During high school, travel writer Frank Bures spent a year in Italy as an exchange student. When he returned, he writes in his new book The Geography of Madness, he was not the same person. But rather than accepting the simple adage that travel can be life-changing, Bures wants to know what happened. “How was that possible?” he asks. “How could moving from one place, from one language, from one culture to another…change who you are?”
While the experience of culture shock and its aftermath is a familiar one, most travelers will not have encountered what Bures describes in subsequent travels that took him to Nigeria, Borneo, Singapore, China and elsewhere. In these places Bures pursues “fox ghosts and lizards that crawl under your skin, poison pork, and poisoned minds.” He becomes fascinated with the world’s strangest syndromes, exploring how one culture could believe something that would appear entirely out of the realm of possibility to another. Yet both experiences—the year as an exchange student and chasing the ghost of a fox around the world—lead Bures to the same conclusion, and the same quest. He wants to understand “how our ideas can kill us, how our beliefs can save us and how these things quietly determine the course of our lives.”
Such beliefs “can also,” he adds, “cause your penis to disappear.” At the heart of Bures’ exploration into how cultural beliefs affect the course of our travels, and our lives, is his study of what the Chinese call koro, often referred to as suo yang in Chinese medicine and what has been described as the phenomenon of “magical penis theft.” Bures travels to Nigeria to interview a victim of “missing manhood,” then pursues the epidemic across the globe, researching other “culture-bound” syndromes as he goes, from voodoo death to PMS. The result is an insightful journey deep into the science of culture as Bures deftly navigates the geographically defined contours of the mind.