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Thank God for Elaine Showalter. After years of feminist polemics based on mushy personal feelings masquerading as critical analysis, it’s refreshing to read a work by a woman who knows how to think. With her new book, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, Showalter proves that a third-wave feminist can still write a provocative critique of modern culture without using first-person references, descriptions of her experiences with therapy, conflicts with her mother, examinations of self-esteem, or references to her children. Instead, Showalter has drawn on diverse fields of medical history, feminist literary criticism, and pop culture to draw some fascinating conclusions about fin de siècle America.
A professor of English and humanities at Princeton, a historian of psychiatry, and the author of several books, Showalter, in her 1977 book A Literature of Her Own, opened up the field of feminist literary criticism; her writings led to her recent election as the president of the Modern Language Association. But Showalter’s intellectual passions also lie in the lowbrow world of popular culture (her credentials include a stint as a television critic for People magazine).
Hystories is essentially the confluence of all these topics in one concise study of the history of hysteria, a syndrome in which the body produces physical symptoms in response to psychological distress. The illness dates back in medical history to the 18th century, when doctors reported seeing patients suffering from ailments like limping, paralysis, or muteness that seemed to have no biological cause.
The term “hysteria” has all but disappeared from modern medical literature, as doctors and patients alike have sought to find external causes to explain their afflictions, according to Showalter. Feminists, too, have helped banish the term by writing legitimate critiques of the psychiatric establishment’s habit of labeling independent women hysterical. As a result, hysteria has been effectively discredited as a purely Victorian phenomenon that stemmed from women’s guilt about, and repression of, sexual feelings in an age that gave them few outlets for relief.
But Showalter, who dubs herself a “New Hysterian,” argues persuasively that the hysteria syndrome has not disappeared, rather that its symptoms have merely changed to reflect modern cultural norms. She finds hysteria at the root of current diverse “epidemics” such as alien abductions, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Gulf War sickness, where scientists have been unable to find organic, external causes to explain symptoms in patients. She says such outbreaks of mysterious illnesses are nothing new; in the past the manifestations just bore different names. For instance, she says Gulf War sickness is identical to what doctors called shell shock after World War I. Today, however, because of the feminization of therapy and the stigma attached to mental illness, men refuse to acknowledge that their problems might stem from combat stress rather than nerve gas exposure.
Like medical students who begin to develop symptoms of the diseases they are studying, and paranoia to go with it, Americans express stress and sexual anxiety by unconsciously developing the culturally acceptable symptoms they read about in the press or see on TV talk shows. Whereas French hysterics of the 19th century had religious ecstasy and demonic possessions, modern Americans are abducted by aliens or infected with the Epstein-Barr virus (which was once thought to cause chronic fatigue). They in turn influence others, and with the help of sympathetic doctors, hysteria reaches epidemic proportions.
Doctors are key to Showalter’s theory about modern hysteria. Without them, she argues, there might be no epidemics. She claims that doctors are key to masking hysteria by giving it legitimate-sounding names; they do this because “[t]he self-esteem of the patients depends on having the physiological nature of the illness accepted.”
Showalter explains that patients also seek out sympathetic doctors because they do not accept that their very real physical symptoms could have a psychological root. She quotes researchers who conclude, “In much of biomedicine, only a tangible or laboratory abnormality justifies the imprimatur of a real disease….Patients sense this…so they are driven to find a practitioner who would document their illness.”
Showalter extends her analysis of hysteria to epidemics of eating disorders, multiple-personality disorder, and to the recovered-memory movement, where thousands of peoplemostly womenclaim to have “recovered” memories of childhood sexual abuse through hypnotherapy and treatment with the truth drug sodium amytal.
Referring to works like The Crucible, Showalter warns of the dangers of the witch hunts that often follow psychological epidemics in which miscellaneous human troubles are all traced to one source (today’s most common scapegoat being childhood sexual abuse). She describes recent prosecutions of people accused of running satanic cults that supposedly abused and murdered hundreds of children. The accusations have usually been leveled by someone, generally a woman, who has recovered memories of such events and has been encouraged by a therapist to confront her abuser. Showalter points out that many of the accused are now having their convictions overturned for lack of conclusive evidence.
She goes on to take issue with self-help authors who perpetuate the notion that sexual abuse in childhood is the source of most people’s unhappiness. Showalter is particularly critical of feminist authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, who wrote The Courage to Heal, a book for survivors of sexual abuse, which contains a checklist of the symptoms of abuse so broad that just about anyone could identify with them.
Showalter disputes Bass and Davis’ statistics about the widespread incidence of childhood sexual abuseas high as one in every three Americansand their insistence on the “authenticity of personal feeling” rather than empirical evidence as support for their conclusions. In wickedly funny anecdotes, Showalter describes incest support groups frequented by people who don’t really quite remember suffering childhood incest but claim that they have all the symptoms and find companionship and sympathy in the group. She also documents how hysterical people adjust their abuse narratives to conform with other accepted accounts of such abuse after joining groups or reading books like Sybil or seeing movies like Rosemary’s Baby.
Showalter also criticizes the feminist movement for embracing victimology. She quotes Louise Armstrong, feminist writer, incest survivor, and critic of the current trend, who has written that “[s]omewhere along the way, rather than feminism politicizing the issue of incest, incest-as-illness has overwhelmed and swallowed feminism. The result [is] the mass infantilization of women.”
Showalter concludes her discussion of the problems of recovered memories with a reference to Freud’s famous study of a hysterical woman he called Dora, who has become a folk hero of the women’s movement due to her exploitation by Freud.
“The feminist embrace of all abuse narratives and the treatment of all women as survivors have troubling implications,” writes Showalter. “Claiming hysteria and admiring its victims may have had inspirational functions in the 1970s; feminism, like other insurgent movements, needed martyrs. But Saint Dora’s days are over. Today’s feminists need models rather than martyrs; we need the courage to think as well as the courage to heal.”
Women comprise the overwhelming majority of victims of all the syndromes Showalter describes; some even suffer from Gulf War sickness even though they themselves have only been married to servicemen. While she sees stress as the obvious cause of the modern woman’s chronic fatigue syndrome, Showalter interprets the current fads in recovered memories, as well as alien abduction reports, as a modern form of Victorian sexual repression. She believes that women still suffer from sexual anxiety and guilt over what are generally normal impulses and fantasies, and that these repressed anxieties surface in psychogenic illnesses. Showalter even sees parallels between women’s descriptions of alien abductions and soft-core pornography.
Naturally, the alien abductees and other “victims” of the syndromes Showalter attempts to demystify haven’t taken very kindly to her insistence that their diseases are all in their heads. Feminists in particular have been among her harshest critics, arguing that she disrespects women who bravely come forward with tales of sexual abuse. But Showalter does sympathize with victims, and she doesn’t dispute that they suffer real symptomsonly that those symptoms stem from some government-perpetrated biological scourge, extraterrestrial shenanigans, or forgotten childhood abuse.
One place where Showalter’s book falls short is in her love-hate relationship with psychotherapy. While she recommends therapy for people suffering from hysteria, she also condemns therapists as the agents of mass hysteria. Despite that contradiction, Showalter does a masterful job of squeezing cultural reference points as varied as Batman, Freud, The X-Files, and Ibsen into 244 heavily footnoted pages without ever getting dull and academic. That in itself makes the book worth reading.CP