MAD MEN AND MEDUSAS by Juliet Mitchell


Reclaiming Hysteria
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Psychoanalyst Mitchell makes a good case for the feminization of hysteria and its later decline and fall as a category of mental illness.

The famed French neurologist Charcot demonstrated the “hysterical” performances of male and female patients in his lectures at the end of the 19th century, thereby influencing Freud and colleagues in their understanding of Dora, Anna O, the Wolf Man, and other celebrated patients. The label “hysteria” described the neuroses—phobias, body ills, guilt, death wishes—that were assumed to be a result of actual parental sexual abuse in infancy (later revised to fantasized sexual abuse). It was described as a condition in which the individual is emptied of self and constantly seeks (through “seduction, tantrums, the grandiosity of telling lies, and the demands of ill health”) to recover “the love of our parents (or their substitutes) that we think has gone to our rival.” If that is so, how did hysteria become gendered, as it was in ancient Greece, in medieval times, and after WWI (when male hysteria became known as “shell shock”)? The answer Mitchell proposes is cultural—the inferior position of women in society dictates a greater susceptibility to hysteria. But she also addresses the classic psychoanalytic explanation (namely, that women have a harder time resolving the Oedipus complex). In any case, the exclusion of male hysteria after WWI and subsequent developments in psychoanalysis marginalized the concept of hysteria to the point of nonexistence. Mitchell revisits the literature and reanalyzes cases of Freud, Klein, and others (down to contemporary studies of individuals such as the poet Anne Sexton) to see the hysteria that is now called by other names. She also adds provocative interpretations of Don Giovanni and Iago as male hysterics.

While only true believers will follow Mitchell in the orthodox canon of complexes, cathexes, and dream interpretations, her arguments for reclaiming hysteria for both sexes are persuasive.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-465-04613-4
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2000


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