Marginalia, no.122

There is a sinfulle state of dreames…and there may be a night booke of our Iniquities, for beside the transgressions of the day, casuists will tell us of mortall sinnes in dreames arising from evill precogitations; meanwhile human lawe regards not noctambulos, and if a night walker should breake his neck or kill a man, takes no notice of it.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, from his notebooks

I read once about an elderly man who dreamt he was wrestling a stag.  The animal thrashed desperately with its antlers but he got an arm round its neck and gave a sharp twist.  He woke to find that he had killed his wife of fifty years.  One hopes he was a great philanthropist most nights – that he dreamt of curing cancer, bathing lepers or rescuing babies from falling pianos.  It might have counterbalanced his transgression.  But if we’re culpable for our dreams maybe God is similarly bound by dreams of universal pardon.


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2 responses to “Marginalia, no.122

  1. Dave Lull

    Thomas Szasz, in “The Shame of Medicine: Acquittal by Psychiatry,” wrote about the “sleep walking” defense:

    ‘In July 2008 a Welsh couple–Brian Thomas, 59 and his wife, Christine, 57–were vacationing in their camper. One night Brian strangled Christine, then called the police and told them he did it while he was sound asleep “dreaming” he was defending himself from an intruder. At Thomas’s criminal trial in November 2009 the court was told that “the couple had been asleep in their camper van in a car park when they were disturbed by youths in cars performing wheel spins and so moved elsewhere. However, Thomas then had a nightmare that one of the youths had broken into the van and later woke to find himself next to his wife’s body, at which point he called the police.” Court, prosecution, and defense agreed that Thomas suffered from “a sleep disorder and so had no control over his body when he attacked his wife of 40 years while they were both asleep.”

    ‘Thomas, we learned from press accounts, “regularly took anti-depressant drugs which made him impotent,” and the couple slept in separate bedrooms at home. He had stopped his medication before the holiday, allegedly to be able to have intercourse with his wife. Medical experts testified that “the sudden withdrawal of the drugs could have led to him having very vivid dreams.”

    ‘The defense claimed that Thomas was suffering from the “non-insane” form of automatism and asked for an acquittal. The consequences of finding Thomas “not guilty by reason of insanity,” explained Chief Crown Prosecutor Iwan Jenkins, “would have meant Mr. Thomas’s detention in a psychiatric hospital, but it is now clear that the psychiatrists feel that that would serve no useful purpose. . . . It is only because of highly sophisticated tests carried out by sleep experts that Mr. Thomas’s condition could be confirmed.”

    ‘According to reports, the jury was “directed to return a not-guilty verdict, allowing Mr. Thomas to leave court an innocent man.” The judge reassured Thomas “that in the eyes of the law he bore no responsibility for what he had done”and added that “he was a decent man and devoted husband.” If any words of praise were offered about Mrs. Thomas, they were not reported.

    ‘After the trial one defense expert–Dr. Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre–was reported to have been “still unsure which form of sleep disorder caused Thomas to kill his wife, but he supports the court’s decision. . . . I’m sure there are people who have the disorder, commit a crime, and try to lean back on it to get away with it. . . . ‘I’m convinced he was not guilty. That said, you never know. Maybe he’s a genius who’s tricked me and everybody else and is now going to claim lots of insurance money for his wife’s death.’”

    ‘Prosecutor Jenkins alleged that “the circumstances of this case are almost unique in the UK.” Well, not quite. Under the heading “Homicidal Somnambulism,” Wikipedia lists 68 similar cases, many from Britain.’

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I remember reading about the Welsh case. Certainly there’s a lot of room for deception in something like this. As a doctor, and since he mentioned it, Browne must have been familiar with similar situations in this own time. If the law truly allowed for innocence on these grounds in the 1600s, then it’s a defense with some antiquity, I suppose.

    The case I had in mind when writing this post was an older one, from ten or fifteen years ago, in the US. The man, I think, was in his later 70s or early 80s. As I recall, over several decades of their marriage he had been known to flail around in their bed and act out violently while asleep. She had always been able to snap him out of it. He had even sought help for his problem and years would pass without incident. His children all vouched for his long-term troubles in this regard and insisted that their father and mother had always been loving and committed to one another, as best anyone could tell. They had suggested the two get separate beds, but their mother had always vetoed the idea.

    Still, who knows?

    My brother when he was younger was a regular “noctambulo.” On a couple occasions he actually left the house. Once on a camping trip he left the tent we were sharing. I didn’t know anything about it until in the middle of the night when I heard him calling out and he came bursting back into the tent shaking and gasping from the cold. He said he had come to standing in the forest not knowing in which direction to find the tent or how far he had walked. He was scratched all over from walking into trees and bushes.

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