Showalter and "Hystories" Discussion (Feb/March 1997)

Showalter and "Hystories" Discussion (Feb/March 1997)

Editor's Note: A related posting, Mary Schweitzer's Review of Hystories published in April 1997, is also archived on the H-Women website.

Melanie R. Shell
H-Women Co-Editor

Query From Mary Schweitzer 27 Feb 1997

I am befuddled by the new book I have just received in the mail by Elaine Showalter (a professor of English at Princeton), called _Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media: Alien abduction, Chronic fatigue syndrome, Satanic ritual abuse, Recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome, and Multiple personality syndrome_(Columbia U Press, 1997).

The main thesis is that ALL of the above are examples of mass hysteria. The first paragraph attempts to link them all, and adds the Oklahoma City bombers for good measure!

Showalter claims to be a feminist in the book, though she takes feminists to task for "encouraging" these hysterias. (She mentions in passing that "some" believe women's studies courses are the reason for the increase in anorexia and bulimia...) She is open about having no training in psychology, yet the theme of the book is that Freudian psychoanalysis is the solution for those who suffer from these "psychogenic" problems. She claims authority as a scholar in "literary criticism" (no quarrel there) and "history of medicine." But she clearly has no training and little knowledge of the literature in history of medicine, or history of women, or medicine,period.

Since my own training is in history, with a knowledge of history of science, I would appreciate any insights that others could give me into the reasons that this book would be considered scholarly as opposed to simply amateur history written by yet another pundit.

I also wish to express my dismay that the testimony of those who suffer from the serious neurological illness that the CDC amused itself by calling "chronic fatigue syndrome" (after ceasing to call it "yuppie flu") is denied in such a blatant fashion, in the name of feminism. The trials that a disabled woman goes through are bad enough without having other female scholars add to them.

Wasn't one of the main purposes of feminism to help us express our realities, rather than have so-called "experts" tell us that our realities are really symbols of something else?

It may be too late for the MLA (of which Showalter is incoming president) meetings next December, but I would like very much to participate in a panel discussion with other scholars of the troubling issues raised by this book's publication.

>From Mary Schweitzer 28 Feb 1997

I have been informed that it is not too late to get a panel on the MLA program for December--the deadline is April.

Is there anyone on this list with expertise in the areas of the history of "hysteria", the history of medicine, women and medicine, women and Freudian psychoanalysis, or what Showalter calls "The New Hysterians"(meaning scholars of hysteria, and she takes it quite seriously), who would be interested in being on such a panel?

Please write me privately if you would be interested in participating in such a panel.

>From Judy Whitehead 28 Feb 1997

In response to Mary Schweitzer's posting regarding Showalter's new book, I would like to offer the opinion that Showalter's work seems to be declining since _The Female Malady_. I read her _Sexual anarchy_, which posited a millennial anxiety of the 1890s as a *causative* agent in a range of cultural phenomena, most of which were also present in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. The question regarding post-traumatic stress disorder, of which MPD is one type, and recovered memories are another example, is quite a complex field. However, it is surely derogatory to label all these phenomena as evidence of mass hysteria. The benefits of the diagnosis of PTSD is that it removes the negative labelling associated with the term hysteria, believes victim's stories, and links together a range of incidents which cause an overwhelming of the autonomic nervous system, manifested in hyperarousal, numbing, and constriction. What holds the diagnosis of PTSD together is the traumatic memory. In cases of memories recovered through hypnosis, there is fairly reliable scholarly questions raised against the empirical validities of such memories (see Loftus, 'The Myth of Repressed Memory'-a feminist psychologist's reappraisal of hypnotically-induced early childhood memories). Yet, in cases of childhood memories spontaneously retrieved, as well as in victims of rape, physical abuse, torture, and war, there does not seem to be too much questioning of the diagnosis of PTSD.

