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 

Further reading

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.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on May 4, 2012, in Eating disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Pica, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. This post is great. I’m going to put this in my bookmarks before I misplace the link, I don’t think I’ll ever make it back again otherwise.

  2. Hello I am a nurse and would like to share a bizarre experience with you. I had a patient who had breast cancer and is in a lot of pain physically and emotionally. I’ve noticed that she picked her skin and ate it. What’s more, she tried to hide the habit as if she was feeling a sense of guilt. But, when she eats it her facial expressions appear sublime. Can you explain this behavior?

    • I can not explain the behavior, tho iv wondered why throughout the years as long as i can remember, i have had a strong craving, and followed trough with, eating my nails, hair, and flesh, and not just scabs, but the flesh itself, also to add, my blood has a sweet flavor, and yes when i do it, i attempt to hide it, maybe not as much as a sense of guilt, but its an embarrassing thing to not be able to control ones actions in such a way.. I am also a depressed individual, not that i’m sure that has anything to do with it, because time itself has made me this way, and when I was eating my flesh as a child, i do not recall being depressed, then again, childhood can be a blur, non the less i would very much so love to stop this, any help what so ever would be greatly appreciated, and one could guess I have built a tolerances to pain, but iv always enjoyed pain, every bit of it, the whole situation sickens me. S.O.S It would be truly fantastic to grow a beard, and not worry about looking like a dope because i eat it. lol sweet lord help me..

  3. I ama live in carer and look after a gentleman with a C3 C4 spinal injury. He has no feeling from below the middle of his chest. During the early years post accident when he sustained his injuries, he has continually bitten away at his fingers , mainly during periods of upset or stress. The result is that a number of hiils digits ar bitten away completly below what would have been nail leval, and some are down to half way down nail leval. This has left him mostly with seriously deformed stumpy fingers, also with some fingers with also badly deformed nails.
    Amazing how the brain works……as if having such a terrible accident wasn’t a bad enough experience, he has to make his hands look so awful into the bargain.

  4. Luthien Coffin

    Very interesting. I enjoy reading odd stories and things that seem to be grotesque. I am an artist who loves new ideas for art pieces, (I draw and paint, I would never eat myself. Just to clarify) I enjoy making shocking pieces. And I believe this has given me an idea for a zombie girl I have been imagining in my head and I think this has given me the last component ideas for the piece.

  5. While I don’t go to extremes I will chew off small bits of callous away from the corners of my nails and ingest them, ingest the skin from a split or dry lip, chew off small scabs from my fingers and eat them, or even eat loose skin from the edges of cuts or similarly distressed epidermis. I never really thought anything of it until today and decided to look into it. I’m not depressed really, just an average everyday female with some ADD and no psychopathic tendencies or serious mental disorders. No serious medical issues or distress either, nor do I body mod. It’s just a thing I do…

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