Running With a Strange Crowd


Everybody knows that if you lie down with dogs you'll wake up with fleas. But if you hang out with eccentrics will you wind up, well, peculiar?

Ask David Weeks. He's a neuropsychologist who spent 10 years studying people like Screaming Lord Sutch, perennial candidate for political office in Britain and founder of the Monster Raving Loony Party, and Marvin Staples, an American Indian who walks, and generally lives his life, backward.

Dr. Weeks, who does his research at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, has co-authored a book about his research titled, "Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness."

Dr. Weeks doesn't admit to having been turned into a flaming eccentric by virtue of his associations. But they have stimulated him: he has discovered, and patented, a new tranquilizer, and found an innovative treatment for repetitive strain injury, the occupational agony of the computer age. "I'm 51 years old," he says. "Inventing things and discovering things wasn't my work until I did this study. I can only think it had some relation to that."

He came to like and respect eccentrics in the course of his research. "They have difficulties conforming to the rest of society," he says. "They quite revel in that, but it has its negative side. Society doesn't always react positively."

In this regard things are better than they used to be for eccentrics, especially women, whose behavior, when odd, used to get them labeled as witches; they were burned and tortured. Later, in the more benign 19th century, the quirky wife or daughter only wound up confined to an asylum. Today, female eccentrics, like Ann Atkin, of Devon, England, tend to be avid collectors. Ms. Atkin keeps 7,500 garden gnomes in her home, and knits gnome hats. Many other women collectors favor cats. Live ones.

Dr. Weeks has learned a lot during his work: that Benjamin Franklin was a nudist; that Samuel Johnson liked to roll down grassy hills to amuse his friends; that Davy Crockett was effeminate, but a fierce fighter nonetheless. Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman), who dressed in coffee sacks, had an obsessive single-mindedness about planting apple trees everywhere he went, as most people know. What they might not know is that he was such an advocate for the apple that he would get in a rage when people disparaged it as the instrument of man's expulsion from paradise.

It could have been a peach, he would insist.

Dr. Weeks discovered Marvin Staples, a Chippewa, in Minnesota. Mr. Staples got the idea of walking backward from a movie, but then found that it made him feel younger, so he kept doing it. Mr. Staples wasn't the first to amble in reverse. Plennie Wingo, of Abilene, Texas, began walking backward in 1931 in Santa Monica, Calif. She didn't stop until she wound up a year later in Istanbul, Turkey.

The oddest people, Dr. Weeks found, often live in the most

ordinary places. Minneapolis-St. Paul, for instance, has more genuinely eccentric people per capita than any locale in the United States, more even than San Francisco, a traditional fount of American idiosyncrasy.

Baltimore ranks about 20th among American cities in terms of its Eccentricity Quotient, Dr. Weeks found. In fact, no Baltimore eccentrics made it into Dr. Weeks' book -- despite the considerable efforts of local abnormals like Melvin Perkins, Rudy Handel, Mr. Diz, and historical odd-balls like Mrs. Reuben Ross Holloway.

Melvin Perkins, who ran for Congress and other political offices, brandished his discharge papers from a mental institution as proof of his sanity and demanded similar proof from his opponents. Mr. Diz, a gentle, if mildly shell-shocked horse player, used to walk around town giving balloons to anybody who would accept one.

Rudy Handel made it his life's work to picket the Sunpapers. He was inspired by a dispute over a defective television set purchased through an advertisement. Receiving no satisfaction from the shop that sold it to him, he planted himself outside this newspaper nearly every day for 18 years until his death in 1986.

A true flag-waver

Mrs. Holloway, who favored foot-high hats, had an actual accomplishment to her credit. She was the driving force behind the federal law that made "The Star Spangled Banner" the national anthem. She had an obsession with the flag and would hand out her own certificates of merit to businesses that displayed Old Glory in what she considered a proper manner.

Dr. Weeks estimates that about 1 in every 10,000 people is

eccentric to some degree or other, though many, especially women, are closet eccentrics. Most eccentrics are first-born, come from small towns and rural parts. The United States and Britain are probably the most hospitable to eccentricity. Countries that demand a great degree of conformity, such as Japan, are not.

San Francisco had a "golden age of weirdness" following the 1849 Gold Rush. There was Oofty Goofty, who'd go around dressed in furs, grunting like an animal. He made a living by allowing people to kick him for a dime, or hit him with a bat for 50 cents. He got a lot of takers in those rough times.

The bay city was also home to Joshua Abraham Norton, who in 1859 declared himself emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. It was not a title anybody seriously disputed, possibly owing to the sage nature of Norton's rule. He abolished the Republican and Democratic parties because "their existence engendered dissensions." He issued his own money, which was actually accepted in many establishments. He declared war on nobody.