It is really too much to see all this as evidence of mass "hysteria". And if it is, what is Showalter's explanation? Another set of millennial anxieties? I find the reasoning quite specious.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has been around ever since women have been raped and wars have occurred. It may have been called shell-shock after WWI, hysteria by Charcot and Janet, but it has occurred in mid-century and at the beginning of century and millennia, as well as at the end of centuries. Not only that, but it was recognized and labelled in the DSM-IV in 1980. Surely people were not suffering from an anxiety about the end of the 20th century 25-30 years before the year 2000 occurred! And how would Showalter explain W.H. Rivers' diagnosis of shell-shock in the 1920s? Perhaps an 80-year anticipatory anxiety that Rivers was undergoing? Or perhaps a 30-year old anxiety at the beginning of the 20th century?

Finally, Showalter's path from _The Female Malady_ to her latest book seems to retrace the steps of Sigmund Freud. In 1896 he wrote a paper on the sexual etiology of hysteria which believed his mostly female patients accounts of early childhood sexual abuse. After severe ostracism from his colleagues, he retracted this finding and instead based psychoanalysis on a theory of defense mechanisms. I'm really surprised that Showalter's shoddy scholarship continues to gain audiences and publishers.

>From Lisa Cody 28 Feb 1997

Whatever the merits or demerits of Showalter's current book, I think it's important to inform the list what a respected interdisciplinary and feminist literary critic--even cultural historian--Showalter has been for over two decades.

Showalter certainly does have expertise in medical history. _The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980_(1985) is deeply and well-researched history, written with verve and sophistication. It is the same text that so many of us on this list lamented about being out of print. I've assigned _Female Malady_ at least six times, and each time found students---including male students not the slightest bit sympathetic to gender issues---suddenly putting lots of pieces together, starting to see the complex ways that oppression works. (I am an historian of medicine and gender in 18th and 19th century Britain, by the way, so I feel I have some authority in being able to say this is "good" history.)

Showalter's also written on Florence Nightengale, sexuality, syphilis, etc. She is, as you acknowledge, also a noted literary critic. I believe her first work was _A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing_(1977). I'm sure members of this list can also list more of her c.v.

Clearly, Showalter may not have passed your definition of what makes a feminist scholar. But I am troubled that because her work has been found to be distasteful that she is written off as "clearly ha[ving] no training and little knowledge of the literature of the history of medicine, or history of women, or medicine. Period." and only "claim[ing] to be a feminist" and having written "amateur history by another pundit."

As someone who also claims to be a feminist, I looked to Showalter as an undergrad and grad student as someone who helped establish a place for women's history and gendered criticism in the academy. I have presented her work to my students for years and found that they too see her work as groundbreaking and feminist.

I think it's terrific, the hallmark of good feminist scholarship to inspire debate and disagreement. I don't have a problem with someone disagreeing with Showalter's work (or mine or anyone else's), but I would hope that those critiquing other women's work would not stoop to accusing them of being somehow amateurish, uninformed, and not real feminists. As you've portrayed it, Showalter's new book sounds outlandish, and if that's what her readers decide, so be it. But is it necessary to make near _ad hominem_ attacks on the accomplishments of a feminist scholar who has brought women's texts and gendered interpretations into main-stream English and History departments?

[Editor Note: The next six (6) responses are from X-Post from H-Sci-Med-Tech]


>From Jo Melling 03 March 1997

Dear All,

Elaine Showalter wrote a very important book on women and madness as a cultural history (_Female Malady_) a few years ago, which also criticised the scientific basis of psychiatry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A number of other "medical historians" (myself included) are very critical of the text and methodology, but I do not have a problem with historians who study medical practice calling themselves "medical historians", even if to argue from authority as Professor Showalter does, appears tendentious and a little pretentious.

