Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture

Elaine Showalter, Author Columbia University Press $24.95 (244p) ISBN 978-0-231-10458-6
In her latest work, Showalter (The Female Malady; Sexual Anarchy) suggests common ground for such diverse phenomena as chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf war syndrome, the recovered-memory movement, multiple personality syndrome, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction scenarios. Showalter sees these ""psychological plagues"" as modern instances of hysteria, spread quickly by mass media. Her interest lies in what we can learn from them as ""cultural narratives of hysteria,"" or ""hystories."" There is no sense of the pejorative attached to hysteria here; instead she observes that by means of hysteria, patients communicate what they cannot, for whatever reasons, verbalize. Showalter argues that ""hystories"" can help us understand and treat the physical and emotional suffering associated with these epidemics. Unfortunately, much of her focus is on the theories of and treatments for hysteria from the 19th century to the present, with emphasis on the work of Freud and his early teacher Jean-Martin Charcot. As an introduction, this is cumbersome (taking up nearly half the book) and at times repetitive. Showalter does touch on many provocative subjects--for instance, the strikingly similar psychological responses found in male survivors of war and female survivors of rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse--but she rarely ventures beyond the reportorial to provide her own analysis or connection to the historical information. The stated aim of this book is certainly suggestive, but unfortunately Showalter does not ultimately deliver what she promises.(Apr.)
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 01/01/1997
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