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Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

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Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers is a book of fiction and non-fiction by Robert M. Sapolsky about stress and stress management, which cites J. M. Barrie as an example of psychogenic dwarfism. While the book might be well-grounded in Sapolsky's specialty of neuroendicrinology, it is a poor source of information about Barrie, making its conclusions about him suspect at best. It does not present Sapolsky as a credible source.

Even worse than Sapolsky's book is his popular lecture on the subject, which is available online. Unfortunately, noted blogger Cory Doctorow has recommended Sapolsky's lecture, and he repeats Sapolsky's most absurd claim – that Barrie never went through puberty – in two blog entries.[1][2]

In an article based on this lecture Sapolsky writes (errors in bold): "In the 1850's there was an eight year old boy growing up in Victorian England. One day he sees his beloved twelve year old brother killed in front of him in a horrible accident. This accident destroyed the family. There were no other siblings, and the older boy was the mother's favorite child." In the audio version Sapolsky instead says "1870's". Getting into the diagnostic particulars: "He lived to be 60 years old and 4'10". It was confirmed in his autopsy that he never reached puberty."

Barrie with 20-year-old Michael Llewelyn Davies: short but not a dwarf
Barrie with 20-year-old Michael Llewelyn Davies: short but not a dwarf

While some of these specific details aren't relevant to his point, his sloppy disregard for the facts undermines his credibility. For the record: Barrie was born in 1860, and the incident of David's death was in the 1860s. The Barries lived in Scotland, which is a country north of England. His brother David died the day before his fourteenth birthday, when Barrie was six years old. The boys had six other siblings (not counting the two who had died previously). It is true, however, that Queen Victoria was on the throne at the time, and that David Barrie was his mother's favorite child, so like most myths, Sapolsky's story has a grain of truth in it. Barrie died at the age of 77. His passport listed his height as 5'3½" which is short, but nearly half a foot above the figure Sapolsky made up; it isn't particularly abnormal. Every existing photo of him as an adult shows a man with a thick mustache, and you need to go through puberty to pull that off.

Sapolsky goes on: "He was repeatedly in trouble for sadomasochistic relationships with young boys. He spent half of his fortune keeping these stories out of the newspapers." There is no basis whatsoever for these conspiracy-theory-level declarations. The audio version of the lecture says that Barrie got in legal trouble for molesting boys, which is provably false. Although Barrie's relationship with the Davies boys was sometimes viewed with social disapproval (usually with the comment that he should amuse himself with children of his own), he was never accused of sexual misconduct, by anyone. (In her petition for divorce, his wife Mary complained that they didn't have sex, but that's a different kind of accusation.) In the endnotes for Zebras Sapolsky says that Barrie's "private writing includes passages of sadomasochism and pedophilia," without any explanation for this remarkable claim. It's possible to interpret some of Barrie's writing as an expression of pedophilic feelings – he was clearly very fond of boys in some way – but sadomasochism is nowhere to be found, and it's completely at odds with everything else that is known about him.

Nico Llewelyn Davies wrote in 1975, "All I can say is that I, who lived with him off and on for more than 20 years: who lived alone with him in his flat for five of these years: never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophiliacy [sic] – had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware. He was an innocent – which is why he could write Peter Pan!"

Speaking personally as the editor here, I have no particular problem with sadomasochism, and one of my friends is a (celibate) pedophile. I'm not getting upset in some puritanical defense of Barrie's character. If Barrie were a known pedo or into S&M, I'd find that interesting, and I'd spotlight the fact here for the sake of understanding him and his work. The dwarfism angle might be interesting, but... still, not supported by the facts, which is my final loyalty.

Sapolsky apparently wanted a famous example to spice up his lecture, but came up empty. So it seems that he found someone who kinda sorta came close, fudged the facts, tossed in a few pieces of complete fiction to confirm his diagnosis and sex up the story, and in doing so besmirched Barrie's reputation, misrepresented his medical record, utterly fabricated a legal record, and blew Sapolsky's own credibility to hell. Barrie might have suffered from psychogenic dwarfism to some extent; the stress following David's death might have stunted his growth for a while. It no doubt affected him psychologically. He may have been impotent. But he clearly continued growing, and although he was noticeably short, he was not medically speaking, a dwarf. Nor is there any evidence that he abused children. That's the fiction in Sapolsky's book.

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