Sergeant Jones’s Sleeping-Bag
- Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture by Elaine Showalter
Picador, 244 pp, £16.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 330 34670 9
It adds greatly to the glamour of this book that its author was threatened for having written it. Her offence was to argue that many of the passing media events of our culture – chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, satanic ritual abuse allegations, alien abduction fantasies – are forms of mass hysteria. This so enraged American sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome that they threatened to kill her. The fact that people so tired they can barely get out of bed could muster the strength to do this would be comic if it weren’t so alarming.
Vol. 19 No. 15 · 31 July 1997
Michael Ignatieff’s sceptical appraisal (LRB, 17 July) of the ‘hystories’ detailed in Elaine Showalter’s recent book should have been extended to the labelling of patients as ‘hysterical’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By including Dora in a reference to ‘superbly expressive hysterics’ he is credulously accepting Freud’s diagnosis of a 17-year-old girl’s long-standing asthmatic and coughing attacks, and current depression, as ‘hysterical’. Dora’s emotional state, far from being hysterical, was amply explained by the distressing circumstances in which she found herself. That Freud’s ubiquitous diagnoses of ‘hysteria’ are generally taken at their face value is all the more remarkable given his notorious comment about an incident when a middle-aged married friend of her father’s, having duplicitously contrived to meet Dora alone, kissed the resisting young girl. The fact that she found the man’s advances repugnant indicated to Freud that ‘the behaviour of this child of 14 was already entirely and completely hysterical.’
Vol. 19 No. 17 · 4 September 1997
Having read Michael Ignatieff’s review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (LRB, 17 July), I wouldn’t threaten Professor Showalter with death; or even, as a long-term sufferer, wish Chronic Fatigue Syndrome on her. But to use a hand-me-down theory (i.e. the depressive origins of CFS) to fit a thesis without bothering to check the by now considerable body of international medical research which disproves it is hardly serious. I doubt that the former Tory Government would have accepted CFS as an illness qualifying for social security assistance if they could have thrown it out on Showalter’s depression-based theory, which, incidentally, seems to have been around as long as the illness.