City of Incurable Women (Bellevue, Feb.) imagines the inner lives of the young female “hysterics” who were confined at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the late 19th century.
Your dedication reads: “For my fellow incurables.” What was the genesis of your interest in the patients of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot?
I have had a long-standing interest in the history of psychiatry, and I kind of went down the rabbit hole and never came out. I had a peripheral character in The Man Who Walked Away whom I imagined to be Augustine, and I collaborated with the photographer Laura Larson, who took me to the Countway Library of Medicine in Boston to see the famous photographs of Charcot’s female patients in various poses of hysteria. To touch these glass plates is to touch light from the 19th century. What was it to be alive for these women? I made a conscious choice to narrate the book in the first, second, and third person. I wanted to be in conversation with these historical figures who may not have had much of a voice.
Did any of Charcot’s “hysterics” really need treatment, and if so, for what?
Psychiatry is not a hard science, it is a social science. The philosopher/historian Ian Hacking writes about transient mental illnesses, that diagnoses arise out of politics, out of culture, whatever is pathological in the moment. The pain is always there. There were different stages to hysteria that could be performed and photographed, a structure into which pain could be poured and expressed. Diagnosis is reductive.
It doesn’t tell us who a person is.
Yes, and I am interested in undoing the knots. What’s underneath all this is the endless complexity and mystery of what it is to be human. That’s where my imagination comes in.
Charcot was a complicated figure. He conducted abusive experiments on his female patients, he was Sigmund Freud’s teacher, and he was also responsible for transforming the Salpêtrière from a place in which women were kept in chains to a modern institution. What struck you the most about him?
When Charcot resurrected hysteria as a diagnosis, he bought into the pathology that there was something wrong with women’s bodies. For me, what’s interesting is that within these horrible confines, sometimes these young women, who’d lost their parents or been sexually abused in work situations, were able to find freedom, moments of privacy, which is a form of freedom. And levity, as when [the character] Augustine tells Charcot to “get rid of that snake in your pants.”