>From David H. Serlin 3 March 1997

I'm not sure why Prof. Showalter is trying to create hard and fast rules for who qualifies as an "authentic" historian of medicine, and who does not. If a scholar's work contributes to the history of medicine, or to histories of science in general, must they be a card-carrying member of some exclusive club in order for their work to be taken seriously? If a junior scholar or graduate student writes a stunning article, monograph or book, should we judge them less seriously because they don't have the years of scholarship or professional credentialling behind them? Similarly, if a scholar's work is interdisciplinary, or one trains in a particular field, but, as he or she grows pedagogically or methodologically, one becomes interested in expanded horizons, does the scholar have to remain humbly and complicit with just one field of interest/expertise? I agree that there are historians of medicine who aren't, for my money, as interesting or compelling as others, but it's less because of their immediate "credentials" as it is how I perceive the quality of their work.

This raise a corollary question: what *is* history of medicine? Ambrose Pare? Conceptions of hysteria for 19th century Bulgarian nursing students? The history of MRI or PET? Doesn't the field change as ideas change? The social historians of the 1960s taught a lot of scholars in many fields to look beyond the heroes/diplomats/institutional side of history and focus on people without voices or who left little, if any, evidence behind of their lives. Who has a monopoly on what qualifies as real history of medicine? As a young scholar who was trained in literature and history but whose interests no encompass history of medicine and medical technology, I'd like to know how much your membership fees are, and to whom I must kowtow in order to write my dissertation.

>From N. Sivin 3 March 1997

With reference to Mary Schweitzer's query about the difference between rank amateurs and historians of medicine, the latter produces competent (although not always interesting) work, and the former do not produce competent work, although what they have to say is sometimes interesting and occasionally enlightening.

If someone with a Ph.D. in the history of medicine takes it upon him, her, or itself, to say that someone else who has written in the fields is not qualified, I would respectfully request that he, she, or it accompany this judgment with incontrovertible evidence of defective knowledge, understanding, or method. Of course, if the evidence is there, what does the label matter? Or if the work is good (not flawless, because we are all mortals and none of our work is flawless), what does the label matter?

>From Chris Amirault 3 March 1997

In my first post to this list, I find myself in the strange position of defending the scholarship of Elaine Showalter, of all people. I find this strange not only because her reputation is just about as solid as that of any humanist in the academy, but also because I'm not particularly compelled by her work. Still, I think there is an important point about cross-disciplinarity and clubbishness to be made here. (This is not to say that criticisms Schweitzer raises in her H-Women posts are not valid; I'm focusing on the comments made to this list.)

Along with being a well-known feminist literary critic (and TV reviewer for _People_ magazine, I believe), Showalter has been a regular scholar of medicine and culture. Much of her earlier work (_The Female Malady_, e.g.) has discussed the development of modern medical diagnosis in relation to gender, and that work has certainly contributed to many people's conceptions of medical history and of medicine in history.

So, if one defines a "historian of medicine" to be someone who contributes to out understanding of medicine in history, then, yes, of course Showalter is a medical historian. But if one defines "historian" to be someone trained by historians, employed in a history department, and therefore possessing the "credentials" of an authorized "expert", then, no, she isn't a medical historian. Unfortunately, someone like sociologist Paul Starr wouldn't be one either, which is odd given that he has written what I believe to be one of the most important books to date in the history of medicine (_The Social Transformation of American Medicine_).

I bristle at these questions because they seem to desire to describe an inside and an outside to the history of medicine, to define who's in and who's out. This gesture seems particularly problematic at this moment in the history of this list, as it is constituted as a scholarly community. What exactly is the value of determining who the "amateurs" are and who the "experts" are, except on the basis of their scholarship? Put differently, doesn't the answer to the questions reside not on Showalter's c.v. but in her work?

Given the proliferation of medicine into the most remote corners of our social, economic and cultural lives, isn't there room for scholarship in the history of medicine that responds to that proliferation by itself extending its boundaries?

>From Dr. Helmut Maier 3 March 1997

>From the first day on that I studied and later taught history of technology this was the key question: who has the authority for this interdisciplinary zoo of the histories of chem/phys/education/med/math...?

My rather simple guess: both qualifications help but do not prevent from internalistic or deterministic approaches.

