Hysterical epidemics

Showater, Elaine. Hysterias, Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. Picador, 1997.

Elaine Showalter traces the development of the concept of hysteria and asks the question what has happened to hysteria today. She finds it alive and well and living in the social panics and rumours of our age.

In the first part of her book, Showalter chronicles the changing concepts of hysteria and provides definitions. The one that seems to fit most is that of a socially constructed mimetic illness, the symptoms of which can vary from culture to culture. She notes the profound difficulties which arise in just providing an acceptable and coherent definition of the what this illness really is. She quotes one expert, Richard Webster, as suggesting the term spectral symptoms, could we perhaps suggest the terms virtual symptoms and or virtual illness, and thus link up with other kinds of virtual experience?  From the beginning hysteria was usually associated with women, and there is a troubled relationship between the notions of hysteria and feminism; a circumstance not helped by the use of the term hysteria as a general term of abuse, particularly in England, where it is seen as something belonging to the lesser breeds without. Male hysteria was seen as even more problematical and new terms had to be invented to allow discussion to take place.

Showalter documents the role of charismatic figures like Charcot (left) and Freud in the study of hysteria; and traces the development of Freud's views on repressed memory and sexual abuse, originally proposing that hysteria was the result of repressed memories of sexual abuse; later changing his mind and suggesting that they were the result of suppressed incestuous desires on the part of the child. Showalter suggests neither is correct, and that the memories of abuse Freud uncovered were the result of suggestion.

She provides examples of previous psychogenic out-breaks, and suggests that there is strong element of psychogenic infection in the spread of anorexia and bulimia.  The second part, the image of the hysteric in literature and film is something which I will pass over for the third part of this book, the study of six modern examples of hysterical epidemics. These are Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; Gulf War Syndrome, recovered memories of abuse, multiple personality disorder, Satanic abuse memories and memories of alien abductions. The four latter cases have of course all been the subject of intense discussion in Magonia.

Much of Showater's arguments will be familiar to our readers, and in the case of the alien abduction narratives her discussion is limited to a handful of texts. She does make the important point that all these movement link in to the pervasive paranoid mood of the times. One might also add that they contain one core common motif, the idea that between the interstices of our normal lives, we lead another, secret life, and in the majority of these cases that life is a sinister one. If our overt life cannot explain our present discontents then maybe the covert life of the gaps in the narratives of our memories can.  Multiple personality provides the ultimate excuse, like the child blaming the spilt milk and broken window on the imaginary companion, it is not the 'real me' that is responsible for bad behaviour, failure to act according to socially sanctioned roles, and or general foul mood, it is the 'other, the stranger within'.

Though Showalter does not refer to it, the alters have taken on a more sinister role, that of the betrayer within. Satanic abuse victims will complain that treacherous alters have revealed their whereabouts to the cults and have taken them to the meetings. We have gone beyond the ultimate betrayer being the traitor in the house, now it is the traitor in the head. This must be the ultimate paranoia, you're not only persecuted by and cannot trust everyone one else, you cannot trust yourself, and you are persecuting you.

Newer to Magonia readers, and it would appear by far the most controversial of the ideas in this book is the discussion of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Gulf War Syndrome in terms of hysterical outbreaks. While many people would accept that people who claim to have been the victims or perpetrators of mass cannibalism, or to have been transported through solid walls by invisible aliens are probably not relating events taking place in the space of physics and geography, and that their full biographies often reveal they have very strange troubled lives not like most peoples, the victims of CFS and GWS are often, on the surface at least, the epitome of normality. Surely their very real symptoms cannot be all in the mind?  Magonia readers will have realised by now the falsity of such arguments, and Showalter makes a very good case indeed. She points out that CFS/ME is in fact a new label for a syndrome which has been known for a long time under a variety of labels; neurasthenia, nervous exhaustion etc. (I could add that what were the same symptoms were often labelled in the 1920s -1950s as anaemia. In adolescents they were often referred to as growing pains). These were all syndromes with multiple, free floating protean symptoms which leave few physical traces.

As Showalter points out, if someone says they are tired how can you prove otherwise? The descriptions that Showalter includes including hypersensitivity to sound and light read like the characters in Just William books who were 'martyrs to their nerves'.  It also sounds like the mysterious electromagnetic allergies and other varieties of Total Allergy Syndromes, whose alleged sufferers never seem to have the classic symptoms of swelling and shock displayed by sufferers from real allergies. These are surely mimetic, virtual allergies. Showalter wonders what has happened to classic Charcotian grand hysteria. It is alive and well and living in the allergy clinics. Albert Budden's claim that there is a link between abduction type experiences and these allergies may well be true, but what that link signifies is a common psychogenic origin linking two apparently quite separate 'hystories'.

From TAS with its evocation of ideas of contamination and pollution, indeed one might call it the ideologisation of obsessive compulsive rituals of cleanliness, it is a short step to Gulf War Syndrome, a modern myth of contamination. Some of the accounts related by Showalter brings this out clearly. One woman experienced a burning sensation when her husband's semen touches her skin, another that her husband's semen is a toxic substance that causes sores, blisters which actually open and bleed. To these women their husbands' semen is a transmitter of the pollution of war. Is this a medicalised version of the traditional belief that the returning warrior must undergo some ceremony of ritual purification to wash the blood and hate of battle away before reentering domestic life? Without it, semen is not a carrier of life, but a bringer of death.  To what extent a purely psychological explanation suffices for these rumours is problematic, my own guess is that there is no separate psychological space that is not also inhabited on the one side by society and on the other by biology.

The psychogenic conflicts discussed by the Freudian psychologists seem to involve a constant struggle between the demands and biology and the demands of society. Our myths reflect not just personal fears but those of a whole society. Hysteria is born out of absence of power, the need to affirm some control in an uncontrolled world. The narratives of abduction and abuse reflect the powerlessness, still felt most acutely by women, but as downsizing continues will appear more and more in the male population. The syndromes and virtual diseases, one might call them somatic rumours, may be escape roots. CFS/ME offers a socially acceptable parachute out of the rat race. In a radically medicalised society disease becomes the only mechanism of political protest.

Showalter's book is not the ultimate solution, but it is another brick in the wall, and one you should all read. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

John said...

It would appear Ms. Showalter and the author of this review could both benefit from studying the medical literature on ME-CFS instead of prognosticating in sheer ignorance of the disease in question.

This literature is replete with examples of biological abnormalities in CFS patients such as decreased cerebral hypoperfusion (lowered blood flow to the brain), ion channel dysfunction, increased lactic acid in the brain(indicitave of mitochondrial dysfunction), increased immune activation, differential heat shock protein response(indicative of increased oxidative stress), etc. The results are numerous and varied. Indeed, the conclusions from these studies are quite clear- "These results implicate abnormal immune activity in the pathology of exercise intolerance in CFS and are consistent with a channelopathy involving oxidative stress and nitric oxide-related toxicity,"[1] and "The response of CFS patients to incremental exercise associates a lengthened and accentuated oxidative stress together with marked alterations of the muscle membrane excitability. These two objective signs of muscle dysfunction are sufficient to explain muscle pain and postexertional malaise reported by our patients."[2]

How to differentiate CFS from Psychiatric Disorder-

1. Snell et al. 'Exercise capacity and immune function in male and female patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).' In Vivo. 2005 Mar-Apr;19(2):387-90.

2. Jammes, Y. 'Chronic fatigue syndrome: assessment of increased oxidative stress and altered muscle excitability in response to incremental exercise.' J Intern Med. 2005 Mar;257(3):299-310.