*It is perhaps considered something of a universal law that there is, and must be, a single entity we call the ‘self’. We prize this individuality, adorn it in such a way to try and make it even more unique and separate from all other acting agents within the world.
So what happens then, when we meet ourselves out in the world? What happens when we are greeted by our doppelganger? What happens when this sense of individuality is threatened? We’re about to see what may happen when a brain under the influence of a psychotic delusion finally cracks.
The Case of Mr X and his doppelganger
The case study (Barberi et al, 2022) begins one week before the homicide occurs. When an individual — Mr X starts to exhibit personality changes.
According to the reports given by the family, Mr X had begun to appear more introverted and isolated than was usual, although he had broken up with his girlfriend 8 months before so it was easy to assume that this was the cause of the abrupt changes.
These behaviours soon evolved into something a little stranger, when Mr X began to experience what might be called persecutory delusions.
The nature of the delusions were extremely odd. X began to vociferously rant about supposed conspiracies involving Nazis and this was soon followed by bizarre paranoid behaviour in which X turned out the lights and began whispering as if under the grip of some grotesque terror. His mother heard him whispering to her about the neighbours and that he was afraid that they were spying on them.
A GP was consulted in then wake of these peculiar symptoms. X was diagnosed with a depressive disorder and was prescribed medications to help ameliorate these symptoms. However, after extensive investigations it was determined that X needed a psychiatric assessment.
And now we turn to the words of X a day before the murder, as you read these words try and place yourself within the same mindset and see if you can trace out the general landscape of X’s thinking:
“I thought I was dead, and in a suspended, timeless condition, I had heard talk about particles on television and I am made of particles so I understood that they were hunting me and wanted to carry my spirit to Hell”.
What does this tell you about X’s state of mind at the time?
On the actual day of the murder, X reports on how the events culminated in the death of Mr Y:
“I felt anguished and my parents advised me to go to the gym, where I saw Y, who told me “I met your sister”, that wouldn’t have been a problem but at lunch I remembered that my sister had complained of belly pain and I understood that he had raped her. I had to strike him, it was a trial of strength”.
The tragedy was that the crime took place 24 hours before X was due to meet with the psychiatrist. Upon meeting Mr Y, X stabbed him with a blade, more specifically a diving blade 25cm long.
When the police entered the gym, they found X seated amongst the barbells appearing detached and he still held the bloody knife within his hands.
While in prison, X was given various assessments. Overall X continued to exhibit distanced behaviour with the addition of fragmentary and partial amnesia. The authors of the study continue that when X saw his ‘double’ a clear psychotic association was created along with the bizarre idea that his double had caused his sister to become pregnant.
The nature of the delusions seemed to take on elements of Capgras’ delusion as well as the doppelganger delusion. Doppelgangers are usually the products of hallucinatory events.
Given the elements of X’s pre-murder behaviour, the researchers observe that these symptoms make up a disturbing pre-psychotic syndrome.
The authors of the paper note that there is a link between the perceived threat that the doppelganger poses, and the level of violence on the part of the individual who experiences the delusion. What is happening is that a general environment of paranoia, persecutory delusions and fear lead to an atmosphere where the fundamental sense of self is vulnerable to doubt.
This is a fascinating case in which an individual’s very sense of self is damaged and fractured. The unique elements of neuropsychological events conspired to create an atmosphere where X’s paranoia and fear create an other ‘self’ where one can direct the violence and fear X was feeling.
I would like to end by asking the reader some questions for reflection:
1. To what extent do you think X should be punished for the crime?
2. If the psychosis was the result of recreational drug use, would that change your the answer to question 1?
3. If the psychosis was due to a side effect of medical pharmacology, would that change your answer to question 1?
4. What can this case teach us about neuropsychology and the law?
Cristiano Barbieri, Gabriele Rocca, Caterina Bosco, Lucia Tattoli, IgnazioGrattagliano & Giancarlo Di Vella (2022): The Doppelgänger phenomenon and death: a peculiar case of homicide by a subject with first-episode psychosis, Forensic Sciences Research, DOI: 10.1080/20961790.2022.2055827