HYSTORIES by Elaine Showalter


Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture
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 Applied scholarship in the best interdisciplinary tradition, examining how hysteria, the individual somaticization of anxiety, devolves to the ``hystories,'' or cultural narratives, of the title and how they in turn escalate into psychogenic epidemics. Feminist literary critic and medical historian Showalter (Humanities/Princeton Univ.) identifies six contemporary syndromes as hysterical epidemics, which arise when influential professional gurus impact on vulnerable populations in culturally supportive environments. Showalter modifies her own endorsement (The Female Malady, 1985) of feminist therapy/therapeutic feminism as she attacks the credulousness of ``the feminist embrace of all abuse narratives and the treatment of all women as survivors.'' But psychotherapy is, Showalter claims, part of the solution to the problem that she expands on fluently in the idioms of psychoanalysis, feminism, and literature. When she moves to address chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndromes (rather too absolutely) as psychological in origin, her zeal biases her rhetorical and reportorial judgment; however, on the overlapping hystories of recovered memory, multiple personality disorder, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction, the advocates convict themselves--of fascination with conspiracy, of accommodating to guilt and fear by licensing the projecting of blame onto others, and above all of resolute obliviousness to ``the way . . . suggestion worked to produce confabulation.'' Showalter has fun with the compound- bizarre, e.g., Harvard psychiatrist John Mack's speculation that remembered sexual abuse actually screens repressed episodes of alien abduction. But she honors the ``spiritual resonance'' lodged even in the narratives she makes sport of: Her quarrel is not with the symptoms of hysteria; she affirms the they are no less real (and no less treatable) than those of organic diseases. It is with the ``social appropriations'' of hysteria (such as the ramifications of incest accusations based on ``recovered'' memory) that she takes issue, and in defense of emotional mystery and narrative truth that she risks the wrath of the epidemics' suffering proponents by challenging them. Muscular, probably inflammatory, and elegantly expressed.

Pub Date: April 3rd, 1997
ISBN: 0-231-10458-8
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1997


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