Bad Inheritances

Madness and the martyrdom of St. Dymphna
Jacques Callot, “Ste. Dimpre, vierge et martyre,” 1636 (Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1917/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In his watercolor Dymphna Martyr, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd uses bright, even zany colors to render an otherwise dark scene. Dymphna, clad in white, has been thrown to her knees by her father, who is pushing her head back with one hand and raising his sword with the other. As Dymphna flings up her arms in a gesture that is half-supplication, half-protective, we see a somewhat unhelpful angel hovering over her, waiting to guide her to heaven. Dymphna looks so small; you wish the angel would do something.

When Dadd painted Dymphna Martyr in 1851, he had been living in London’s Bethlem Hospital—the mental asylum that gave us the term “bedlam”—for seven years. Nobody really seemed to know what was wrong with him. In 1844, he murdered his father, Robert, after returning from a trip to Egypt, convinced that he had been ordered to do so by the Egyptian god Osiris. “I inveigled him,” Dadd wrote in 1852, “by false pretences, into Cobham Park, and slew him with a knife, with which I stabbed him, after having vainly endeavoured to cut his throat.” He would remain institutionalized until his death.

The story of Dymphna, patroness of the mentally ill, whose feast day occurs this month, is in many respects a fairy tale. The beautiful Christian wife of a pagan king in Ireland dies. He must marry again, but doesn’t want to. Perhaps prompted by his counselors, the king comes to realize that the perfect replacement for his wife is his daughter, Dymphna. Dymphna refuses and flees with her priest, the court jester, and the jester’s wife to Geel, in Belgium, with Dymphna’s father in hot pursuit. He eventually catches up with them and murders both his daughter and the priest before returning to Ireland. 

When Dadd painted “Dymphna Martyr” in 1851, he had been living in London’s Bethlem Hospital—the mental asylum that gave us the term “bedlam”—for seven years.

There are other, slightly different versions of this story, which existed in an oral tradition long before it was written down. As the entry for Dymphna in the Catholic Encyclopedia observes, a little huffily, the basic plot of the Dymphna story is well-worn, “merely a variation of the story of the king who wanted to marry his own daughter, a motif which appears frequently in popular legends.” In her study of Dymphna, historian Juliana Dresvina mentions another story in which a group of “mad” people, coincidentally in the vicinity of Geel, become sane after witnessing Dymphna’s martyrdom. Over time, Geel became dedicated to the care of the mentally ill and remains so to this day, flourishing under Dymphna’s patronage. But in the seventeenth-century text called The Lives of the Women Saints of Our Contrie of England, from which the above summary was drawn, madness really doesn’t enter the story at all—at least not until the very end. If you think about it, then, it’s somewhat strange that Dymphna is the patroness of the mentally ill: she was not herself mentally ill and was at best the victim of a temporarily insane person.

The brevity and archetypal quality of Dymphna’s story means that it lends itself well to elaboration and reinterpretation; there is space to play around with it without denying its reality. “Like so many other victims of abuse,” muses Anne Thériault in an essay on the saint published two years ago, “Dymphna channeled her trauma into helping others. Her brief life was an act of determination, bravery and resilience.” For Marina Warner, in her book From the Beast to the Blonde, the story of Dymphna illustrates that “derangement could be a contagion, like temptation; it affected both perpetrator and victim.” One of my favorite contemporary images of Dymphna echoes the plastic quality of her story with a distinctive if slightly troubling feature: her face is left blank.

Dymphna, patron saint of the insane, victim of her father, could have presented an upside-down portrait to Dadd of his own past, though I suspect that his motives for painting her martyrdom were probably less obvious and less personal. But if everybody has their own Dymphna, he was certainly entitled to his.


Nobody knew what was wrong with Dadd. His friends blamed sunstroke. The Victorian-era medical establishment that treated him mostly applied itself to containing him, and while the sparse case notes left behind by his doctors indicate that they found him persistently delusional and often physically disgusting, there is not much in the way of specificity in them. Even if one wanted to indulge in the dubious practice of posthumous diagnosis, there is not enough to go on. Dadd regarded himself as a kind of vessel through which something stronger than he had acted, which is, however imprecise, probably the best description of his state we are likely to have.

In many respects, Dadd seemed quite sane, certainly by the legal standards of the time. He knew what murder was and that he’d done it. His art did not really communicate “insanity” to its viewers, then or now; he was as precise and careful in his work in Bethlem (and later, Broadmoor) as he was before whatever happened to him during his travels in Egypt. (Later attempts to reclaim him as an outsider artist, as Nicholas Tromans, one of his biographers, documents, in fact failed largely for this reason.) As a murderer-madman-artist, his allure now remains much what it was then: a little bit rock star, a little bit panther in a cage.