I see a striking argument: At a meeting of alumni, an old surgeon says to the historian: I was always interested in history, now I write a history of medicine. The historian answers: I was always interested in surgery, now I start a surgery/an office!

>From Lesley Hall 3 March 1997

Some thought which may be relevant to this discussion. On the one hand, it's always good when a book appears drawing attention to a possibly neglected field, since it usually at least provokes discussion and an awareness of the field. On the other hand, it's intensely annoying to people who are working within that field when some popularly written, and often well-promoted work, gains credence and sets agendas, particularly if it's (as works with a popular slant tend to be) a 'One Big Defining Idea' book. In fact, any 'Over-Arching Theme' book is likely to violate the sensibilities of people who are aware that it tends to conflate very diverse historical and local specificities and smooth out quirks and nuances and complicating factors. And since a book of this nature is the one most people will have heard of and know something about, anyone who's working in that field often has to spend more time than they might like advancing their critique of so-and-so's work, when they'd much rather be exploring issues that interest them. It's an experience I've had myself.

>From Atwood D. Gaines (no e-mail given) 5 March 1997

In re Mary Schweitzer's befuddlement over Elaine Showalter's new book... This list reader is befuddled by Schweitzer's lack of knowledge of Showalter. She is
the author of _The Female Malady_ and _Sexual Anarchy_ as well as editor of _A Literature of Their Own_, _These Modern Women_, and _The New Feminist Criticism_. She is a fairly well-known scholar of Victorian (English) medical history and considerations, or lack thereof, therein.

P.S. As well, Showalter is scarcely the only one to recognize group psychogenic phenomena (abd religious syncretisms) in her list of exotica, which are becoming less so in modern society. To the list, one might add Environmental Sickness and a few others.

>From Jeanette Keith 5 March 1997

After the long thread on Showalter's work, people might like to check out the article on her in the March/April edition of _Mirabella_. For those who don't know, _Mirabella_ is a fashion magazine. The article is highly interesting, combining insights into the academic world that are startling to see in a fashion mag with analysis of Showalter's own fashion sense, including what color toenail polish she uses. My favorite part of the article was Showalter's description of Joyce Carol Oates at TJMax. After reading it, I'm not sure whether Showalter was set up or whether she played the interview precisely as she wanted. I mean, maybe she wants the whole world to know about her toenails?

>From Mary Schweitzer 07 March 1997

I thank everybody for the intriguing responses.

My problem is not precisely whether someone is a "historian"--it is the question, what is "scholarship"--these are two different questions.

Ever since Parson Weems wrote that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and threw a dollar across the Potomac, there has been a conflict between those for whom "history" is mostly symbolic, and those who have a passion to understand what IS and what WAS, and how they interrelate. Oliver Stone is today's Parson Weems, enjoying the "authority" of there really being an assassination of John Kennedy to the point of being able to use the original film clips, yet knowingly inventing actions and words said by real people in real time. There used to be devices for this--one would create a fictional character, and although everybody who was "in" would know who the character was SUPPOSED to be, that did leave room for artistic license. Increasingly, it seems, the line between being true to what we think IS, and what we want to SAY, has become blurred again. When the line becomes blurred--how then is the choice made as to what gets published, what gets viewed, what gets taught in a classroom?

There are advantages to "expertise"--to scholarly knowledge. The main advantage is that one not only is familiar with a broad range of possible explanatory theories, but one is also familiar with the troublesome "facts" that don't quite FIT where you want them to. And you can't pretend they're not there. You have to admit to them, even if a footnote. Because YOU COULD BE WRONG. And maybe some young graduate student out there is going to see something you didn't see. You have to be open to that; you can't hide anything.

If you were totally unfamiliar with the disease chronic fatigue syndrome (aka CFIDS, aka M.E.--aka, in New Zealand, tampanui flu), then her chapter would read AS IF she had consulted the literature. But the footnotes! Newsweek. A single sentence from a reputable doctor's book, ignoring everything else in the book. Lots from a journalist's "sensationalist" book on CFS. Virtually nothing from the medical literature. It may be "history", in that she tells a narrative that has chronology. But is this scholarship?

