The Mother of All Maladies — Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Asti Hustvedt

Medical Muses

Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris
BY Asti Hustvedt
(W.W. Norton, 2011)

From the Publisher:

“A fascinating study of three young female hysterics who shaped our early notions of psychology.

Blanche, Augustine, and Geneviève found themselves in the hysteria ward of the Salpêtrière Hospital in 1870s Paris, where their care was directed by the prominent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. They became medical celebrities: every week, eager crowds arrived at the hospital to observe their symptoms; they were photographed, sculpted, painted, and transformed into characters in novels. The remarkable story of their lives as patients in the clinic is a strange amalgam of intimate details and public exposure, science and religion, medicine and the occult, hypnotism, love, and theater.

But who were Blanche, Augustine, and Geneviève? What role did they play in their own peculiar form of stardom? And what exactly were they suffering from? Hysteria — with its dramatic seizures, hallucinations, and reenactments of past traumas — may be an illness of the past, but the notions of femininity that lie behind it offer insights into disorders of the present.”

Research has surged in recent years into the complex interplay among mind, body, emotion, and behavior in determining overall health. Using MRI technology, for example, neuroscientists can observe the real-time effects of anxiety on the subjective experience of pain. In mapping out brain activity as it occurs, we’re glimpsing ourselves as we never have before: the human animal’s impulses and responses, from axon to annoyance to indigestion, lighting up the screen.

Still, the term psychosomatic carries a taint, a lingering whiff of illegitimacy, of hysteria. Take the hundreds of teenagers across Portugal who in 2006 developed mysterious rashes, respiratory problems, and dizziness, some so severely that schools were forced to close. When officials found no causative pathogen, the outbreak came to be known as the “Strawberries with Sugar virus.” Unwittingly, it appeared, the teens had taken on symptoms exhibited by characters on a popular TV soap opera, Morangos com Açúcar.

Hustvedt’s ardently researched book is also one of great empathy. Photographs… have left her subjects frozen as medical curiosities, but Hustvedt thaws them out, showing their symptoms as a striving toward language, an expression…

Such outbreaks, known variously as mass hysteria, mass psychogenic illness, and psychogenic epidemics, are by no means rare, nor are they new (the French Dancing Plague of 1518 led to dozens of deaths from heart attack and stroke). In her gripping social history, Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Asti Hustvedt relates the stories of three French women — Blanche Wittmann, Augustine Gleizes, and Geneviève Basile Legrand — whose manipulation by, and of, a paternalistic medical system has much to say about how we treat mysterious illness today.

In 1877 Marie Wittmann, a poor and illiterate eighteen-year-old, secured a job as a nursing assistant at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Traumatized and intermittently homeless — her mother and five of her eight siblings had died, her father had been institutionalized, and the furrier she was apprenticed to had sexually assaulted her — Marie was beset by incontinence, muteness, paralysis, and convulsions. Along with others of her social class, she was exploited for labor in exchange for admission.

Jean-Martin Charcot, the Salpêtrière’s pioneering neurologist (and teacher to a young Sigmund Freud), recognized in Marie the hallmarks of hysteria. Charcot insisted that hysteria had a neurological rather than a sexual basis, a switch from the Hippocratic notion of the womb (hystera, in Greek) as the source of all disease in women. In the “hystero-epilepsy” ward, Marie underwent Charcot’s hysteria regimen: ether inhalations, ovarian compressions, magnet therapy, hypnosis. The treatments effected only momentary relief, but they transformed Marie, onetime wayward orphan, into a star: Blanche, Queen of Hysterics.

“Located on the problematic border between psychosomatic and somatic disorders,” Hustvedt writes, “hysteria was a confusion of real and imagined illness” (p. 5). That border remains a troubled place in medicine, especially for women. In her 1997 polemic, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, for example, Elaine Showalter examined contemporary manifestations of “hysteria,” placing chronic fatigue syndrome on par with alien abduction, enraging many women who already felt marginalized and derided. By contrast, Hustvedt’s ardently researched book is also one of great empathy. Photographs (reproduced in this book) have left her subjects frozen as medical curiosities, but Hustvedt thaws them out, showing their symptoms as a striving toward language, an expression, as Rimbaud wrote, of “[a]ll forms of love, suffering, and madness.”

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