Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media by Elaine Showalter

Published in 1997, this interesting account of hysterical epidemics feels a little out of date, since it describes the most popular versions of hysteria as of 15 years ago: chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple personality disorder, recovered memories, Gulf War syndrome, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction. Maybe 9/11, war and economic distress have given people other things to focus on since the relative calm of the mid-nineties.

The book begins with a scholarly discussion of the origins of hysteria as a medical diagnosis in the 19th century. Patients, mostly women, exhibited strange behavior or physical symptoms for no apparent reason. Showalter convincingly argues that early forms of hysteria have been replaced by “hystories” or epidemics of hysteria. In remarkably similar patterns, people who have been subjected to stress or have unmet psychological needs develop symptoms. They seek treatment from particular doctors and therapists who, for their own reasons, collaborate in assigning mysterious or bizarre causes to these symptoms. Journalists and scriptwriters help spread the news. Evidence is lacking, but paranoia feeds mass hysteria. 

Showalter doesn’t discount the real suffering involved. She just thinks that we should pay more attention to scientific evidence and accept the fact that psychological causes can have very real, sometimes incredible, physical effects.  (8/9/11)

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