The science of pyromania.

The state of the universe.
Sept. 14 2011 11:23 AM

That's Hot

What does it take to inflame a pyromaniac?

(Continued from Page 1)

Even getting to this rather overspecified definition of pyromania hasn't been easy for clinicians, and, as I said, controversies remain. One ongoing debate concerns the question of whether pyromaniacs tend to derive any sexual satisfaction from fire. In fact, this libidinal motive can be traced back to some of the earliest theorizing on the problem. In the late 18th century, German physicians were convinced that fire-setting tendencies were primarily an affliction of teenage girls with low IQs, noting that burning things gave these "imbecilic," sexually frustrated adolescents orgasmic release. Hence the archaic Prussian term feuerlust ("fire lust"), which could also be found in some sex-starved old men. Whether these old discussions added fuel to the fire that would begin raging in Vienna a few centuries later isn't entirely clear, but Freud did see the fire-setting impulse as originating from unresolved psychosexual conflicts.

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In fact, he cited the myth of Prometheus to support his idea that fire and penises went together like peanut butter and jelly. Prometheus did, after all, give mankind fire only by hiding it from the gods and smuggled in a hollow fennel stalk. "Freud saw [this] as a penis symbol," explain psychiatrists Candice Germain and Michel Lejoyeux, "and, invoking the mechanism of reversal, he suggested that it was not fire that man harbors in his penis but the means of extinguishing fire: the water of his stream of urine." But Freud also saw a morbid curiosity of fire as being related to excessive nocturnal enuresis (bed-wetting) in children, with the erotically tinged warmth associated with ambient urine essentially trapping problem bed-wetters in the phallic stage, usually reserved for 3- to 6-year-olds. He also thought that flames were reminiscent of coital thrusting and overall penile chaos. (Maybe this explains Walt Whitman's line in Poems of Joy, "The sight of flames maddens me with pleasure.") In any event, you can probably see why most psychological scientists fret over the falsifiability of Freudian theories.

Still, psychodynamic thinking stemming from this tradition dominated clinical approaches to the subject for much of the next century. More recently, psychiatrists have attempted to understand fire-setting behavior in less symbolic terms. For example, the most common diagnosis given to juvenile fire-setters today is a rather generic "conduct disorder." Like animal abuse, fire-setting among children and teenagers is often regarded as being symptomatic of an antisocial personality. (Recall the recent case of the 15-year-old Florida boy who was burned so terribly by his classmates.) But University of Toronto psychologist Sherri MacKay feels that this kind of lumping-together diagnostic approach can lead to true pyromaniacs going undetected at an age when there may be an opportunity to help them.

She distinguishes between antisocial arsonists, for whom there's nothing particularly special about fire (it's just a means to an anti-social end), and the real ones, who are truly fascinated by flames. (These character traits put together, needless to say, makes for a very dangerous individual indeed.) In a 2006 report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, MacKay and her co-authors found that the best predictor of whether juvenile males who set one unsupervised fire would repeat the act over the following 18 months was the individual's degree of fire interest. "The present findings underscore that interest in fire should not be cast as a benign characteristic," conclude these researchers, "and that the widely used label 'Curiosity Firesetter' to convey low-risk status for children involved with firesetting is a significant misnomer."

And then there's that question of sexual arousal I left smoldering earlier. Freud might have gone a bit too far in linking pyromania to bedwetting or arguing that the chronic fire-setter sees wild penises dancing with abandon in the protean flames, but some fire-setters are indeed pyrophiles. Forensic psychiatrist Larry Litman introduces us to a 25-year-old married man who admitted himself to an Ontario psychiatric clinic for treatment at the behest of his wife and the police (he'd recently set fire to his car dashboard). He relayed several Oedipal-themed incidents to Litman centering on heat and his early sexual excitement. One of his first memories was of his mother touching his hand to the hot stove to teach him to stay away from it, and he also helped her to shovel coals. By the time he was an adult, he'd graduated to sitting on hot stoves, setting fire to pants wrapped around his arm, and only being able to achieve orgasm with his wife when she incorporated fire themes into her dirty talk. ("Burn, baby, burn"?) Kala Singh wrote a letter to the editor of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry regarding a suspected female pyrophile who kept a detailed diary of her fire-setting behaviors and would use these steamy memories as masturbation fodder at home. Another pyrophile was only able to lose his virginity at age 17 by staring at the roaring blaze in the fireplace as he went about his business with the girl.

In fact, this last individual was the subject of an interesting "orgasmic reconditioning" study back in 1980. By then, Freudian-type interpretations were well on their way to extinction in most clinics and behaviorism had become the dominant paradigm. Like others at the time, Temple University psychiatrist Stephen Lande believed that a person's troublesome fetishes—even their entire sexual orientation—could be fixed in a lab by redirecting their unacceptable fantasies toward more "appropriate" stimuli. Lande reported his experiments on the fireside love-maker described above in The Journal of Behavior Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry. The 20-year-old had been masturbating to fantasies of burning houses and cars since early puberty, and had since taken to pleasuring himself while watching controlled fires that he'd set several times a day in trash cans. Lande attached a plethysmograph to his penis and presented him with various slides. After it was established that fire really did turn him on, and that naked women really didn't, he was instructed to masturbate to the very crescendo of orgasm while gazing upon the fire slides, but to yell "switch!" before ejaculating, at which time a nude female would make a hasty appearance on the screen. After 15 cycles of this bait and switch, he was given four gasket-blowing, orgasmic minutes with the image of the lovely lady.

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