Whatever was wrong with Dadd, however, he wasn’t the only person in his family to suffer from persistent delusions. His father met him in the park that fateful day in part to persuade him to seek medical help, and he must have perceived his son’s sudden delusions as part of a recurring and distressing pattern among his children. Three of Dadd’s siblings would also require hospitalization, including a brother admitted to Bethlem just ahead of him. (If the two brothers were reunited in Bethlem, there is no record of it.)

Much like Dadd, Dymphna was faced with something dangerous and beyond her control.

Through nature or nurture, we all inherit things from our families, which go beyond money, even if money or its lack conditions how we experience everything else handed down to us. We inherit our ideas about attachment, security, and love; we inherit poor eyesight, bad backs, and assumptions around work and leisure. We inherit illnesses, violence, and our historical situation. Nobody gets to choose the situation in which they enter the world. Victories against bad inheritances may only ever be partial or amount to just finding ways to manage them by working around their effect on our lives: going to therapy, wearing glasses, taking a regimen of pills. These inheritances don’t determine our lives, our beliefs, or our actions, but they form the backdrop against which we make our choices. They run, as the phrase goes, in the family. 

If everybody gets something a little different from Dymphna’s story, for me, it is about these familial inheritances: what we can get away from and what we can’t. Dymphna is a princess, which she renounces in fleeing her kingdom and taking on a wandering jester’s costume. But throwing off your inheritance is not so easy; in the story, her father finds her by tracking her use of Irish money. Dymphna inherits her father’s violence, which shapes her life and which she only briefly escapes. Her Christian faith is another kind of inheritance, this time from her mother, as is the brave priest who accompanies her and, eventually, dies for her. Her looks, too, come from her mother; it is their resemblance that undoes her.

Read this way, Dymphna’s sympathetic connection to mental illness becomes clearer to me. Much like Dadd, she was faced with something dangerous and beyond her control: her violent and disturbing familial legacy is first lived with, then fled. When her father forces a confrontation, Dymphna, through her martyrdom, absorbs and transcends his violent, incestuous threats. Her father’s madness is her madness too, shaping her life as much as it does his, experienced by both of them in different ways. Madness and violence involve many people, not just the people we consider the responsible actors in a conflict. And it also explains something about Dymphna’s most prominent legacy in the present: Geel.


“I dreamed of a place like Geel long before I knew it was real,” Thériault remarks in her essay on Dymphna. “Through all the time I’d spent in Canada’s psychiatric system,”

years of white-knuckling it through months-long wait-lists just to get an intake appointment, late nights in the ER with panic attacks that wouldn’t stop, wards with doors that lock behind you with a gut-wrenching click—I’d tried to imagine how it might be different. I fantasized about a system where care is ongoing and mental health isn’t treated as a binary of “fine” and “crisis;” where patients are considered complex individuals rather than a list of dysfunctions; where clinicians understand the difference between staying alive and actually living.... To fix all that, you would have to change society entirely, but that’s exactly what Geel has done. 

Geel is famous for its boarder program: mentally ill people, or boarders, live with host families and are incorporated into their normal family life. Unlike the programs of separation, hospitalization, and containment that characterize most treatment of the mentally ill, Geel incorporates their boarders into all aspects of everyday life. As Thériault notes, the host families are not even told their boarders’ official diagnoses. They learn to get along with their boarders the way you learn to get along with people, and not with types.

With the decline of mental institutions in America, there aren’t a lot of Richard Dadds, living isolated from the rest of the world for more than thirty years, but as anybody who has had a serious episode of mental illness can tell you, that doesn’t mean that treatment of the sick has progressed greatly. (On the other hand, if the number of mentally ill people in prisons are included, then in fact, there are many Richard Dadds, just not regarded as such.) Deinstitutionalization has removed one avenue of abuse, but has also left mentally ill people and those who care for them alone, sinking or swimming with the rest of us. In times of acute crisis, the first resort is still to separate a mentally ill person from the world of the healthy; the institution families and friends have to turn to in these moments of crisis is often the police, and encounters between the mentally ill and the police disproportionately end violently. For others, those who find these options inadequate or harmful, or the drug regimens they are expected to live on unbearable, the response, essentially, is: tough luck.

Geel is an object of fascination within the psychiatric community: it is obvious that Geel “works,” but not so obvious how what makes it work could be extracted from Geel’s context. How would you set up a boarder program in Manhattan or San Francisco? It shouldn’t be impossible, yet the backlash to such a suggestion is easy to imagine. Even Dymphna’s story is easy to imagine in a sensationalized, true-crime format, gleefully narrated as a cautionary tale.

What would it look like if we regarded mental illness as a part of life, and helping the mentally ill to live with the rest of us as a collective effort? When we look to Geel, we know the answer; when we look to Dymphna, we have a guide. If doing so requires changing our world, then we should probably get started.

B. D. McClay is a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York.

Also by this author
Tearful Among Women

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads