If I was playing a word association game and said the words ‘self-inflicted ear mutilation’, I would hazard an educated guess that the first thing that popped into most people’s minds would be the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. On the evening of December 23, 1888, in Aries (France) Van Gogh (in a state of deep depression) cut off the lower part his own right ear with a razor (later immortalized in his famous painting Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear). Earlier in the day he had threatened his long-time friend and artist Paul Gaugin with a razor and was not in a good state of mind (both that day and in life more generally). Van Gogh had become a heavy smoker and heavy drinker and had taken a liking to the alcoholic drink absinthe. After cutting off his ear, he took it over to a local brothel and gave it to a prostitute called Rachel (telling her to take good care of it). He would have died of blood loss but the local police took him to the hospital.
This incident has given rise to what has been called the 'Van Gogh Syndrome,' now a catch-all term for self-mutilation, particularly in relation to amputation of a bodily extremity (such as the cutting off of one’s own penis, or the removal of one’s own eye). Such actions may be due to a wide range of conditions including psychoses, mood disorders (e.g., clinical depression), body dysmorphic disorder, or as a component of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome (a genetic disorder that affects how the human body builds and breaks down purines).
Van Gogh would have been classed as a ‘psychotic self-mutilator’ in psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s self-mutilation typology developed in the 1930s. He proposed that self-mutilators fall into one of six categories:
• Neurotic self-mutilators: These individuals comprise nail biters and pickers, extreme hair removal and those seeking unnecessary cosmetic surgery.
• Religious self-mutilators: These individuals comprise self-flagellators and/or genital self-mutilators.
• Puberty rite self-mutilators: These individuals comprise those who engage in hymen removal, circumcision or clitoral alteration.
• Psychotic self-mutilators: These individuals engage in eye or ear removal, genital self-mutilation and extreme amputation.
• Organic disease self-mutilators: These individuals comprise those who engage in repetitive head banging or hand biting, intentionally fracturing fingers and eye removal, due to diseases such as encephalitis or disorders such as severe mental retardation.
• Conventional self-mutilators: These individuals comprise normal people that engage in customary or conventional forms of self-mutilation (that most would argue is not self-mutilation at all, e.g., nail clipping, hair trimming, and beard shaving).
More recent typologies tend to talk about self-harm rather than self-mutilation and class such behaviour into one of three types (i.e., psychotic, organic or typical). Again, Van Gogh would be classed as a psychotic self-harmer:
• Psychotic self-harmers: These individuals comprise those who remove or amputate body parts (e.g., eyes, limbs, ears, genitals, digits). In these cases, body part removal is carried out in response to hallucinations bought on by psychosis. Unsurprisingly, this is the most severe type of self-harming.
• Organic self-harmers: These individuals comprise those who self-harm in the form of behaviours such as head-banging and lip-biting because of conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorders, developmental disabilities, and other similar disorders. Here the self-harm is a consequence of physical or chemical issues in the body.
• Typical self-harmers: These individuals comprise those who self-harm in the form of self-cutting, burning, hair-pulling (trichotillomania), skin-picking (dermotillomania), biting, hitting, interference with wound healing, scratching or bone-breaking. Here, the self-harm is initiated by emotional or psychological trauma that is unrelated to psychotic or organic conditions. This is the most common type of self-harming.
In a 2006 issue of the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Dr. David Veale reported that major self-injurious behaviours tend to “be very isolated events and consists of severe or life-threatening tissue damage, such as self-castration, eye nucleation, or less commonly self-amputation of a limb or ear. They mainly occur in young psychotic men or older males with psychotic depression usually in the context of command auditory hallucinations or delusions of guilt”.
Despite the fact that self-inflicted ear mutilation is well documented, there are surprisingly few published case studies. In 1989, Dr. J. Silver and colleagues published a case study of self-inflicted ear mutilation (as part of wider self-mutilation) in the journal Psychosomatics. Their case was a 35-year old male paranoid schizophrenic who presented for treatment following dermatological self-mutilation following severe lacerations (including the ear, arms, and face). They concluded that the self-mutilation behaviour appeared to be associated with his psychotic symptoms, and that the self-mutilation was exacerbated by failure to take his neuroleptic medication.
Dr. Christopher Alroe and Dr. Venkat Gunda reported some cases of self-inflicted ear mutilations in a 1995 issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. They presented three cases of self-amputation of the ear by three white right-handed men. All three men had psychiatric problems (one having schizophrenia and two having personality disorders. They compared their cases with that of van Gogh. The authors also surveyed all Australian and New Zealand prisons to determine the frequency of self-mutilation of the ears within the last five years. They found only one other case. Based on the cases, they argued that connections exist between the self-amputees and supports the notion that self-mutilation is “contagious”.
It is also worth noting that there are cases of people who have cut off their ears but would not be classed as psychotic because they have done it for a very specific reason. The most recent case was that of British prisoner Michael O’Donnell who (on May 2, 2010) cut off his ear so that he could escape from an ambulance while he was being transported to hospital for treatment. In the end, it was all in vain as he was caught and re-arrested three weeks later.
References and further reading
Alroe, C.J., & Gunda, V. (1995). Self-Amputation of the Ear: Three Men Amputate Four Ears within Five Months. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 29, 508-512.
Edwards, G. (1998). A brief history of ear mutilation. Deluxe. Located at: http://rulefortytwo.com/articles-essays/gallimaufry/ear-mutilation/
Menninger, K. (1935). A psychoanalytic study of the significance of self-mutilation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 4, 408-466.
Menninger, K. (1938). Man Against Himself. New York: Jovanovich.
Silva, J.A., Leong, G.B. & Weinstock, R. (1989). A case of skin and ear self-mutilation. Psychosomatics, 30, 228-230.
Press Association (2010). Prisoner who cut off ear to escape is recaptured. The Guardian, May 28. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/may/28/prisoner-cut-off-ear-recaptured
Veale, D. (2006). A compelling desire for deafness. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11, 369-372.