?3 When he died 30,000 people came to his funeral.

Not quite an eccentric

Dr. Weeks was defined as eccentric himself by one of the British reviewers of his book. He doesn't fully agree. But he does admit to having "a strong attraction to strange ideas." He doesn't look eccentric. He's a small man with a red beard and a fuzzy remnant of hair hovering about his skull. He looks like a blue-eyed elf. He has quick, darting gestures, an engulfing smile, and a great eagerness to explain his work.

Dr. Weeks was born in Garwood, N.J. He went to Scotland as a sailor on a nuclear submarine. He met his future wife in 1968 at a dance in Glasgow. After getting out of the service, he returned to Scotland in 1971 to study. He's been there ever since, has two children and two grandchildren.

When he set out in 1984 to try to learn what makes eccentric people tick, he found there was little or no literature on the topic. The field was wide open. So he advertised for people with bizarre proclivities in Britain and the United States, and wound up interviewing about a thousand applicants. After winnowing out the fakes and those only mildly idiosyncratic, he interviewed and observed those who remained. He gave them standard psychological tests. He explored all their non-conformist habits in an effort to discover the wellsprings of their particularity.

Maybe the most important thing he confirmed was that eccentrics are not mentally ill. Generally speaking, they do not suffer mental or physical pain; they have few neuroses, and if they manifest some symptoms that resemble those of schizophrenics, that's all they are: resemblances. In fact, modern medicine has formulated no useful definition for this way of life, though Dr. Weeks has isolated some characteristics most eccentrics share.

He found them to be more creative, curious, imaginative, idealistic and intelligent than people in the general population. They usually become aware they are exceptional at an early age. They are more positive and healthier. They are creatures of a freer nature, self-invented, unmoved by antagonistic opinion against them. They avoid more of life's tedium than "ordinary" folk are able to.

Dr. Weeks has concluded that to live eccentrically is a deliberate choice. "These people illustrate how much free choice we have," he says. "It puts the kabosh on the hereditary and environment argument."

On the down side, most of them wind up alone and unmarried, or too-frequently married. They often are made to suffer for their non-conformity. They endure inconvenient living arrangements (like dwelling in caves or trees), and frequently dress funny. Also, eccentrics are bad spellers.

Their contributions to society and civilization, though off the wall, are occasionally genuine, if marginal. Charles Waterton, a 19th century English naturalist, for instance, invented the crew cut. Another English pioneer, Henry Hastings, confirmed -- at least to his own satisfaction -- the aphrodisiac qualities of oysters. He ate the erogenous bivalves twice a day throughout his life, or at least until they stopped working for him, at about age 90.

Eccentrics are active in all fields. There is eccentric physics: the quest for the perpetual motion machine; eccentric geography: the search for the lost continent of Atlantis; and, of course, eccentric medicine. Dr. Patch Adams of Arlington, Va., is a practicioner of eccentric medicine. He is a firm believer in the curative powers of humor. He founded the Gesundheit Institute in Hillsboro, W.Va. It is a volunteer work camp established to build a free, 40-bed hospital to treat people in the depressed region around it.

Dr. Adams believes he can make people better by making them laugh, so he treats his patients in a clown suit, floppy shoes and a big red, rubber nose. His real eccentricity is that he doesn't charge them anything.

Dr. Weeks learned a lot about eccentrics during the 10 years it took to do his research and write his book, with the help of another writer, Jamie James. Today he has a new project: he is studying two groups of people: those who look much younger than they are and those who feel much younger than they are. He's trying to find out why.

Most people who look much younger than their years say they benefit from mild exercise, and a loving sexual relationship. Also, most of them socialize with people of all ages, and tend to marry younger partners.

Those who just feel younger than their years attribute their zest to their intellectual curiosity: they take courses, read a lot, go to museums and travel. They, too, marry people much younger than themselves -- as John Slater did, one of Dr. Weeks' eccentric subjects from his original studies.

Mr. Slater, 58, is a highly curious man who has worked as a social worker, commando, musician, painter and salesman, among other things. He once walked across Britain from north to south, barefooted, in his pajamas. For a long time he lived in a cave that inconveniently filled with tidal water twice a day. Currently he's out of the cave.

"He's on wife number four," said Dr. Weeks. "He's living with a young girl about 22 in a [cottage] in a forest outside Inverness."

When all the work on his new subjects is finished, Dr. Weeks intends write another book with Jamie James. He believes he's already got a winner of a title: "Superyoung."

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