Ask Doctor Shrink: When the Emperor has no brain

Do you have questions about psychiatry – your own or that of your weird family members? Send your question to Doctor Shrink for a scientific answer.

Q: I understand you believe that it is possible for a group to be psychotic even though most, or even all, the members of the group are normal.

A: That is true, although we have to be careful with words like “normal”. The members of the religious cult that died at Jonestown in Guyana in the 1970s were all behaving “normally” for their surroundings when they drank the poison.

Q: Is it possible for someone who is psychotic to become the leader of a group or organization whose members are mostly not psychotic?

A: Presumably, that is what happened at Jonestown.

Q: So, if the leader is psychotic, is the group or whatever destined to commit suicide, or at least to collapse?

A: Not immediately anyway. Take King George III, who was as mad as a hatter. That was partly responsible for the loss of his American colonies, but England’s empire continued mostly undisturbed, and many English thought they were better off without the Americans.

Or the Roman Empire. The ins and outs of becoming Emperor, and then not being overthrown the next day, were so complicated that not even Hollywood script writers could make sense of them. And it was nearly always dreadful – Caligula and Nero and the like. Yet the Empire itself continued for several more centuries, no matter how mad the Emperors were.

Q: Caligula – isn’t he the one who appointed his horse to a high position?

A: The story is that the horse was to be appointed consul. That was no longer as high a position as it had been in the Roman Republic, but it was still up there pretty high – maybe like Speaker of the House of Representatives today.

Q: But the President doesn’t appoint the House Speaker, does he?

A: No, but he doesn’t need to. If there’s an impeachment motion, the Speaker is a guaranteed neigh-sayer.