Secondly, when I asked if she was a historian, I was not intending to be rude. I was honestly unfamiliar with her work. Although I have taught women's history for a decade, my research is in a different time period and on very different subjects. Her work has not made it into the book of essays that I use in my classes, and I would have no reason to be familiar with it from my own level of expertise. All I knew was that she was a full professor with an endowed chair in English at Princeton.

Ironically, my first experience with scholars who have expertise in one area that they then insist makes them capable of extraordinary analytical ability in other areas was with economists. Carl Becker at Chicago comes to mind. He believe he can analyze feminist issues better than any feminist, because HE knows the TRUTH, which is a particular way of analyzing human behavior that comes together quite neatly within a certain scholarly framework. (This is even more ironic for me, because I use Becker's work for my own purposes--I would argue that he cannot separate Becker the man from Becker the scholar, but that doesn't mean I can't separate out the scholarship part and use it for purposes that would probably make his hair stand on end!)

What I see in Showalter's work is the same thing I saw in Becker's. There are usable and interesting ideas and theories here, but the application! In picking examples, in applying the theory, both Becker and Showalter see, oblivious to the possibility that there are OTHER scholars out there practicing who might have more knowledge of these issues. Might be useful. Might even be important.

The irony is that it is a highly elitist game in the name of anti-elitism. Could Showalter have gotten this book published were she just an assistant professor of English at Wayne State? Do you think that a Princeton imprimatur helps? How about the that led to the book? Do you think her credentials helped her get that grant?

Make no mistake: she traded on the public trust in a concept called "scholarship" and "expertise" to get the book published (also two literary agents, but that's another issue...). That she has WRITTEN on certain subjects, even that she has gotten them published, does not mean that she is truly a scholar in these areas.
Does it? Does it make a difference?[...]

>From Maria Elena Raymond 21 March 1997

Dear List members,

In the 24 March issue of Newsweek, Jonathan Alter's column on p.47 is entitled "The Age of Conspiracism". He mentions what he feels is the effect of FBI and mainstream media discrediting "conspiracy" theories...that is, the enhancing of the story in "the eyes of conspiracy freaks." Following is his comment about Showalter:

"...conspiracy freaks. And they're becoming a formidable and ferocious constituency. Elaine Showalter is a Princeton professor with a forthcoming book, _Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media_, that argues such ailments as gulf war syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome are largely cultural phenomena related to war neurosis (common after all wars) or everyday domestic stress. Her book hasn't even been published, but the vitriolic reaction is already forcing her to change her e-mail address. 'These theories are the other side of science,' she say. 'People have come to think there are magic-bullet answers to the complexities of modern life.' " FWIW.

[Editor's Note--When Dr. Schweitzer finishes her review of Showalter's book, the editors will consider it for posting to H-Women]

>From Mary Schweitzer 24 March 1997

Well, first of all, Showalter's book HAS been published--I got a copy at Encore Books in New Jersey at the beginning of the month.

The e-mail Dr. Showalter received was prompted by a review in Mirabella that was posted on Internet discussion lists. The I had a bit of a hand in it myself by posting a set of excerpts from her book that pretty much capture the essence of her effort to portray CFS as a "hysterical epidemic" like UFO sightings. There's been a lot of discussion about this book--how else are patients to respond to a book that likens the experience of CFS to UFO sightings.

As far as I know, she was not deliberately bombed with e-mail. The e-mail all came from sincere efforts to educate Dr. Showalter. I can't tell you how many really nice women wrote to me saying that she just must be uneducated--they wanted to send her articles from medical journals and evidence from their own cases that clearly demonstrate the physical foundation of the illness. One person wrote, "she must just be young and inexperienced." I advised them not to write her-I warned that she would just use their own actions against them.

I have written a book review for the CFIDS Chronicle, the magazine of the CFIDS Association of America. I am planning to revise it (it is targeted toward people who already know what CFS is; I am going to rewrite it to focus more on what historians would be interested in) and offer it to h-review.

