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Hystories Paperback – May 6, 1998

3.4 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Hysteria is tough to define, but Elaine Showalter knows it when she sees it. She argues that a host of phenomena, both medical and fantastical--alien abductions, recovered memories, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple personalities--arise from a tripartite collaboration between physicians and mental-health professionals, unhappy patients, and a voracious, gullible media. Stories that should be metaphorical ("I feel that I've been taken advantage of in some way.") become real: "I have a recovered memory of ritual satanic abuse." She makes her case brilliantly, explaining the history, causes, and reactions, but offers no pat solution. "The hysterical syndromes of the 1990s clearly speak to the hidden needs and fears of a culture," she writes. When these go away, new ones will surely crop up to reflect the anxieties of a different era. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The ends of centuries have historically given rise to increased incidents of hysterical epidemics. Literary critic and medical historian Showalter has written a challenging and insightful history of hysteria that brings us up to the Nineties. After defining hysteria, she examines the subject from three perspectives: historically, including the work of Charcot and Freud; culturally, through literature, theater, and film; and, finally, in what is likely to be the book's most controversial area, in terms of epidemics. In this last section, the author hypothesizes that many of today's syndromes, including chronic fatigue, Gulf War, recovered memory, and multiple personality, along with increased reports of satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction, should be correctly categorized as hysterias. Showalter's main point, however, is not the denial of these phenomena but rather "how much power emotions have over the body." A thought-provoking work for informed readers.?Kathleen L. Atwood, Pomfret Sch. Lib., Ct.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 15, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231104596
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231104593
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,090,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Honestly, when I got this book and started reading it I had this "ah hah!" moment because, after reading many books on the topics of alien abductions, DID/multiple personality, recovered memory work, false memory syndrome, and satanic ritual abuse, I had come to my own theory that much of it fell under a modern version of what used to be called "hysteria." Then here I stumble across this book which basically says my own theories definitely hold water.

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.
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This book contains many egregious misrepresentations of others' research. For examples of actionable errors in the CFS chapter alone, google "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Cynics," or see http://www.cfids-me.org/marys/elaine.html. The author's hubris is horridly distasteful and deeply disturbing; essentially, this is her stance: "I'm going to do *next to no research on CFS; then blithely, grossly distort what paltry research I consult or cite; then insist contemptuously that those with CFS are "imagining" things and should tough it up and be turned away by doctors." This is elitism at its worst: self-promotion without regard to the damage and confusion one causes to one's denigrated others (the "others" being the CFS patients for whom Showalter displays such disdain). Further, the ideas presented in Hystories are simplistic and unfold in a rambling, disorganized manner. Some of the language is passable, but many sections are quite poorly written. Typically, tendentious, turgid (like my alliteration?) prose alternates with flat, cliche-ridden babble. Someone should have taken this woman in hand and taught her how to write. The kinds of errors made here would be troubling in an English *major's* writing, much less in the work of a full professor at one of the minor Ivies. And the CFS chapter is simply hideously unethical. For shame.

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?
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As someone who suffered with CFS/ME in my teens and 20s this book offends me. No ambitious young person wants to be laid low with a life destroying sickness like this. Some people who have it take their lives or try to. Some are bedridden and in extreme cases need to be tube fed. I think this author can shove her book where the sun doesn't shine
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I really had high expectations for this book - the author worked for the Wellcome Institute of the study of the History of Medicine affiliated with Cambridge University - and I felt a historical look at how women's experience of illness (since men are rarities in the hysterical world) ties into modern conceptions of chronic illness would be particularly insightful. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the level of scholarship in this volume. Her earlier chapters centering on the development of the clinical concept of "hysteria" through the 19th and early 20th century are her strongest and best researched and the insights she makes regarding connections between influential thinkers are excellent.
Showalter ties the psychological basis of vaguely explained or ephemeral illness to more modern diseases like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome with its numerous psychological and physical symptoms and pinpoints the difficulty of many chronic illness sufferers. Namely that we "live in a culture that still looks down on psychogenic illness, that does not recognize or respect its reality. The self-esteem of the patient depends on having the physiological nature of the illness accepted. The culture forces people to deny the psychological, circumstantial, or emotional sources of their symptoms and to insist that they must be biological and beyond their control in order for them to view themselves as legitimately ill..." While this insight is excellent and, I believe, very true, what the author misses out on is the profound personal nature of the experience of chronic illness with its various ramifications.
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