“Florence Foster Jenkins”: Psychology of Her Delusions

As I’ve already provided a synopsis of one recent movie version of the life and ambitions of Florence Foster Jenkins (the 2016 Margueritesee previous post), I won’t review the current biopic starring Meryl Streep. Instead, this post will delve more deeply into this woman’s state of mind.

I will, however, provide the movie trailer for the new Florence Foster Jenkins:

The adjective I’ve seen most often applied to the depiction of Florence Foster Jenkins is “delusional.” Why? Because she wholeheartedly believes she can sing capably—and there’s absolutely no question that she’s so so wrong.

My favorite review title, in fact, belongs to Bob Mondello, NPR: “Meryl Streep’s Singer Has Delusions Of Adequacy In ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’.” While Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, calls our heroine “an emblem of the self-delusion that everyone, to some degree, shares.”

How can one have delusions, though, if not schizophrenic or otherwise psychotic? One possible answer is the diagnosis of delusional disorder, a newer term that in the past was considered part of paranoia. As defined by Psychology Today:

Delusional disorder refers to a condition associated with one or more nonbizarre delusions of thinking—such as expressing beliefs that occur in real life such as being poisoned, being stalked, being loved or deceived, or having an illness, provided no other symptoms of schizophrenia are exhibited…

Importantly, it’s also expressly stated that the delusion could be of the “grandiose type (patient believes that he has some great but unrecognized talent or insight”).

The hitch, though, is in the following prerequisite for making a diagnosis of delusional disorder: “(T)hese delusions are not due to a medical condition or substance abuse.”

Florence Foster Jenkins lets the audience know that she’d contracted syphilis at a young age. And we’re talking about an era—she lived until the 1940’s—when one could not be treated effectively. As antibiotics were not yet discovered when she contracted syphilis, nothing could stop the progression. Alas, later-stage syphilis can cause significant mental alteration and problems.

Although the doctor who in the film visits Florence at home declares her not to be in the tertiary stage of syphilis, in real life it’s more likely that she was, as she’d probably been living with the disease at least since early adulthood. In the film she’s in her 70’s.

States Dana Stevens, Slate, about the way Florence Foster Jenkins handles this subject: “Though the script, written by British TV veteran Nicholas Martin, is frank about Jenkins’ decadeslong decline from syphilis (which she caught from a quickly divorced and swept-under-the-rug first husband), it glosses over theories that the disease might have been responsible for her exhibitionistic tendencies and eccentric performance style.”

To recap thus far, one possible conclusion about Florence’s state of mind involves late-stage syphilis—but we’ll never know for sure. Another theory: she had the delusional disorder described above.

A third possibility? Her singular delusion springs simply from a deep lack of self-awareness, which Adrian Furnham, PhD (Psychology Today) defines as “the accurate appraisal and understanding of your abilities and preferences and their implications for your behaviour and their impact on others.

Florence, after all, was famously protected from reality testing by her common-law spouse St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant in the current film, as well as by every ingratiating person around her desirous of the benefit of her wealth and generosity. (It’s unclear how much this was true of Bayfield, who did appear to love her.)

At any rate and for whatever reasons, Florence both in real life and in the two biographical movie(s) I’ve now seen did notably fail to notice how badly she sang. As Dana Stevens (Slate) so aptly and relevantly concludes: “In the end, this is a sweet, uplifting comedy with a message that might not stand up to extended scrutiny in the political climate of the moment: Follow your dreams wherever they lead you, even at the expense of correctly apprehending reality.”

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