In a nutshell, the part of her thesis that deals with chronic fatigue syndrome REQUIRES that there be NO evidence whatsoever that the symptoms of CFS have physical causes. Now, that's a pretty strong case to try to make, and she doesn't even try. She just asserts it.

Her references were to popular media such as "USA Today" and "McCall's" and "Newsweek." Not the Journal of the American Medical Association or the Annals of Internal Medicine (two highly respected medical journals that published recent peer-reviewed articles on CFS).

Her basic thesis is that hysteria is a real illness; that people (mostly women) suffering from hysteria try to explain their sufferings in culturally acceptable language, leading to "hystories," narratives of physical symptoms that spread as an infectious disease might spread, through the modern media of women's magazines, talk shows, sympathetic doctors, patient support groups, and Internet. The only way to "stop" these "hysterical epidemics" (which is what she calls CFS) is to quite retelling the "hystories"(i.e. make us shut up); for physicians to quit treating us with misplaced kindness; and for us to individually go into deep psychotherapy.

For more information, visit the Elaine Showalter page on the web site "Listening to CFIDS" at

Date: Tue, 25 Mar 1997 08:56:46 -0500 From: Lori Askeland <askeland@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU>

I would like to comment on the mind/ culture/ body implications of Mary Schwetzer's description of Showalter's "prescription" for CFS (after a big snip):

> The only way to "stop" these
>"hysterial epidemics" (which is what she [Showalter] calls CFS) is to quit retelling the
>"hystories" (i.e., make us shut up); for physicians to quit treating us with >misplaced kindness; and for us to individually go into deep psychotherapy.

I find Schweitzer's analysis compelling, and would simply note that it seems ironic that the solution she attributes to Showalter (I haven't read the book yet), i.e., in particular the suggestion that CFS sufferers each "individually go into deep psychotherapy," seems a pecularliarly English-prof solution to psychic distress, let alone a real physical illness. As someone who suffers from periodic bouts of depression, the reading I've done suggests that "deep psychotherapy" is not a particularly effective mode of treatment for most, if any, psychological problems. Many professionals recognize that many psychological disorders, like depression, are more complex than simple, physical illnesses--although many _do_ have a _real_ and _significant_ physical/ chemical component--and frequently _also_ have real and complex and broad-based cultural roots that are not easily addressed. (E.g., the fact that so many more women than men suffer from depression, and that depression is almost unknown in highly communal societies while being frighteningly on the rise in Western(-ized) cultures.) Many professionals currently seem to be leaning strongly away from "deep psychotherapy," which is viewed as ineffective at best, and towards directed, short-term psychotherapy in combination with drugs or other therapy when necessary. (I don't mean to suggest univocity on the part of the psychiatric community, but this is my impression of what approaches have seemed most sensible to me from the research I've done.)

I'm sure there are hypochondriacs out there who firmly believe they have CFS, regardless of their "true" physical condition. And there may very likely be cultural reasons for their suffering that would probably be best addressed by some form of psychotherapy. But, even so, I know that depression wreaks very physical havoc with my body when I'm in a bad bout, and those problems deserve medical attention as much as do "purely" physical diseases. (In fact, my doctor is unusually perceptive in seeing that _both_ my medical and psychical problems deserve and need treatment; she has pushed me into seeing my counselor when I'm tempted to fight it out alone. Studies have shown that most doctors regularly fail to demonstrate any such "kindness" to their patients, fail to take seriously and really listen to what is going on in their lives, so that complicated disorders, like depression, are generally not properly diagnosed and treated. I would hazard a guess that CFS is probably similarly underdiagnosed.) I'm equally sure that people suffering from hypochondria probably also claim to be suffering from any number of diseases, from pneumonia to cancer, which wouldn't make me discount them as diseases. When I'm sick or depressed, I frequently imagine myself never getting better, having some really terrible disease. If I don't get the diseases I imagine, however, it doesn't mean they don't exist. Clearly, this mind/body/culture relationship is more complex than many of us have yet grasped, and I applaud any work that can demonstrate that complexity without discounting the pain and physical experiences of other human beings.

