Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Asti Hustvedt, Norton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-02560-6
Before she entered Salpêtrière Hospital in 1877, Blanche Wittmann was just another damaged child from a poor neighborhood of Paris. Raped by an employer, angry and seizure-prone, the 17-year-old girl almost inevitably became a charity patient of the hospital’s mental wards.

Once there, however, she came to the attention of one of France’s most famous scientists, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Acclaimed for his work in diseases of the nervous system (he was the first physician to recognize that ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was a disease of motor neurons), Charcot had developed a keen interest in the kind of neurotic fits exhibited by the teenage Blanche. Under his care and—critics would claim—his manipulation, she became not just a patient but a star performer known as “the queen of hysterics.”

As Hustvedt details in this compassionate history, the doctor not only studied patients like Blanche, he turned them into public exhibits. Charcot and his colleagues, experimenting with treatment by hypnosis, often held theatrical demonstrations of their power over these troubled women: “Once hypnotized, Blanche became a smoothly running woman-machine....”

These performances have led earlier writers to obsess over the circus-tent nature of the proceedings and the male arrogance of the research. And Hustvedt does explore those issues as well as Charcot’s eventual fall from professional grace. But her real fascination is in turning these so-called machines into real women, and she tells her story by deliberately focusing on three very dissimilar patients: the celebrated and obedient Blanche; a pretty and incurably willful Augustine; and a religion-crazed, demon-obsessed teenager called Geneviève. They are also completely alike in being poor, powerless, desperate. Their lives provide a near shocking contrast to the privileged existence of Charcot, married into wealth, residing in an ornate mansion on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. That imbalance is so strong (and wrong) that even today it overshadows his research into the elusive nature of neurotic behaviors.

Hustvedt comes from a literary family; her sister is novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, her brother-in-law Paul Auster. And she has worked as both an editor and translator. But this is her first time out as a book author, and it’s not surprising to find signs of inexperience in the work. She struggles with doing justice to the complex nature of Charcot’s work; she visibly gropes for a meaningful resolution to her tale. Still, she does a lovely, sympathetic job of illuminating the lost lives of the famous hysterics, reminding us that the story of science, far from being purely clinical, is ever the most human of stories. 40 illus. (May) Reviewed by Deborah Blum.

Deborah Blum is author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

Reviewed on: 02/28/2011
Release date: 05/01/2011
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 978-0-393-08217-3
Paperback - 372 pages - 978-1-4088-2235-7
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