Tuesday, December 21, 2010





Evidence has emerged suggesting that the U.S. secretary of homeland security may suffer from a rare dissociative disorder called Ganser syndrome. As described by WebMD.com:

The most well-recognized symptom of Ganser syndrome is the so-called symptom of approximate answers (alternately designated in the literature by the German terms vorbeireden [talking past], vorbeigehen [to pass by], or danebenreden [talking next to]). Here, the patient responds to questions with an incorrect answer, but by the nature of the answer reveals an understanding of the question posed. This can be illustrated by the patient answering "3" when asked, "How many legs has a horse?" or "black" when asked "What color is snow?" or "Tuesday" when asked "What is the day after Sunday?" Frequently, the patient answers a number of questions with these odd approximate answers. This is in direct contrast to answers that are simply nonsensical, perseverative, or otherwise inappropriate.

To be clear, an example of a perseverative answer would be "Failure is not an option." A nonsensical one would be just about anything Vice President Biden says. But Janet Napolitano's latest utterance falls into the approximate category.

In a much-discussed interview with ABC's "World News Tonight," Mediaite.com reports, Diane Sawyer asked Napolitano about the possibility of a terror attack over the holidays. The secretary answered: "What I say to the American people is that . . . thousands of people are working 24/7, 364 days a year to keep the American people safe."


She's had a long year.

The minimum number of days in a year is 365. So what was Napolitano trying to say? Our first thought was that the Homeland Security Department doesn't work on--pardon the expression, Miss Totenberg--Christmas, which would explain how that guy managed to get on a plane last year with a bomb in his drawers. This would be consistent with a Ganser diagnosis. WebMD notes that questions have been raised about Ganser's "status as a true mental illness versus a specific form of malingering." But while those questions have "been the subject of multiple journal articles and book chapters," they have yet to be answered with precision.

In a 2003 article for the Journal of Medical Humanities, Mady Schutzman offered a provocative hypothesis. In the course of researching "hysteria as a cultural and relational phenomenon rather than a disorder belonging to women's bodies," Schutzman stumbled upon a curious phenomenon known as "humor," which bears an uncanny resemblance to the symptoms of Ganser syndrome:

I discovered a performative trope--a slippery kind of verbal humor--that epitomized "talking past the point" and relocated its dynamic outside the boundaries of medical science. . . .
Jokes rely upon "getting the point" just at the boundaries of the point; that is, jokes are about sidestepping the point, a kind of punning, taking the literal and tweeking [sic] it, bending it so that we are made precisely aware of what was "past," what was expected, precisely from the vantage point of the unexpected. A master of this form of comedic repartee was Groucho Marx. "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Or, "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

And inside of a plane, the underwear bomber flies on Christmas.

If Napolitano is suffering from Ganser syndrome, what are the implications for homeland security? The good news, according to WebMD: "Symptoms usually resolve spontaneously." The bad news: "Occasionally, they may be followed by a major depressive episode."

"The full Ganser syndrome is considered very rare," WedMD reports, noting that "fewer than 100 cases have been described and documented in the literature." But we wonder if the disorder doesn't often go undiagnosed. Remember the Beatles song "Eight Days a Week"? Maybe the Fab Five had it.

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