MEDICAL MUSES by Asti Hustvedt


The Culture of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris
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A compelling analysis of hysteria told through the stories of three young women afflicted with the illness.

In the late 1800s, the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris was notorious for its controversial director, neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, and for its large population of women diagnosed as hysterics. The illness was mysterious, as Charcot's careful clinical methods failed to reveal a biological source of symptoms, and its treatment equally opaque; hypnosis, ether and metallotherapy are a few examples of Charcot's experimental methods. Three of the hysterics, Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, all young women when they were admitted, became celebrities under Charcot's care. Their dramatic physical transformations when suffering a hysterical attack, and Charcot's ability to direct their minds and bodies while they were hypnotized, fascinated the public that clamored to see the spectacle for themselves. Hustvedt (A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China, 2001, etc.) delves into the stories of these three women, exploring how their experiences inform modern psychology and medicine, as well as revealing the true stories behind their treatment and exposure. The author questions whether these women were truly afflicted, or were they playing a role? Was Charcot truly reaching medical breakthroughs with his analysis, or was he manipulating his clients in order to gain prestige? Citing ample historical evidence, Hustvedt contends that the women were legitimately affected by chronic physical symptoms that fell into the grey area between psychosomatic and somatic disorder. In some ways, she suggests, it's possible that the manner in which women were treated in 19th-century French society may have been manifested through these symptoms. Many of the women at the hospital were unmarried, poor, fatherless or abused, and strange myths about femininity abounded. Charcot was a pioneer for treating hysteria as a legitimate medical affliction, but after his death, his reputation suffered. However, he—and the stories of his three star patients—raise important questions about the mind-body paradigm, especially in women, a tension that the author suggests remains misunderstood in modern medicine.

Insightful, provocative medical history.


Pub Date: May 23rd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-02560-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2011


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