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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Pyromania

Q. I am writing a paper on pyromania. I found a million sites with its symptoms and cures, but none on what someone's life would be like. Do you have any info on this?

A. I assume that you are not interested in arsonists (fire-setters) per se, but in true pyromania--which the DSM-IV (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition) defines as "...deliberate and purposeful fire setting on more than one occasion" accompanied by "tension or affective arousal before the act" and "fascination with...or attraction to fire..." (By the way, the DSM-IV has a fairly good description of this disorder beyond just the symptoms).

It's difficult to find a complete description of the life of someone with pyromania, but you should be able to piece this together from a number of sources in the literature. For example, George L. Ginsberg M.D., in the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry IV (edited by HI Kaplan & BJ Sadock, Williams & Wilkins, 1985) provides a rich description of pyromania. He notes that sexual excitement is often associated with fire-setting in this group, sometimes to the point of orgasm. He notes that broken homes or absent fathers figure frequently in the case histories of many individuals with pyromania.

Psychoanalytic theories have put forth the idea that "...the symbolic aspect of setting fires [is] connected to a wish for the absent father to return home in the guise of a rescuer, put out the fire, and save the child from an anxious existence." (Ginsberg, op cit, p. 1104). There are also intriguing (but anecdotal) reports of pyromaniacs "...having witnessed or learned about parental infidelity..." (ibid). Michael Stone, MD, in the book, Impulsivity & Compulsivity (edited by JM Oldham et al, American Psychiatric Press, 1996) argues that, "...it would be rare to work for any length of time psychotherapeutically with...pyromanic patients without discovering, not so far beneath the surface, enormous pools of vengeful feelings and rage." (p. 234).

On the other hand, some investigators consider pyromania to be a product of infantile character structures in the presence of alcohol abuse (see Laubicher et al, Nervenarzt 1996; 67:774-80). In terms of the life of these individuals, DSM-IV notes that many with pyromania "...may spend time at the local fire department, set fires to be affiliated with the fire department, or even become firefighters." DSM-IV also notes that pyromania occurs much more often in males, especially in those "with poorer social skills and learning difficulties."

I hope this brief answer gives you a better sense of the "life" of individuals with pyromania. You may be able to find more details in the book, Arson, by A. Barker (Oxford University Press, 1994). Good luck with your paper.

July 2001

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