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Just a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts : A psychologist looks at eccentrics and reminds us that a little strangeness helps us stay sane : ECCENTRICS: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness, By David Weeks and Jamie James (Villard: $23; 288 pp.).

November 26, 1995|Chet Raymo | Chet Raymo teaches science at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., and writes a weekly science column for the Boston Globe. "Frankie Starlight," a movie based on his novel "'The Dork of Cork," will be released next month by Fine Line Features

While conducting the research described in this delightful book, psychologist David Weeks visited Yvonne X (that is her name) who builds perpetual-motion machines in her workshop in Westfield, N.J. Yvonne X led Weeks to her workshop and proudly showed him her latest creation, a machine of gleaming stainless steel cylinders, pipes and tubes containing liquids, and wires, supporting at the center a highly polished silver disk.

She explained the "scientific" basis of the device: "This system produces energy without combustion and preserves it safely. The flux of these liquids can be made to create kinetic energy, which can then be changed into cheap electricity. When the disk ascends, we will have power to spare."

She triggered a switch. Pipes fizzed. Liquids changed colors. The tubes began to vibrate violently. A gasket blew off like a bullet. The silver disk began to ascend, faster and faster, until it crashed through the workshop ceiling. Glass exploded. Sparks showered from melting wires. The inventor and the psychologist high-tailed it out of the room. As the fire department arrived, Yvonne X was already brainstorming. She was certain that she knew what went wrong and vowed to start over.

Who, reading about this bizarre demonstration, would not like to have been there? Who, having met the indomitable Yvonne X on the page, would not like to meet her in person? Weeks has practiced psychology at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for the past 20 years. He set out to investigate eccentrics because he could find no significant record in the psychological literature. With his assistants, he interviewed and tested hundreds of subjects in Britain and the United States. If his visit to Yvonne X's workshop was typical of his study, he obviously had a lot of fun.

It is characteristic of our times that we tolerate eccentrics, grudgingly admire them, perhaps even envy them. According to Weeks, eccentrics are happier than the rest of us, and (on the basis of standard diagnostic tests) have a higher general level of mental health. They are creative, nonconforming, strongly motivated by curiosity, idealistic, intelligent, non-competitive, mischievously witty, convinced that they are right and the rest of the world is out of step--in other words, they possess traits that most of us would gladly acknowledge in our own personalities. On the down-side, eccentrics tend to be bad spellers and uninterested in sex, but even these things might be qualities we secretly admire, caught up as we are in the race to conform and perform.

It was not always so. In earlier times, eccentrics were frequently deemed dangerous to society. Many "witches" were burned for no other reason than that they didn't conform to conventional rules of behavior. Women eccentrics, especially, were victims. Certifiably crazy male aristocrats and wealthy landowners might be charitably labeled as "indisposed" or "eccentric," while truly eccentric (and embarrassing) wives and daughters were often packed off to an asylum.

According to Weeks, this bias against women persists today in psychiatry. Although men outnumber women in state-run mental institutions, admissions of women to private hospitals is disproportionately higher, suggesting that women are often committed for minor indications of abnormal behavior that would be overlooked in a man.

The most difficult part of this study was defining "eccentric" in a way that distinguishes appropriate subjects from people who are mildly nonconformist, on the one hand, or mentally ill, on the other. Weeks hopes readers will put this book down asking why, if being flaky is guaranteed by the Constitution, we're all not having more fun.

"Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness" reminds us that a little strangeness helps us stay sane. "If everyone's life was bathed in friendship, humor, love, creativity, hope, curiosity, and wonder-- whee! --we would need a lot less medicine," says Dr. Patch Adams, an eccentric "clown doctor" of Pocahontas, W.Va., quoted in the book. By definition, we can't all be eccentrics, nor are we likely to put much faith in doctors who dress in Bozo suits, no matter how endearing their personal philosophies, but at least we have learned not to lock away our eccentrics behind asylum walls. Weeks and co-author Jamie James, an American science writer, have given us a valuable and long overdue look at a segment of the population who succeed by being endearingly different.

A TV talk show in Newcastle, England, invited Weeks to come on the show and bring along a few of his subjects. The first half of the program, before the psychologist and his guests came on, was devoted to school discipline, a subject that was solemnly discussed by three gray-suited headmasters--guardians of the Establishment and shapers of the next generation. When the schoolmasters met the eccentrics in the green room they were fascinated yet repelled, perhaps even a bit frightened.

One of the eccentrics was elfin Ann Atkin, who has collected at her house in Devon 7,500 garden gnomes. She offered the headmasters gnome hats that she had knitted herself. They shrank from her gift as if from a contagious disease. Perhaps if Atkin could supply us all with gnome hats, to wear just once in a while, the world would be a happier, less contentious place.

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