Lori Askeland, English,
University of Kansas

Date: Wed, 26 Mar 1997 10:13:07 -0500 From: Mary Schweitzer <>

Lori Askeland <askeland@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU> wrote:

> it seems ironic that the solution [Schweitzer] attributes to Showalter > (I haven't read the book yet), i.e., in particular the suggestion that > CFS sufferers each "individually go into deep psychotherapy," seems a > pecularliarly English-prof solution to psychic distress, let alone a real > physical illness.

First, keep in mind that we are not discussing Showalter's attitudes toward psychologically-based illnesses; she does admit to the value of psychopharmacology. The issue is "psychogenetic" illnesses and "hypochondria", something rather different.

Nevertheless, Lori came straight to the main issue. Why an English professor? As a first pass, Showalter considered herself qualified to study this phenomenon because she has written on the history of "hysteria" -- indeed, she calls herself a specialist on "hysteria", a "hysterian", in her own terms.

Accurate enough if analyzing the phenomenon CALLED "hysteria". But what does it mean for Showalter to resurrect the diagnosis of "hysteria" for our times, and to make the claim that a modern disease syndrome called CFS is in reality the "hysteria" of old?

It seems to me that when Showalter shifted from interpreting "hysteria" as the word was used in the past, to creating a use for the term "hysteria" in the present, she ceased to be the scholar of social construction and instead became the agent.

What does that mean for the definition of "scholar"?

Students of CFS have already offered two ways to fit the disease pattern into what we know about "hysteria" in the past:

  1. The Alice James hypothesis (Alice James was the sister of Henry James): the individual had a physically-based disorder that was poorly understood one hundred years ago. Physicians reached for the nearest diagnosis of the symptoms, and "hysteria" was handy if the patient happened to be female.

    The game is thus played in reverse: what REAL disease did these women suffer from when doctors reported they had "hysteria"? And it is evidence of the needless suffering caused by rigid gender prejudices of the Victorian age.

  2. The Yellow Wallpaper hypothesis (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's heroine was diagnosed with "hysteria" and consequently confined to a small room in the attic of a house, forbidden to speak to or write to her "modern" friends who had been putting ideas into her head and whom her doctor husband blamed for her "hysteria" -- as a result she went mad): there was nothing "wrong" with these women at all. They were just reacting to the limitations imposed upon them by a sexist society, and the treatment for "hysteria" prescribed to "cure" them was far more harmful than any disease. [The version 1 interpretation of Yellow Wallpaper assumes it was a case of postpartem depression.] Once again, the diagnosis of "hysteria" is interpreted as causing needless suffering to real women trapped in a man's concept of a woman's body.

In both interpretations, however, "hysteria" is a MIS-diagnosis rooted in the control men had over the medical professions and the rights of intellectual interpretation. The diagnosis of "hysteria" was made by men who looked upon women as "things" quite different from themselves. The patient's own interpretation of the problem was quite irrelevent (except in a symbolic terms which only the "expert" could understand).

Hysteria, in other words, is a diagnosis that CAN ONLY BE MADE in a deeply sexist society, by deeply sexist individuals.

Showalter offers us a third interpretation: 3. "Hysteria" was a very real disease; the women who experienced it had a particular type of psychological disorder; men experience it too; it exists today. The "feminist" spin Showalter puts on this is to make the case that "hysteria" has a bad name because it was seen as something that happened only to women. "I don't regard hysteria as a weakness, badness, feminine deceitfulness, or irresponsibility, but rather as a cultural symptom of anxiety and stress." (p. 9) All well and good, but what does it mean to classify the disease syndrome CFS (and also Gulf War Syndrome, BTW), as "hysteria"?

