Obsession: Or, I Really, Really Want It

Obsession is a strange thing. I used to be obsessed with Steiff stuffed animals when I was a kid. Okay, truth be told, I’m still semi-obsessed with them.

But how far do you let a compulsion go?

I’ve met stamp collectors, coin collectors, Barbie doll collectors and folks devoted to horror film memorabilia. However, none come close to the bevy of butterfly collectors I’ve recently met. Interestingly, they’re all men, each seemingly possessed by bugs with colorful wings. They live and breathe butterflies. For collectors, butterflies can be as dangerous and addictive as any drug.

So, what is it with these guys?

Those with financial means will go to extremes to obtain the specimens they want. For some, it’s the equivalent of collecting a Renoir or Van Gogh. Still others are comparable to hunters lusting after a trophy to nail on the wall. Except in this case, their trophies are less than six inches rather than the usual nine-foot-tall Kodiak bear.

Armchair collectors willingly shell out big bucks to have others capture the butterflies they desire. Their only requirement is that the specimens gathered be absolutely flawless. One private collector paid a group of young catchers to parachute onto a South Pacific island and stealthily amass illegal butterflies for him. Tales abound of hair-raising helicopter rides in the Russian wilds to ensnare mountaintop butterflies, while poaching gangs roam central Asia in search of rare and elusive winged insects.

On the other hand, most butterfly collectors aren’t such high rollers and have to obtain desired specimens all on their own. Uh, oh. Big trouble. Ego, drive and obsession are the traits required for the single-minded pursuit of this goal. The downfall is that some of their lives turn into a Greek tragedy. Collectors have plunged into bankruptcy in order to underwrite their butterfly trips. That means they can lose their house, their jobs and even their spouse. Drugs and alcohol usually follow.

One obsessive butterfly collector neatly wrapped it up for me. “We’re driven toward something that doesn’t put food on the table and we can’t take with us. It’s not all happiness and joy. There’s a dark side here.”

He offered a composite of the addicted collector. “The guy’s lost his eighth job in three years due to calling in sick and taking off on collecting trips, and he’s depressed because no one else will hire him. As a result, his wife has finally left him. Even so, he still can’t control his obsession. Instead, he’s become hooked on speed, taken out mortgages, and run through his family’s savings while still chasing after butterflies.”

Though extreme, the scenario can be a reality. Become personally involved with an avid butterfly collector and you’ll always come in second.

Why do some collectors go off the deep end into obsession?

“Many of us have Asperger’s syndrome,” my collecting friend confided.

I immediately looked it up in Wikipedia. Adults with Asperger’s exhibit social awkwardness and an extreme focus on a particular interest or hobby.  Their behavior can best described as “quirky.”

Okay, it was now starting to make sense. No wonder they’re seduced by the exotic and intricate world of butterflies. The insects become their refuge through which they fall into a bottomless pit of obsession.

For some writers and artists, butterflies become their muse. Lewis Carroll, best known for hanging around with Alice, was a butterfly enthusiast. Another was Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov. Not only did he discover and name dozens of butterfly species; he kept a collection of male butterfly genitalia coated in glycerin, and methodically labeled, in his office.

Suddenly, collecting Steiff animals doesn’t seem so extreme after all.


2 thoughts on “Obsession: Or, I Really, Really Want It”

  1. Jessica–

    This topic just keeps getting more and more fascinating. I hope I don’t end up developing an obsession for reading about it! Wonder what the deal is with it mainly being men? I guess you might share more with us about that later. I’ll be looking forward to your next witty post and for more insight into this strange new world you’re introducing us too. And of course your book!! Definitely eager to read that, too!

    Best to you,

  2. Jessica

    Enjoyed your interview on NPR and have ordered a copy of Winged Obsession. My wife is Japanese, do you think your book will be translated into Japanese any time in the future?

    Hope you sell millions.



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