Reviewed 11/08/2000

Eccentrics, by David Weeks





A Study of Sanity and Strangeness
Dr. David Weeks & Jamie James
New York: Villard, 1995
ISBN 0-394-56565-7 277p. HC/BWI $23.00

On the 17th day of September, 1859, the following edict was published1 in the San Francisco Bulletin:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua A. Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different states of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the first day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, both in our stability and in our integrity.
Norton I, Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico

So begins Dr. Weeks' psychological study of the people whom everyone has encountered, and who are often called characters or oddballs.2 It is a memorable document. I challenge anyone to read some of the behaviors described without laughing out loud. The life of Joshua Abraham Norton, a Jew born in London and raised in South Africa, is one shining example. He came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, made a small fortune in real estate, and lost it in a massive speculation on the price of rice. In 1856 he filed for bankruptcy and issued his first imperial edict. Beloved by the people of his adopted city and state, he was indulged in small ways by the city council, and there was always a seat reserved for him in the state senate where, resplendent in his blue uniform, he never missed a session. At his death in 1880 he was given a lavish funeral for which 30,000 mourners turned out.

David Weeks is a clinical neuropsychologist3 who has practiced at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for the past twenty years. He undertook the study of eccentrics because he could thereby break new ground — even though, as he recognized at the outset, diagnosis and even definition of the condition of eccentricity presented formidable challenges.

Weeks realized that, far from suffering from mental or emotional illness, eccentrics as a rule are healthier and happier than the general population. Also, their idealism makes them relatively immune to greed. The first challenge, therefore, was to find eccentrics to study. Discreet ads were posted in local shops, pubs and other business establishments, and these began to bring cautious inquiries. Later, the scope of the study was widened by mailing press releases to newspapers and broadcast stations across England. Soon it went international as American media picked up the story. In the end, Weeks had a large and fairly representative set of candidates from which to choose.4 He winnowed this down to over a thousand probable eccentrics for further investigation. It was an eclectic group. As he describes it:

"The subjects ranged across the entire social spectrum, including a deputy chairman of a large industrial firm, a senior judge, a puppeteer, a chiropractor, and an unemployed poet. There were several self-made millionaires and a few cave-dwelling hermits. There were housewives and sorceresses, university professors and factory workers, computer scientists and established artists and writers. They ranged in age from sixteen to ninety-two, with an average age of forty-five years. The subjects tended to be predominantly middle-class and somewhat better educated than the general population, with a mean of fourteen years of education."

– Page 25

Next, interviews and psychological tests were used to probe for common characteristics and for ways in which the eccentrics differed from "normal" people. One central concern was whether eccentrics manifested any traits seen in dysfunctional personalities. The study found that, while they varied widely, eccentrics were if anything less prone to such traits than the majority. This bears out Weeks' initial hypothesis.

In order to compare conditions today with how eccentrics existed and were viewed in the past, archival works were surveyed. This exhaustive survey of the historical record had to deal with three unavoidable facts: First, the further back one goes, the less reliable the records become. This is largely due to the cultural evolution of society. Second (for largely the same reason), prior standards of behavior veered far from those we now hold. For example, the peasantry in fourteenth-century England were forbidden to own dogs or send their sons to school. Thus, identifying any behavior as eccentric becomes difficult. Third, there were the shifts in languages over time to complicate interpretation of the written records.5 In the end, the historical survey was limited to the years from 1551 to 1950.

The book's chapter headings give a good overview of the study design.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Golden Age of Weirdness 3
1. The Study 20
2. Four Hundred Years of Eccentrics 40
3. Eccentricity and Creativity: The Artists 63
4. The Scientists 91
5. Lost Continents and Golden Ages 112
6. Eccentricity and Mental Illness 136
7. Eccentric Childhood 157
8. The Eccentric Personality 176
9. The Psycholinguistic Analysis 197
10. Eccentric Women 212
11. Sexual Eccentricity 228
12. Eccentricity and Health 247

All this makes for fascinating reading. However, scientific conclusions are sparse. I believe I can fairly summarize Weeks' findings thus: Every group of 10,000 people will, on average, contain 1 eccentric. Eccentricity is not hereditary, but does tend to cluster in family groups. Eccentrics are often more intelligent, more extroverted and more self-directed than the general population; they are usually happier and healthier and longer-lived. Their willingness to "march to the beat of a different drummer" even in the face of opposition and setbacks endows them with a resilience that minimizes stress. On the negative side, they tend to be "loners" in adult life, too dedicated to their personal crusades for deep social involvements.6 Also, their strongly driven natures foster a rapid-fire, leapfrog way of speaking that may be hard to follow (but is seldom irrational or incoherent, as Weeks points out in several places.)

Perhaps the most valuable conclusion to be drawn from this pioneering study is that eccentrics are different — not only from us but from each other. Let us then honor their differences.7 For, as David Weeks says in his final chapter:

"Societies too exist in a state of equilibrium, though they are open systems, not closed loops. Without innovation and fresh ideas, they atrophy and lose their competitive edge. Eccentrics are essential for the health of the social organism, for they provide the variety of ideas and behavior that permits the group to adapt successfully to changing conditions."

– Pages 251-2

1 I supplied the color and formatting seen here.
2 Many other terms exist. Among them are screwball, nut case, weirdo, and loony.
3 He now also works as a freelance journalist, a filmmaker, and a broadcaster with the BBC.
4 Weeks estimated his initial sample size as 30 million in England plus 110 million in the U.S.
5 Perhaps Weeks had ready access to linguistic historians. He does not mention this third problem.
6 Whether withdrawing from society — being a loner — is a bad thing is debatable. Certainly few eccentrics would say they find it so.
Here's a delightful example of literary eccentricity from Eccentrics. At least, I found it delightful.
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