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?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

There are things in my past that I'm not proud of. I was even a serial killer for a while. Hundreds of lives—perhaps thousands—ended at my hands. If only their deaths were painless. But the truth of the matter is that my modus operandi was unspeakably cruel, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't take considerable pleasure in my victims' suffering. I lit those poor souls on fire. Why? Old Testament vengeance. It was punishment for the sins of one of their very own, a horrible figure who, one springtime day back in 1986, took it upon himself to rudely lodge his mandible into the top of my second toe with such fury that I, quite seriously, winced. Yes, it's true—I winced. As if that alone weren't just cause for retaliation, he then injected his venom, enough to make me really, really itchy for a good 30 minutes.

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So each afternoon for the next month, I perched myself atop a bench on our suburban patio, matchbooks pilfered from my father's desk at the ready, and gleefully held a great wrathful flame against the thorax of whatever unfortunate fire ant, heir to my fury, dared to wander into my field of vision. Eventually, I saw the error of my ways. (Basically, I turned 11.) In retrospect, though, I really was playing with fire in incinerating those ants, which is no laughing matter. Perhaps a slight perturbation here or there in my development would have turned me into the character described by British psychiatrist Randolph Parks and his colleagues in a 2005 issue of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Ants weren't sufficient kindling for the 20-year-old homeless fellow who was the focus of their case study. He enjoyed dowsing people with lighter fluid and setting them on fire. Although he was seriously depressed and presented to the clinicians with anhedonia (low mood), he really lit up when talking about his hobby of using people, quite literally, for fatwood. (He also asked one of the mental health aides if she could arrange for prostitutes to visit the inpatient ward disguised as staff nurses, but that's probably a separate issue.)

Now if a child psychiatrist happened to be observing me on my back porch way back when, she might have pulled my parents aside and given them a stern warning about my behavior, prognosticating about the sociopath incubating inside their little boy and on such clear display. But relax: My sadism was reserved entirely for Solenopsis invicta. (Around the same time, I wrote to Gillette threatening legal action over their use of animals in deodorant testing and had a falling-out with my best friend over his rough handling of his cat.) Still, there's no denying I had a curiosity about fire; I did like the smell of a struck match. So there was the question of pyromania. Derived from French physician Charles Chrétian Henry Marc's 1833 coinage monomanie incendiare ("insane incendiarism,"), pyromania is a slightly inaccurate English translation of a concept that has always eluded precise definitions—and posed major challenges for any scientist who wished to study it.

It may be a stretch to find evidence of a disorder in my Salem Ant Trials, but when does "normal" childhood experimentation with fire cross that hazy line into dangerous fire-setting pathology? Although we tend to use the term loosely, there remains considerable confusion among experts—let alone the public—as to what, exactly, pyromania might be. In fact, not so very long ago, the FBI organized an advanced fire investigation training session and, at the start of the meeting, asked over 600 participants (fire agency personnel, insurance investigators, law enforcement, and mental health professionals) to write down their definition of pyromania. Not a single one got it entirely right—at least, not according to the American Psychiatric Associations' formal diagnostic criteria. To be considered a full-fledged pyromaniac, one must set fires deliberately on more than one occasion, show tension or arousal before the act, be fascinated by or attracted to fire or its paraphernalia, and feel pleasure or relief when setting fires or witnessing their aftermath. Even that's not enough to earn the diagnosis, though. The arsonist in question must also set fires for fires' sake (i.e. not for monetary or other gain), and the act must not be due to inebriation, psychosis, or any other form of impaired cognition. That is to say, the qualifications are strict.

Only a handful of those arrested for setting fires on purpose would be considered certifiable pyromaniacs under official guidelines. At least, that's the case in Finland. University of Helsinki psychologist Nina Lindberg and her co-authors pored over the jailhouse records between the years of 1972 and 1993 and found that among Finnish men who'd been arrested for arson, 68 percent had been drunk at the time of the crime. Repeat offenders were mostly those with personality disorders or mental retardation—and a history of alcoholism. The scholars therefore concluded that "pyromania is an extremely rare phenomenon," at least when applying the APA's present diagnostic criteria to the arsonists who happened to get caught by the police. As psychologist Rebekah Doley points out in the British Journal of Criminology, "much that is known … is more pertinent to describing the incompetent fire-setter, as those who are more criminally skilled are presumably more successful in covering their tracks." She's right. In the U.S., only 3 percent of suspected arson fires lead to conviction. Maybe the true arson-prone pyromaniacs are still roaming the streets. (Some evidence suggests that arsonists tend to be nonassertive offenders who internalize their anger, with fires enabling them to avoid face-to-face confrontation; such evasiveness also makes them difficult to study.)

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.

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.

But this was only half the battle. Sure, maybe he was getting more excited by naked women, but that didn't mean that his loins no longer craved fire as well. (There's no shortage of irony in the fact behaviorists generally refer to this procedure as "extinguishing" a response.) To purge his fiery lust, then, Lande had the young man masturbate to fire images, but now the incendiary image was paired with an adjacent scene—"a highly unpleasant scene"—which depicted a scenario that was intensely feared by the patient (such as being caught in a fire without escape, being burned alive, being beaten by a group of tough-looking men screaming "pervert!" and being taken to prison). Lande reports success with this procedure—basically, at 4- and 9-month post-treatment follow-ups, the man claimed that he was fantasizing solely about naked women. Yet given the prospect of going through all that again, who knows if he was telling the truth.

So, motivations for fire-setting behavior are notoriously slippery, and labeling someone properly as a pyromaniac is no easy task for psychiatric investigators. What separates "normal" childhood experimentation from the serious cases presented here still isn't entirely clear, but if your child seems oddly intoxicated by fires, you may want to explore this issue with a trained professional. And I really do mean that. Given the astronomical costs (material and psychological) related to arson and other fire-setting behaviors, it's not something to put on the back burner.

I know that's rich, coming from someone with my antsy background. And sure, I did become a flamer in the end. But the good kind, of course.

Jesse Bering is the author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Read his columns here and follow him at jessebering.com, @JesseBering, or on Facebook.

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