Today I want to tell you about Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria who was born on this day in 1826. When Alexandra was in her twenties, she wasn’t having an easy time. She was the only one of eight surviving siblings who remained unmarried and lived a rather isolated existence. She was already displaying some symptoms of anxiety. She was obsessed with cleanliness and always wore white. Then her father, King Ludwig I, had a very public affair with Maria Gilbert, an Irish actress who performed as a Spanish dancer under the name of Lola Montez. He wasn’t a very popular king and his people really hated Lola. She was not at all regal and was rude to the queen. For these reasons he was deposed in 1848 when Alexandra was 22. Shortly afterwards her parents noticed that she was walking sideways along the palace corridors and obviously with some difficulty. They asked her what was wrong. She told them that when she was small she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass and that it was still inside her. Poor Alexandra, she was walking that way because she was afraid the glass piano inside her would break if she knocked into anything. It seems like a really odd delusion to have, but her already nervous disposition, her isolation and her father’s situation which she was powerless to do anything about must have made her feel very fragile indeed. It’s interesting that she chose a piano. Something hidden inside her that could have made beautiful music but she had felt unable to allow it to play. She did receive treatment and was eventually well enough to become a writer and to produce plays for children so perhaps she did find her voice in the end.
Although the belief that a part of your body is made of something very fragile was not terribly common, there are other cases cited as far back as the 15th century and right up until the 19th century. It even has a name, The Glass Delusion. It is mentioned in Robert Burton’s 1621 publication, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Sufferers would avoid contact with others because they were afraid that they would shatter. It seems to be the way that symptoms of anxiety manifested themselves. The condition was most often associated with people who lived an isolated existence. It was thought of as a symptom of what was called melancholia. Sometimes people would think that a part of their body was made of glass or that they were turning into a glass object such as a bottle or a lamp.
King Charles VI of France believed that his entire body was made of glass and wore special clothing that was re-enforced with metal ribs to protect him. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, wrote a short story called The Glass Graduate about a man who suffered from the delusion. It was a condition often treated by shocking the patient into realizing that they would not break. One man who slept in straw had his bed set on fire, another who believed that his buttocks were made of glass was beaten on the bottom until he understood that he would not break. A rather brutal treatment, it probably led to the person replacing this delusion with another one. Luckily we have now found kinder ways of helping people.