“The Devil’s Bait” is a 2013 essay by Leslie Jamison in which the author examines the phenomenon of Morgellons disease. Throughout the essay, Jamison draws on specific cases to paint a portrait of the obscure and controversial ailment. Paul, Lennie, Dawn, Patricia, and Kendra have symptoms such as blisters or itching, or a mental fog. They are among the approximately 12,000 people suffering from Morgellons disease, an illness that entails unsettling sensations of the skin. In many cases, patients experience the feeling of insects crawling on the skin, a symptom called formication. But the defining symptom of Morgellons is the phenomenon of fibers, in various manifestations, emerging from the body.
They didn’t know what this matter was, or where it came from, or why it was there, but they knew… that it was real.
In 2001, Mary Leitao coined the term “Morgellons” for the disease. She took it from Sir Thomas Browne’s 17th-century description of an “endemial distemper” characterized by “‘harsh hairs’” emerging from victim’s back. Leitao’s young son suffered from the condition but the physicians did not believe her. Instead they suspected she had Münchausen syndrome by proxy, in which a patient’s parent or caregiver either fabricates or causes his illness.
Patients report that the fibers come in various colors and resemble such things as tangled wire, animal fur, or sweater fuzz. The patients often take such threads and fuzz to their doctors, often carrying them in matchboxes, leading to the coining of the “matchbox sign,” a term that indicates the patients’ determination to prove their condition by what doctors see as fake evidence.
As the Morgellons controversy became well established by the mid-2000s, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) began an in-depth investigation of the disease. Patients, calling themselves “Morgies,” advocated for recognition of their disease. They protested the common medical diagnosis of DOP: delusions of parasitosis.
Jamison describes her attendance in 2012 of an annual conference about Morgellons disease—“Searching for an Uncommon Thread”—held in Austin, Texas and sponsored by the Charles E. Holman Foundation. Along with Morgellons sufferers, researchers and health-care providers attend. Holman’s widow, who suffers from the condition, runs the conference. People with Morgellons feel that they suffer doubly, both from the condition itself and from the widespread disbelief of their plight.
In 2012, the CDC’s Unexplained Dermopathy Task Force report, based on examination of 115 patients, states inconclusive findings. While the “unexplained dermopathy” might represent a
“new condition… or wider recognition of an existing condition such as delusional infestation.”
At the conference, the audience enthusiastically receives one speaker in particular, an Australian physician who vehemently rejects the CDC findings as “hogwash” and a “dung-pile.” Promising to fight for the sufferers, he says the doctors are deluded, not the patients. Jamison senses how the audience shares the experience of disbelieved by “countless callous doctors.” She also learns of patients’ reactions to their condition, many of which are dangerous. These include freezing their skin, laser treatment, taking antiparasitics intended for animals, or even dousing their skin with acid.
Seventy percent of Morgellons patients are female. As a whole, they are vulnerable to both disfigurement and the condescension of others. At the conference, whose atmosphere resembles “a meeting of alcoholics or Quakers,” the participants attend presentations, share their experiences, look at each other’s skin or at photographs, and discuss their experiences and theories.
At the conference, Jamison converses with sufferers, including Dawn, Kendra, and Paul, and attends the various presentations and events. Jamison identifies somewhat with the patients, because of previously sensing “a...
(The entire section is 1,288 words.)