Book Review:

The Bleeding Mind

By Ian Wilson


Paladin Grafton Books, (UK) 1991
164 pp, ISBN 0-586-09014-2
No US price given.
May still be available from Barnes & Noble mail order.


Reviewed by Jeff Duntemann

Over the centuries since the late Middle Ages, hundreds and perhaps thousands of human beings have appeared to develop physiologically genuine wounds corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ himself. These people, called stigmatists or stigmatics, are not all men. In fact, by a 7 to 1 margin they are women. They are not even exclusively Catholic--nor have they all lived in earlier, more religious times. Quite a few, including some of the most remarkable, have lived during the Twentieth Century, and many are in fact alive today. One is a middle-class Englishwoman born in 1957, belonging to the Anglican church and by no means a mystic or religious fundamentalist of any stripe.

And the wounds are real. They open in the flesh, they bleed, sometimes awesomely, and they hurt. In some of the more spectacular cases, the flesh in the midst of the wounds in the hands and feet reshapes itself to look like a large nail, protruding from the top in the form of nailheads, and from the bottom in the form of nail points, sometimes bent over and clinched in loops through which a finger may be inserted.

None of this is hearsay. Dozens of cases have been examined, photographed, and investigated by skeptical physicians over the past century and up to the current date. Something is definitely happening. But what?

This question is the one Ian Wilson sought to answer in writing The Bleeding Mind.

Wilson is no captious, talking-to-Pleadeians New Ager. He's a sober, thoughtful, careful Englishman whom I would describe (judging only from the tenor of his writing) as difficult to excite and almost a little dull. He has written several books on what I broadly categorize as Dead Guys topics, including the excellent The After Death Experience, which I read some years back and will review here once I re-read it.

Almost immediately, Wilson disposes of any claim of Divine supernatural intervention in the creation of the wounds. His argument is simple and difficult to counter: If the wounds were in fact accurate replicas of the wounds that Christ suffered, and imposed by God on persons of exceeding faith and devotion to the Passion of Christ, they would at least be consistent in their position, shape, size, and general appearance. Alas, the stigmata vary widely from stigmatist to stigmatist and, most tellingly, many stigmata are found to accurately reflect the image of Christ found on the stigmatists' favorite crucifixes.

This is a major clue, one that leads seamlessly to Wilson's hypothesis: That the stigmata are a manifestation of undiscovered abilities of the mind to influence the very shape and functioning of the human body.

About three fourths of the book is history and case studies of famous and well-documented stigmatists, including St. Francis of Assisi, who is the earliest known stigmatist; Therese Neumann, who in addition to exhibiting the stigmata claimed to have gone without food or drink for 36 years; and Padre Pio, an Italian monastic priest of our century who could heal at a distance and impose a mysterious "odor of sanctity" both about his person and at considerable distance.

The phenomenon, in Wilson's view, is a psychological one, with a pathology related closely to multiple personality disorder. Stress and poverty in early life are a common thread running through the lives of many stigmatists. Nearly all suffered some sort of personal catastrophe before the onset of the stigmata, and nearly all had a predisposition to trance states and other altered modes of consciousness.

Apparently, as best our investigations have been able to show, stigmatists identify so closely with the life of Christ and visualize Him so clearly that some undiscovered physiological mechanism imposes Christ's marks of suffering on the body of the stigmatist.

If that were as far as Wilson took it, I'd say it was interesting, and a good airline read. But what makes the book compelling is Wilson's presentation of related research into the malleability of the human system, research having nothing to do with religion, mysticism, or even psychiatric pathology. Using modern methods of hypnosis, ordinary human beings having no psychiatric disorders have managed to somehow dispose of warts, hideous skin conditions, and even advanced cancerous tumors by simply imagining that those conditions were gone. With nothing more than hypnotic suggestion, women in a study conducted by an American physician, Dr. R. D. Willard, managed to enlarge their breasts, substantially and permanently, through this sort of hypnotic visualization. It makes this thoroughly bald reviewer's fingers itch to go walking through the Yellow Pages in search of a hypnotist.

Unfortunately, real data is scarce, and exhaustive research has not been done, in large part because few researchers are willing to take the phenomenon seriously (and thereby risk their credibility) enough to pursue it. Such things make me furious, not only because I would like to think myself up a nice head of hair, but also because my father died young of "incurable" cancer. Are we denying ourselves drug-free and nearly painless therapies for a multitude of "incurable" conditions, simply because we cannot bring ourselves to take the self-imposed wounds of religious mystics seriously? Wilson seems to think that this is the case. If the increasingly religious direction of American thought frightens some, I have hopes that it will allow such research to be taken more seriously by the medical mainstream.

Wherever you might happen to fall on this particular question, I encourage you to chase down and devour The Bleeding Mind. Small print and a minor dollop of dullness are its only sins.