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Hystories Paperback – May 6, 1998
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From Library Journal
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
The book starts with a few chapters that introduce hysteria from the 1800's, both in women and, less frequently, in men. She talks about how the various hysteria doctors of the day became celebrities, as well as some of their patients, and the hospitals would actually put on "shows" for interested people. Come and watch as women contort themselves and display other odd behavior. The books goes on about how, back in Classical times, they thought that women's strange behavior was caused by a "wandering uterus," hence the name "hysteria." In Victorian times, the symptoms were all over the board, from convulsions to being mute even to having what they called a "double personality, ie, the beginnings of the idea of DID/MPD. The theories of the doctors involved were all over the place, but basically boiled down to...no one really knew what was causing this. Worst still, once a hysteria doctor began working in a hospital, then the hospital and even those working there, nurses and other doctors, would sometimes start to develop some of the same issues, which very much underlines that this is likely a version of mass hysteria.
Our friend, Freud, introduced the idea of repressed memory and how it can manifest itself physically in the body. At first, he believed all the stories that his patients were telling him, but eventually realized that too many of them were just fantasical and what he was really tapping into was something from the unconscious. The author of this book ties that together with the psychological epidemics that we still see today...including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome (a modern version of shell-shock), DID/MPD, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction. It is implied that, as time goes by, yet more of these epidemics will appear as they are a human means of physicially expressing stress and anxiety along the lines of cultural and social expectations. For sure, some people will argue with the author's points, but she presents several cases for each type of hystory, which makes it pretty clear that there is no way that a physical reason is involved in many of these cases--the symptoms are all over the place and even the wives of men with GWS seem to develop strange symptoms, as do the doctors who work with them. Symptoms which make no sense for someone who was nowhere near the battle zone.
The author then talks about those who come to see doctors for other issues, such as depression or eating disorders, end up having the doctor work with them to pull out so-called repressed memories and build a narrative of childhood abuse (satanic or otherwise), in order to effect a cure...all without the medical professional hardly ever checking to see if any of it is factually real. This ended up in a huge epidemic of SRA accusations and fears that spread across the US and then to other countries, while law enforcement never found proof of this wide-scale ritual abuse, murder, baby-killings, etc etc. Not that it mattered, since many of these hystories also involve belief in various forms of conspiracies, including thinking the the govt and law enforcement are involved. Essentially, the stories evolve to try to elude being destroyed by factual evidence.
In writing this book, the author understood how she was making herself a target for those suffering from these conditions who are absolutely sure that they have a basis either in some kind of virus or chemical or child abuse or ritual abuse (and the medical-mental health practitioners who are almost rabid at times in their own beliefs), but she does end up showing that, the vast majority of the time, there IS no medical reason for what is happening to the patient in question. When everything has been eliminated what is left is the theory that these conditions have a psychiatric source and not a physical source. Basicially, that they are culture and medical-community and media produced expressions of a real underlying problem--anxiety, depression, etc. They are the acceptable means of expressing in the body what the person cannot otherwise seem to express or deal with. Which means they ARE a medical condition, but the cure is not to encourage and expand upon that behavior, but to get at what is really causing it. Meaning, don't help the patient build a "narrative" that revolves around beliefs in alien abduction or satanic ritual abuse or having multiple personalities or that they were poisoned by the govt in some way, but deal with the underlying pain that is causing the physical symptoms to manifest themselves.
The author makes a compelling case that these are modern versions of hysteria, especially considering that the root population that manifests these issues are mainly women...just as in the Victorian age and in Classical times. She also definitely makes a good argument that GWS is a recent version of what was named shell-shock during the Great War. Not that there might not be a physical basis on occasion for some of those suffering from these disorders, but that generally speaking, they stem from the unconscious and from mental pain, anxiety, depression, stress...which is, of course, something we are all dealing with. It just seems likely that some deal with it in the manner of these psychological epidemics, what the author terms hystories.
The gist of the book is that hysteria is alive and thriving today, and is obviously part of the human condition, a way that some humans (in particular women) attempt to deal with what they can't otherwise deal with or express due to cultural repression or expectation. And that even those in the medical-mental health community aren't immune from "catching" this "disease."
Of course, this books is not the final word. Its quite possible that some of these syndromes DO have a connection to something medical that is yet to be discovered--after all, science and medicine are always evolving--or that some of the people with repressed memories actually were abused a children or even that those who experienced "alien abduction" actually had a spiritual experience or revelation of some kind.
What the author mainly indicates with this book is that we really need to look at everything on a case-by-base basis and consider that one potential cause could be a modern version of hysteria and treat the problem accordingly. And not let it get out of hand and turn into a shared group hysteria that does more harm than good.
In closing, let me quote from a review by another academic, a history professor and an actual feminist:
"Why would a Princeton scholar ignore the abundant and growing scholarly literature on the physical basis of the symptoms of CFS? Why did her construction of an outbreak of "hysterical epidemics" on the eve of the new millenium require the inclusion of this disease, about which she apparently knows so little? Why choose to interpret the narratives of patients and doctors as a "protolanguage rather than a disease" (p. 13), privileging an English professor's narrow textual analysis over the testimony of the medical profession itself -- and patients.
The answer lies in the very sociological factors Showalter claimed to depict. There is, in a sense, a "hystory" spreading in epidemic fashion with regard to CFS, but it is Showalter who is helping construct the text. Paradoxically, as evidence mounts within the medical research community that CFS is a seriously debilitating neurological illness, with unknown but possibly contagious origins, efforts to portray CFS and its sufferers as a type of hoax have increased in the popular press. Showalter's efforts to resurrect the hoary nineteenth century diagnosis of "hysteria" has received and will continue to receive far more public attention than the scholarly basis warrants. The book is decidedly, perhaps deliberately, light-weight: short, chatty, dependent upon innuendo for analysis, and woefully lacking in references to appropriate source material. It was not written for scholars. This is a book designed for the very talk shows and women's magazines Showalter accuses of spreading the "hysterical epidemic" of CFS, a deliberate tactic she herself suggests on page 12."
A definite miss.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Ms. Showalter treats these subjects with compassion and intelligence, and it is not suprising to see the hysterical...Read more