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by Albert Rosenfeld
Life Magazine, September 29, 1967
Wall Streeter's hunch opens a medical frontier
As a complete layman with virtually no interest in medicine, he would have scoffed at the notion that he would soon be spearheading a thrust into a new frontier of medical research—or that he would ever, under any circumstances, find himself addressing a distinguished medical meeting. The odds against such an eventuality would have seemed—well, preposterous. But that was five years ago, before he acquired some unexpected insights through a disturbing malady of his own. “I was anywhere from a little depressed to quite deeply depressed most of the time,” he recalls. “There was an ever-present feeling of fear which varied in intensity during the day, and my mind was preoccupied with pessimistic and frequently angry thoughts. I had minor discomforts—chronic pains in the neck area and mild stomach upset. The happiest part of the day was the time when, with the help of sleeping medicine, I was asleep. When I awoke in the morning I was at my best. Usually around dusk, a little depressive cloud would descend on me and my hands and feet would get extremely cold.”
The victim seemed an improbable candidate for such dejection. He was Jack Dreyfus Jr., multi-millionaire founder of the Dreyfus Fund and a man of diverse talents and widely recognized intellectual and athletic capacities. There was nothing wrong with him that medical doctors could find. Nor had any personal catastrophe befallen him. Yet he remained in this depression which, though it did not incapacitate him, robbed life of all its enjoyment. Particularly disturbing was his inability to think of any sensible reason for his condition.
He was given pills of all kinds—sleeping pills, tranquilizers, mood elevators, psychic energizers. But they brought only intermittent relief. He tried psychotherapy, but the more his psychotherapist probed, the more convinced Dreyfus became that he was not plagued by any deep, long-buried Freudian fixations, but rather that something physical, something awry in the chemistry of his body, was at the root of his trouble. “I did not question that I was neurotic,” says Dreyfus, “nor do I question it now, but this was not sufficient to explain to me the things that happened.” One of the things that happened regularly, for instance, was the compulsive triggering of his thoughts—obsessive nonstop thoughts that did not really constitute thinking in any useful sense, but simply went round and round uncontrollably—like a reverberating electrical circuit.
The idea that his nonstop thinking might be electrical in nature came to Dreyfus one night after he had a strange dream. In the dream he felt himself to be somehow electrically frozen into immobility. As soon as he awoke, he found himself wondering why he had been so convinced, in the dream, that electricity had been the cause of his paralysis. As he puzzled over it, several scattered scraps of remembered experience came together. During his periods of depression he had often noticed a tingling in his mouth like the feeling of a foot gone to sleep, accompanied by a strange metallic taste, “a taste of how ozone smells.” He always associated these sensations with a time in his childhood when he had poked a finger into a live socket. Could the tingling, he now wondered, really be an electrical sensation? Could the taste be the taste of electricity? At the same time he recalled an incident that had occurred one day in his garage. He had picked up a faulty vacuum cleaner, received a sharp jolt of electricity, and said to his former wife, who was present at the time, “This damned thing shocked me.” “It always does that,” she said. Though her reply was mild and her tone of voice gentle, Dreyfus remembers, with some chagrin, that “I exploded with anger, smashed the vacuum cleaner, and shook my former wife.” All these actions were quite uncharacteristic of Dreyfus. “Although I was embarrassed at my loss of temper,” he admits, “I felt a warm, comfortable feeling flow through me after this explosion.”
Explosion was the word that had come to mind at the time. Now, after the dream, it seemed to him that the explosion might have been electrical. Could there hive been an excess of electricity in his body, with no way of being drained off until the shock from the vacuum cleaner accidentally triggered the release? Could excess electricity be causing his symptoms? Turning the idea over in his mind, he remembered another occurrence—years earlier, during a bridge game. One of the players had abruptly halted the game by brutally bawling out his partner. The man being bawled out simmered for some time with what Dreyfus had interpreted as suppressed anger, then suddenly exploded—in retrospect, that seemed the only word to describe it—into an epileptic convulsion.
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