son. "I said, 'Let me show you what I think is happening here. These blocks are inside your head. Now, maybe they just got knocked down, in which case we can build them back up.' But ... maybe they're not there anymore."

But the blocks were still there. Over the next several weeks Joshua was moved from the hospital in California to one in Hawaii, taken off Haldol, and given another, newer antipsychotic drug called Risperdal. His memories of his weeks in various hospitals are classic horror stuff: men in white lab coats coming and going, leaning in to ogle at you; time out of whack; diving into sleep as into a refuge; more lab coats; his parents' faces leaning in, their voices seeming distorted. All of it hazed, as if experienced through cheesecloth.

And then ... done. Joshua was to be one of the lucky ones: the antipsychotics had done the trick; his consciousness came swimming back to the surface. One day sitting with his parents, Wheel of Fortune came on the television. 'All of a sudden Josh started guessing the puzzle and goofing on the contestants," his father said. "Then he turned to me and said, 'Josh has entered the building.'"

Joshua was released into his parents' care. He still felt a profound confusion and disorientation, but he knew he was back, that it was over. He could now put the whole ugly episode behind him and begin the slow task of getting on with his life. He took a couple of classes at a community college, got a job at a local Starbucks, made plans to re-enroll in college and finish his degree.

But no, it wasn't going to be that neat. He couldn't just forget. In many respects, Joshua's story is fairly commonplace. Psychosis is a general term that covers a wide variety of out-of-touch-with-reality conditions; one of the most common and severe of these, schizophrenia, afflicts two million Americans, nearly 1 percent of the population. At least 40 percent of those who are laid low by a schizophrenialike episode will develop it as a more or less permanent condition. For those lucky ones who are visited by a single psychotic episode that then vanishes, most, following professional advice, treat it as something akin to a vicious bout of the flu and push ahead with their lives. Joshua's encounter with mental illness entered a different category, a whole new realm, when, after the illness itself, he decided not to let go of it.

Why would he decide such a thing? Because, simply, it had felt good—it had felt wonderful. There was something so wonderful about it, in fact, that it seemed to crack through his ordinary way of knowing himself and the world and deliver him into a new awareness of the world as whole and true, and of himself as an integral part of it. It was so wonderful that the memory of it still glinted through all the horror and murk that had surrounded it. Because of it, Joshua had a glimmer of himself as a better, fuller, healthier person. How could that be bad? Yes, there was a great deal of horror and neurological mayhem involved in the experience, but equally surely there was something so profound and blissful that he simply couldn't let it drift away:

I close my eyes and look directly at the sun and feel the warmth. I know it is God, like a form of communication that he uses. Why didn't I know this before? It's so obvious, so obviously HIM. I am blissed-out on the world itself. I understand the internal workings of the universe and my role within it, the innerconnectedness of all things.

It was this determination to hold on to his psychotic experience that made Joshua different. He was one of what might be called the New Psychotics, people who, even after returning to sanity, continue to believe that their mental illness somehow pushed them into a state of spiritual awareness. Granted, people have done something similar in the past. Anthropologists have studied the ritualization of this state of consciousness in primitive societies: how, at around the time of adolescence, tribal youths undergo a ceremonial form of madness, sometimes involving the use of psychoactive drugs to bring on the altered state. The rite-of-passage ceremony signals the death of childhood and the birth of a new adult member of the community; it is, by some thinking, an institutionalized way to manage what comes about haphazardly in cases such as Joshua's. And while it is impossible to be certain, especially since psychosis is such a modern notion, various people throughout history may have seen themselves as having gone through both a psychotic and a mystical experience. On such a list might be found Saint Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Saint Francis of Assisi, the playwright August Strindberg, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, the dramatist Antonin Artaud, and the writers Allen Ginsberg and Dostoevsky.


Excerpted from Saints and Madmen by Russell Shorto. Copyright © 1999 Russell Shorto. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Russell Shorto is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and the director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam. As an author he has won the Washington Irving Prize and the New York City Book Award. His books include the bestselling The Island at the Center of the World, Gospel Truth, and Descartes’ Bones. In 2009, he was named a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Dutch government for his contributions to the study of Holland’s role in American history.     

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