Ian McEwan fools British shrinks

The novelist puts one over on a few American critics, too.

Published September 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the United States, scientists have lately been playing pointed practical jokes on literary types -- take, for example, the infamous Sokal affair. But in England, a novelist has turned the tables and tricked the chaps in the white coats, specifically the sober editors of the Psychiatric Bulletin, a sister publication to the British Journal of Psychiatry.

In his 1997 novel, "Enduring Love," Ian McEwan ("Black Dogs," "The Innocent") described the trials of a science writer who is stalked by a man suffering from erotomania -- obsessive love. McEwan includes, as an appendix, a report on a similar case of "De Clerambault's Syndrome" reprinted from the British Review of Psychiatry and written by Drs. Robert Wenn and Antonio Camia.

However, as the Manchester Guardian reported recently, neither the British Review of Psychiatry nor the study's authors exist. (In fact, the last names of the doctors are an anagram for Ian McEwan.) Ronan McIvor, a consultant psychiatrist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, was tricked by the hoax: Reviewing the novel in the Bulletin, he described it as being "based on a published case report."

The shrinks weren't the only ones taken in, either. In the States, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, one of the daily book reviewers for the New York Times, complained that "When you discover at the end of the book an appendix documenting the case history on which 'Enduring Love' is based, you think you know what is wrong. Mr. McEwan has simply stuck too close to the facts and failed to allow his imagination to invent." Likewise, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post seemed to be convinced by the ruse, referring to the novel as a "formidably intelligent study of one form of mental illness." Elizabeth Judd, in Salon, complained that demystifying the stalker's fixation by identifying it "as a morbid passion called de Clerambault's syndrome  saps the story of its energy."

Other American critics adopted a more skeptical, if noncommittal, stance. Rosemary Dinnage, in the New York Review of Books, wrote that the appendix to "Enduring Love" "purports to be -- perhaps is -- a paper from the British Review of Psychiatry." Sven Birkirts, in the New York Times Book Review, cautioned that "Unless the appendix is an elaborate fiction, like the foreword to 'Lolita' by John Ray Jr., Ph.D., then we finally have to assume that McEwan is quoting an actual case history." In the L.A. Times, Richard Eder confessed that only "a perceptive editor" prevented him from swallowing the case study hook, line and sinker, while Jeremy Manier of the Chicago Tribune stoutly declared it "a fictional psychiatric article" that's "a convincing facsimile of academic journalese," even if it failed to convince him.

McIvor is no doubt accustomed to the rigorously documented assertions of his scientific colleagues and not the lyin' ways of the wily novelist, but he's learning. When asked by the Guardian to describe the aftermath of the McEwan Affair, McIvor confessed, "I had my suspicions ... There is a bit of embarrassment on my part."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------