March 2027, 1997
Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media
By Elaine Showalter, Columbia University Press, 244 p., $40
Over the last 20 years, feminist critics have been at pains to argue that "hysteria" the collective name for the medically inexplicable group of symptoms presented (mainly) by women such as paralyzed limbs, chronic cough or mutism was in fact a socially constructed and politically fraught diagnosis. In these scholars' view, hysteria was a physical manifestation of women's oppression, created by male doctors to describe what were thought to be the consequences of women's essentially different makeup. Classic hysteria, so common a century ago, is no longer seen by psychiatrists because many women's lives have changed radically for the better, so it is no longer necessary for their frustrations to be expressed in such bizarre forms.
But while hysteria as such may have disappeared, the frustrated desires that led to it have not, and in fact these impulses have resurfaced with a vengeance. That's the argument in a new book by Elaine Showalter, professor of English at Princeton and a well-known feminist literary critic, who uses the awkward portmanteau word "Hystories" to refer to cultural narratives of or marked by hysteria, which are now instantaneously transmitted everywhere by the mass media.
After tracing the transformation of the meaning of the term "hysteria" in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Showalter considers the quasi-medical conditions that have attained epidemic proportions in the United States as we lurch uncertainly toward the millennium. These conditions, some of which have become virtual social movements chronic fatigue syndrome, alien abduction, Gulf War syndrome, multiple personality syndrome, recovered memory, satanic ritual abuse share certain characteristics that in Showalter's view are strongly reminiscent of the hysteria seen in the Victorian consulting rooms and hospital wards of Paris and Vienna.
The people who suffer from these complaints all insist that what they have is physically and not psychologically based, and in every case doubt has been cast on their assertions because no organic cause common to all has been found by health officials. Because the claims of the sufferers have been questioned or even dismissed (in the case of alien abduction), they have concluded that a conspiracy is afoot to deny them justice. The critical difference between these contemporary epidemics and the hysteria of the 19th century is the intervention of the mass media, which serves to some extent to create the problems as well as amplify them because they supply the invaluable oxygen of publicity.
Showalter does not question the reality of the pain and other disabilities reported by the sufferers; as to whether there "really" is something underlying their claims, she tends to be agnostic. Instead, she argues that even if there is a physical basis for some of the complaints (and recent news reports indicate that such may be the case at least with poison gas in the Gulf), the diagnoses of these syndromes are largely political, in that they serve the interests of those making them, just as the diagnosis of hysteria served the interests of those who made and perpetrated it. Instead of women being the principal oppressed group as in the past, now the victims are largely the poor, the uneducated, and racial minorities the soldiers who served in the Gulf, the "trailer park trash" who tend to report alien abductions and satanism, etc. although even among these groups women tend to be overrepresented.
Noting that "many contemporary syndromes have strong sexual content, a content disavowed and projected onto some external source a father, a cult, a chemical, an alien being," she sees these syndromes as projections of cultural needs and fears, mixed with malice and genuine confusion. Because it is in the economic interest of the media to act as a megaphone for these problems, the clear implication is that things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.
Whether or not one agrees with her analysis or not, her calm tone, critical hardheadedness and clear writing are welcome contributions in a field that rarely is characterized by any of these qualities.