The Devil's Bait

by Leslie Jamison

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“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 wrongness in my being.” In addition, Jamison once had the larva of a...

(This entire section contains 1288 words.)

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worm removed from her ankle. She recalled the medical staff’s disbelief and her own self-doubt until it was cut out. Her continued anxiety and suspicion that there are more larvae in her body gives her a point of reference for the experience of Morgellons.

Dawn, a nurse who had been misdiagnosed, has published Morgellons-related research in a nursing journal. She and the author discuss the phenomenon of “female disease,” which has precedents in the non-recognition of differences in female heart disease as well as the common 19th-century diagnosis of “hysteria” in women.

Kendra plans to attend a session featuring a microscope, hoping to learn to identify what exactly is causing her condition. She has sores on her face from rubbing and trying to remove the invisible cause of her affliction. They discuss her doubts and fears, including her apprehension about a future that might be consumed by the disease.

Paul is a patient whose face is severely pockmarked and who believes that a virus is the source of the condition. He has had the condition—which he calls the Devil’s Fishing Bait because he got it while fishing—for eight years. His wrinkled ear was apparently damaged by self-dosage with liquid nitrogen. His sister, initially skeptical, has not only become a source of support but now has the condition herself.

The author evaluates the relationship between reality and compassion. She describes her own attitude: a kind of limbo wherein one might doubt the source but not the suffering. What is “real” could be a fungus or virus. But reality pertains as well to the manifestations, such as the severe itching, which cannot be dismissed as “making it up.” Jamison addresses the role of the brain in causing sensations such as itching. In considering the complex body–mind relationships, she poses challenging questions:

What does it look like when the self fights itself? When a human being is broken into warring factions?

Conscious of her difference from the sufferers, the author feels guilty. She scrutinizes her own pores and worries that the disease might be contagious. Conference attendees discuss their concerns as they worry about spreading Mogellons to others.

In online communities, sufferers share their concerns about passing it to their pets. Some of the posts are written in first person by the animals, including one written posthumously. The internet has facilitated sharing information about Mogellon, but skeptics claim it has increased the number of people believing they are affected.

Another attendee, Sandra, shows the author photographs of a shrimp-shaped larva she coughed up. In another image, of herself in the bathtub, “wriggling larvae” seem to swim around her feet. Her condition has improved, she says. Previously hundreds of worms had emerged daily from her skin. Kendra, seeing these photographs, wonders about her own future. The author feels confused and conflicted:

I don’t know whether what I’m seeing are worms, or where they come from, or what they might be if they’re not worms, or whether I want them to be worms or not, or what I have to believe about this woman if they aren’t worms—or about the world, or human bodies, or this disease, if they are.

When the author wins a mini-microscope in a lottery, she gives it to Sandra, who had been wanting one. Then she wonders if she has compounded Sandra’s problem, as she will henceforth be spending more hours scrutinizing something she cannot cure.

Jamison leaves the conference early. Although she recognizes her difference from the sufferers, she still feels close to them because of the human commonality of trying to purge “demons.” Moreover, she relates to the common human “fear of invasion or contamination” or of being misunderstood.

Because everyone at the conference was so kind to her, she worries that she remains skeptical. She wants to believe people, such as Paul, but cannot completely do so. In conclusion, Jamison is dubious but empathetic:

I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he suffered as if there were.