The Man Who Loved Safety Pins
A unique fetish accompanied a temporal lobe epilepsy.
Posted October 22, 2019 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
For as long as he could remember, Harry had loved safety pins. He found the shape, colour, and shine of them so incredibly beautiful that just holding one gave him an intense feeling of pleasure. He called this special feeling ‘thought satisfaction’.
As a child, he collected safety pins, and his pockets were always bulging with them. His favourite game was to join them in a long chain and pull them along the floor. He knew it was an unusual and potentially embarrassing habit, so he would hide in the bathroom for his special safety pin time, pulling the pins out of his pockets one a time and staring at them shining in his palm. Sometime during his childhood, the ‘thought satisfaction’ was followed by a ‘blank period’, which was eventually diagnosed as a seizure when Harry was an adult.
Somehow Harry was able to keep this safety pin habit secret from his family, and the first witness to it was his wife. He was 23 years old when his wife found him staring at a safety pin in his palm; he was glassy-eyed, vague, and unresponsive. He had a routine electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity in the brain, and it showed seizure activity in his left temporal lobe. Harry was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.
For most people, the words ‘seizure’ and ‘epilepsy’ trigger visions of someone dramatically falling unconscious to the ground and shaking violently, with saliva foaming at their lips. This is only one type of seizure, known as a ‘generalised’ seizure. Usually the neurons in our brains are firing at different times and in different parts of the brain, like random fireworks, but during a seizure the neurons’ firing becomes synchronised – they all fire at once and together. It is this sudden synchrony that results in a seizure. When this occurs across the whole brain it is called a generalised seizure, which dramatically affects the whole body.
But there are other types of seizures where the synchronous electrical activity remains ‘focal’, or only in one part of the brain, so the effects are subtler. For example, temporal lobe seizures are restricted to the temporal lobe, and they cause less obvious changes in behaviour.
People who have temporal lobe seizures describe feeling like they have ‘missed time’. Observers say that they stare blankly or appear vague. They might pick at their clothing. They often look like they are chewing something. These seizures typically last a few minutes. They are unpredictable and can occur at any time of the day or night.
In Harry’s case, every seizure was triggered by a safety pin, and therefore they were essentially voluntary. It had to be a bright, shiny, undamaged pin, and several were more effective than just one. His seizures always followed the same pattern: he would stare at a safety pin and start humming, make sucking movements with his lips, pluck at his clothing, and fall into an unresponsive state for a couple of minutes.
Harry had the strongest desire to look at safety pins during anxiety-provoking and sexual situations. If he fantasised about safety pins during sex, he would have a seizure. Over time, Harry lost all interest in and desire for sex with his wife, became impotent, and only lusted after safety pins. He described the ‘thought satisfaction’ triggered by safety pins as the ‘greatest experience of my life, better than sexual intercourse’.
According to the current and fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a paraphilia is an intense or persistent sexual interest in something other than ‘genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners’. A common type of paraphilia is a ‘fetish’, which is a sexual preference for a particular body part or inanimate object, such as Harry’s safety pins. Harry had the unique combination of both a safety pin fetish, and seizures triggered by safety pins.
Harry tried all the anti-seizure medications known at the time – this was the 1950s – with no benefit. Eventually he was referred for neurosurgery. In March of 1953, he underwent a left temporal lobectomy. You only get to be considered for a ‘temporal lobectomy’, or removal of the temporal lobe where the seizures are coming from, if your seizures are ‘intractable’ – that is, severe, frequent and unable to be controlled by anti-seizure medication.
Harry’s surgery was considered a great success: it cured him of both his seizures and his safety pin fetish. The case notes from his review 16 months after his surgery state that he had ‘no desire to look at safety pins and had become as potent as in early marriage’, and that his relationship with his wife improved. It doesn’t provide any more details about their relationship, pre- or post-surgery, but no doubt his wife would have been relieved.
If Harry had been alive today, I wonder if our more advanced anti-seizure medications would have been more effective; he may not require a left temporal lobectomy to experience both a seizure and fetish cure now.
Although this case study is over 60 years old, it remains extraordinary – for the unique nature of the fetish, its clear association with temporal lobe epilepsy, and its unequivocal evidence that the temporal lobe is a crucial part of the ‘sexual neural network’ or the brain regions controlling our sex drive and behaviour. After reading this case study, I never looked at safety pins the same way again, and I’m sure you will feel the same.
This is an adapted excerpt from Sex in the Brain: How Your Brain Controls Your Sex Life (NewSouth Publishing, 2019; and forthcoming Columbia University Press, 2020)
Mitchell, W., Falconer, M., & Hill, D. (1954). Epilepsy with fetishism relieved by temporal lobectomy. Lancet, 264(6839), 626–630.