Dinner for one! A beginner’s guide to autosarcophagy
Autosarcophagy is the practice of eating parts oneself and is also known as ‘self-cannibalism’ and ‘auto-cannibalism’. The practice is very rare and has only been documented a number of times in the psychological and psychiatric literature (and all are individual case studies). It has sometimes been labeled as a type of pica (on the basis that the person is eating something non-nutritive) although personally I think this is misguided as it could be argued that human flesh may be nutritious (even if most people find the whole concept morally repugnant).
It’s evident that some seemingly autosarcophagic acts occur unwillingly or without conscious knowledge. For instance, the eating and swallowing of dead cells from the tongue and cheeks would hardly be classed as a genuine from of self-cannibalism. Even if someone is aware of the act, it still doesn’t necessarily mean it is an auto-cannibalistic act. For instance, the swallowing of blood following a nosebleed or the accidental biting of one’s own tongue wouldn’t be classed as an autosarcophagic act. Nor would the biting and eating one’s own fingernails or hair (trichophagia), although some may class these behaviours as types of pica).
However, there are documented cases of autosarcophagy where people have eaten their own skin as an extreme form of body modification. Some authors argue that auto-vampirism (i.e., the practice of people drinking their own blood) should also be classed as a form of autosarcophagy (although again, I think this is stretching the point a little).
The practice has certainly come to the fore in some high profile examples in the fictional literature. Arguably the most infamous example, was in Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal (and also in the film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott), where Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter psychologically manipulates the paedophile Mason Verger into eating his own nose, and then gets Verger to slice off pieces of his own face off and feed them to his dog. In what many people see as an even more gruesome autosarcophagic scene, Lecter manages to feed FBI agent Paul Krendler slices of his own brain. In real life (rather than fiction), autosarcophagy is typically a lot less stomach churning but in extreme examples can still be something that makes people wince.
Cases of forced autosarcophagy where people have been forced to eat their own body parts (like the fictional scenes in Hannibal) have been sporadically reported. For instance, forced autosarcophagic acts are known to have occurred as a form of torture during war. The Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614) – and now viewed as the most prolific female killer in history – allegedly forced some of her servants to eat their own flesh (and she was also alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins as a way of keeping herself youthful). In the 1500s Spanish colonizers forced the indigenous natives to eat their own testicles. More recently, there have been incidents of forced cannibalism in the 1991Haiti coup and reports in 1998 of Sudanese youth being forced to eat their own ears (published in an article on human rights in The Lambeth Daily, August 6, 1998)
Depending on the definition of autosarcophagy used, the spectrum of self-cannibalism could potentially range from behaviours such as eating a bit of your own skin right through eating your own limbs. Here are four autosarcophagic examples that have been widely reported in the media but are very different in scope and the public’s reaction to them.
- Example 1: Following a liposuction operation in 1996, the Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti held a dinner party for close friends and served up a pasta dish with meatballs made from beef and the fatty liposuction remains. The meal was claimed by Evaristti to be an artistic statement but was highly criticized as being “disgusting, publicity-seeking and immoral”.
- Example 2: On a February 1998 episode of the Channel 4 British cookery programme TV Dinners, a mother was shown engaging in placentophagy when she cooked her own placenta (with fried garlic and shallots), made into a pate and served on foccacia bread. The programme received a lot of complaints that were upheld by the British Broadcasting Standards Commission who concluded that the act of eating placenta pate on a highly watched TV programme had “breached convention”.
- Example 3: In 2009, Andre Thomas, a 25-year old murderer on Texas death row (and with a history of mental problems) pulled out his eye in prison and ate it.
- Example 4: In a previous blog on vorarephilia I examined the case of the German man Bernd Jürgen Brande who engaged in self-cannibalism (cutting off and then eating his own cooked penis) before being killed and eaten by Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ (who also shared in the eating of Brande’s cooked penis).
Only the latter case has been discussed and written about in scientific journals, and even then, the focus has tended to be on the cannibalistic acts of Brande’s killer rather than the auto-cannibalistic act of Brande himself. After a search through the academic literature I could only find eight studies that have ever reported directly on autosarcophagy. These were all case studies and comprised papers published by:
- Mikellides (1950, two cases, Cyprus – no details as the article was written in Greek)
- Comarr and Feld (1964, one case, male tetraplegic who bit off flesh from his fingers but spit the flesh out rather than eating it, USA)
- Betts (1964, one case, psychotic male who large amounts of his own skin, subcutaneous tissue, and blood from his shoulders, USA)
- Mintz (1964, one case, psychotic male who ate his own middle finger, USA)
- Beneke (1999, one case, non-psychotic 28-year old female who engaged in self-cannibalistic acts [e.g., eating small strips of skin] as part of a lifestyle choice in relation to extreme body modification, USA)
- de Moore and Clement (2006, one case, psychotic male who abused amphetamines and ate two of his own toes, Australia)
- Monasterio and Prince (2011, one case, non-psychotic 28-year old male who amputated and ate his own finger, Australia)
- Sunay and Menderes (2011, one case, an elderly 80-year old man with Alzheimer’s who ate two of his fingers, Eastern Europe).
Dr Friedemann Pfafflin (a forensic psychotherapist at Ulm University, Germany) and who has written about Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ asserts that “apart from acts of cannibalism arising from situations of extreme necessity…the cannibalistic deeds of individuals are always an expression of severe psychopathology”. However, a couple of the case studies in the literature – while very rare – show that major psychopathology was absent so this is not universally true.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ahuja, N. & Lloyd, A.J. (2007). Self-cannibalism: an unusual case of self-mutilation. Australian and New Journal of Psychiatry, 41, 294-5.
Beneke M. (1999). First report of nonpsychotic self-cannibalism (autophagy), tongue splitting, and scar patterns (scarification) as an extreme form of cultural body modification in a western civilization. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 20, 281-285.
Betts, W.C. (1964). Autocannibalism: an additional observation. American Journal of Psychiatry 121, 402-403.
Comarr, A.E. & Feld, M. (1964). Autocannibalism in a tetraplegic patient. American Journal of Surgery, 107, 642-643.
de Moore, G.M. & Clement, M. (2006). Self-cannibalism: an unusual case of self-mutilation. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 937.
Huffington Post (2009). Andre Thomas, Texas Death Row inmate, pulls out eye, eats it. TheHuffington Post, September 9. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/09/andre-thomas-texas-death-_n_156765.html
Mikellides, A.P. (1950). Two cases of self-cannibalism (autosarcophagy). Cyprus Medical Journal, 3, 498-500.
Mintz, I.L. (1964). Autocannibalism: a case study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 1017.
Monasterio, E. & Prince, C. (2011). Self-cannibalism in the absence of psychosis and substance use. Australasian Psychiatry, 19, 170-172.
Pfafflin, F. (2008). Good enough to eat. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 286-293.
Reuters (1997). Meatballs made from fat, anyone? May 18. Located at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2007/05/18/oukoe-uk-chile-artist-idUKN1724159420070518
Sunay, O. & Menderes, A. (2011). Self cannibalism of fingers in an alzheimer patient. Balkan Medical Journal, 28, 214-215.
Posted on May 4, 2012, in Eating disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Pica, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychology and tagged Auto-cannibalism, Auto-sarcophagy, Cannibalism, Pica, Vampirism, Vorarephilia. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.