The Devil's Bait

by Leslie Jamison

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Mind versus Body

In illuminating the symptoms of Morgellons in “The Devil’s Bait,” Leslie Jamison examines how living with disease disrupts the mind-body connection. Through an outsider’s perspective, she carefully investigates this seemingly psychosomatic condition and the agonizing toll that constant misdiagnoses and misconceptions have on sufferers of the disease. Her essay thus takes into consideration how physical manifestations of Morgellons affect the minds of patients.

Jamison conveys the ways that the “disease or delusion” conundrum—a narrative fueled by the medical community’s inability to grasp the source of Morgellons in the body—traps “Morgies” in a cycle of uncertainty, wherein their symptoms and attendant feelings of alienation are exacerbated by public doubt. This battle between mind and body also reflects a growing disconnect between individual and society. Jamison thus uses her own experience, in which her sensation of worms in her ankle is validated with physical proof, to reflect on this collective mental disengagement:

I remember how everyone looked at me: kindly and without belief . . . The disconnect felt even worse than the worm itself—to live in a world where this thing was, while other people lived in a world where it wasn’t.

In this passage, Jamison emphasizes the role that doubt—especially from medical experts with the power to define symptoms with diagnoses—plays on the psyche of a sufferer; in her case, she quite literally feels another body crawling inside of her skin. She later describes this sensation—from the perspective of another woman attending the Morgellons conference named Sandra—as “creatures . . . making a nest of her body, using the ordinary materials of her life to build a home inside her.” By vividly illuminating how Morgellons takes possession of the body in a ravenous and endless cycle, Jamison highlights throughout her essay that the “feedback loop,” causing physical manifestations of the disease, “testifies to the possibility of symptoms that dwell in a charged and uneasy space between body and mind.”

Moreover, this alienating abyss between body and mind has both a paralyzing and catalyzing effect for someone navigating the symptoms of Morgellons, and without definitive answers to assess the condition, the void becomes deeper. Jamison further affirms that “this insistence on an external source of damage” as validation for suffering contradicts how “the self” inherently functions—which she describes as a conglomeration of “discordant and self-sabotaging” entities. She thus depicts the mind-body connection as clashing internal forces: a chaotic collision course between the mental and physical elements that fuel a person’s self-construction in full, whether realized or not.

The Limits of Knowledge

Jamison’s essay communicates the limits of knowledge by examining society’s misconceptions and resulting mishandling of psychosomatic illnesses, especially addiction. For one, the dismissiveness of doctors toward the physical symptoms that patients of Morgellons face exemplifies how knowledge and compassion are conflicting forces in the search for scientific answers to both internal and external pain. Halfway into “The Devil’s Bait,” Jamison crucially lays out the fundamental basis of her intention in writing this piece:

This isn’t an essay about whether Morgellons disease is real . . . it’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion. It’s about this strange sympathetic limbo: Is it wrong to speak of empathy when you trust the fact of suffering but not the source?

Without explanation or validation from trustworthy sources, patients—especially those with misdiagnoses—must further face another effect of invisible illnesses: that their symptoms tend to blur the lines between what is real and what is not. Jamison describes this phenomenon as a “double-edged sword of fear and confirmation” exacerbated by unreliable conclusions in science and...

(This entire section contains 1167 words.)

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biased medical practices.

Accordingly, by analyzing the limitations of knowledge to fully grasp the relationship between physical and emotional manifestations of a disease, Jamison also highlights the use of female stereotypes in diagnosing patients. In realizing “70 percent of Morgellons patients are female—and that women are especially vulnerable to the isolating disfigurement and condescension that accompany the disease,” she discusses the historical pattern of misdiagnoses among women by doctors who “assumed that these patients were simply anxious or overly emotional.” While it is impossible to live in someone else’s body, these prejudices and invalidating approaches to treating disease attest to Jamison’s overarching message: that compassion is more essential than knowledge when it comes to understanding another person’s experiences.

Unity Through Suffering

While poignantly illustrating the depth of pain that Morgellons patients feel physically, mentally, and emotionally, Jamison also shows that there is strength in recognizing their shared experience. Given the medical community’s inability to adequately understand the disease, and the consequent ignorance and ridicule those with Morgellons face, finding a community that validates their symptoms as real and significant provides refuge. When Jamison observes this communal strength at the conference, she expresses admiration for the patients’ solidarity in their shared struggle, but also guilt that she can never fully understand the painful burden that these patients carry.

Jamison investigates the role that unity has in giving “Morgies” a semblance of peace in a society that dismisses their pain and questions their sanity. Accordingly, she explains how the drastic communication barrier between these patients and their doctors, who see their symptoms as solely psychosomatic, provides common ground:

Folie à deux is the clinical name for shared delusion. Morgellons patients all know the phrase—it’s the name of the crime they’re charged with. But if folie à deux is happening at the conference, it’s happening en masse: an entire churchful of folks having the same nightmare.

In navigating the mild empowerment that comes with shared struggle—in other words, finding others who experience “the same nightmare” of living with an invisible illness on a daily basis—Jamison likewise notes that, because all humans feel alienated by their fears in one form or another, it is possible to compassionately acknowledge and validate one another:

These demons belong to all of us: an obsession with our boundaries and visible shapes, a fear of invasion or contamination, an understanding of ourselves as perpetually misunderstood . . . but doesn’t this search for meaning obfuscate the illness itself? It’s another kind of bait, another tied and painted by the notion that if we understand something well enough, we can make it go away.

Through assessing the ways that common obsessions, fears, and subsequent judgments result from the inability to answer the answerable—or to prescribe any sort of internal paint with certainty—Jamison portrays the potential transference of shared experience as a path to cultivating compassionate understanding of complicated illnesses. In some ways, the “Morgies” community gives her inspiration “not to take [her] skin for granted,” even if she laments that she “can’t quiet the voices of those who no longer feel they belong anywhere.” While she acknowledges her inability to fully identify with the experiences of Morgellons patients, Jamison uses her essay to thoughtfully contemplate the crucial role that validating others’ struggles plays in establishing camaraderie in human communities.