If CFS patients respond -- this is not our reality -- her answer is, in effect, that's only what you think. Sufferers of CFS are, after all, hysterics: they THINK they understand their bodies, but they don't. Patients aren't experts, and only experts can really explain these apparent symptoms.

Furthermore, since CFS is not a physical disease but rather a case of "hysteria", the apparent presentation of physical symptoms is only a story -- a "hystory" to be precise -- to be interpreted not by a medical doctor or even a psychiatrist, but by a specialist in the intepretation of stories: an English professor.

One wonders if this book would have been published had she substituted MS, or multiple sclerosis, for CFS.

Well into the 1960s, a patient suffering from multiple sclerosis would have been sent to a mental hospital with "hysterical paralysis". Why, then, would Multiple Sclerosis not be a candidate for Showalter's diagnosis of "hysteria"?

MS patients are no longer vulnerable to the diagnosis of "hysteria" because there is "scientific proof" that their disease is physical in origin, attacking the myelin sheath; examination of the spinal fluid in an MS patient offers further "proof" that this particular patient does indeed have that particular physical disease.

Despite a preponderance of scholarly studies demonstrating physical abnormalities causing many of the symptoms found in CFS patients; despite recognition by the Centers for Disease Control, the American College of Internal Mecicine, HHS and Social Security, that CFS is a debilitating physical disease; Showalter can claim CFS is a case of "hysteria" because there is no single scientific test "proving" that any particular individual has this particular physical disease.

So here is the final irony: in the absence of a "proof" in the most narrow, Popperian sense of "scientific" proof, that individuals with symptoms of CFS have the same physically-based illness, Showalter is free to interpret their testimony as a "text" independent of medical evidence in a way that she clearly would not feel free if the disease were MS.

Since science/proof=masculine, and texts/stories=feminine, the appropriate venue for the study of CFS -- in the absence of masculinist proof that it is a scientific subject -- would be English literature. If it is not male, it must be female.

In the meantime, all OTHER means of validation, not purely "female" or "male", not pure social construction and not pure "science", fall by the wayside. They don't matter; they can be ignored.

The resurrection (or attempted resurrection) of "hysteria" as a valid diagnosis for a disease WOMEN consider to be physical in cause has me deeply concerned from a sociological perspective -- it is not so much that Showalter WROTE it, but that Columbia University Press published it.

What is there in ACADEMIC society (let alone the media) that is so willing to accept this diagnosis again? There is a story of cultural construction to be told here: who in this case is the powerFUL, and who the powerLESS? How should a woman's historian analysize the publication of this work?

Mary Schweitzer, Assoc. Prof., Dept. of History, Villanova University (on leave 1995-??) <>

Date: Thu, 27 Mar 1997 09:11:18 -0500 From: Genevieve G. McBride <>

People with epilepsy, now often called chronic seizure disorder, also were (and still are) misdiagnosed as "mad" or at least "hysterics"

  • or, especially in the case of children, more currently mislabeled as "hyperactive." This has prevented accurate diagnosis for years, even decades, with devastating effect on the lives of far too many of the one percent of the population affected after illness, brain injury, and the like. Some states still have laws on the books restricting marriage, or at least reproduction, by PWE's, owing to incorrect assumptions that it is a hereditary form of "hysteria." At least they are no longer misunderstood, as in medieval times, as possessed by demons. But there still is much progress to be made.

Showalter may have valid points -- see the current Lingua Franca for an interesting commentary -- but my experiences as the parent of a PWE (BTW, many do not like the term "epileptic" and prefer "person with epilepsy" -- and many also do not like "chronic seizure disorder" and prefer the plain and simple "epilepsy") suggests that she also may have helped to popularize many misunderstandings.

Genevieve G. McBride
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


From: Jo Ann McNamara March 31, 1997

Just a pedantic note here: medieval people knew of the falling sickness and did not confuse it with demonic possession which had very different symptoms, such as talking in different voices, emitting a terrible stench, flying through the air (across a room or to the ceiling, not on a broomstick) along with a lot of writhing and twisting.

Jo Ann McNamara