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Recovered Satanic Fatigue Disorder

Many modern woes are the product of therapeutic suggestion and media prompting, argues Elaine Showalter

By Jenn Shreve

THE COVER of Elaine Showalter's Hystories lists a wide range of high-publicity modern ailments--alien abduction, chronic fatigue, satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome and multiple personality disorder--and promises to debunk them as mere end-of-the-millennium hysterical epidemics. In other words, not real. It's the stuff of New York Times headlines and Hard Copy exposés alike.

Hystories, however, is less tabloid and more academia than the cover might lead one to believe. The book is a slow, well-researched study of the history of hysterical epidemics and their modern-day manifestations. Showalter argues that throughout modern history, humans have exhibited a wide range of scientifically inexplicable symptoms or behaviors that take on the appearance of illnesses but are rooted in unconscious motives.

When a large number of people exhibit similar sets of hysterical symptoms, prodded by a charismatic leader (Freud was one) who popularizes the "illness," a hysterical epidemic occurs. Modern hysterias, Showalter explains, "are spread by stories circulated through self-help books, articles in newspapers and magazines, TV talk shows and series, films, the Internet and even literary criticism."

The first half of the book is dedicated to the history of hysterical epidemics, starting with a mid-19th-century French doctor, Jean-Martin Charcot, who used to diagnose his mostly female hysterical patients in a circuslike, public-lecture forum.

Charcot believed that hysteria--its symptoms included everything from numbness of the arm to wild displays of freakishness--were rooted in organic nervous-system dysfunction that was spurred by tragedy. His student, Sigmund Freud, moved the focus away from physical ailments into the realm of "repression [and] conflicted sexuality."

Showalter continues with a look at hysterical men: sufferers of shell shock after World War I and II. She studiously records the expression of hysteria in literature and theater, citing as examples Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Oscar Wilde's disturbing play Salome.

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A profile of author Elaine Showalter.

Responses to Showalter's book by a sufferer of the diseases she calls hysterical epidemics.

A long attack on the book by a women's studies professor.

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THE SECOND HALF of Hystories makes an abrupt shift. Showalter, a literary critic and historian of medicine, departs from the academic tone used to explain the history and art of hysteria to a polemical discussion of the tabloid-type subjects emblazoned on the book's cover. Having established a historical basis for hysterical epidemics of the past, she sets out to prove that many of our modern ailments are no different.

Persian Gulf War syndrome, dismissed as a '90s form of shell shock, is lumped together with some of the most difficult "diseases" of our modern world: chronic fatigue, repressed memory and ritual abuse memories. And she makes a strong case against their medical validity while constantly reminding the reader that she is not out to attack patients diagnosed with these illnesses.

But her clarifications have been for the most part overlooked, and why not? She is telling people--people with severe rashes, people who are so tired they can't work, people who can vividly recall being raped by a family member although the memory didn't exist for them even a year ago--that it's all, essentially, in their heads even if the symptoms are very real.

Showalter blames physicians, feminists and journalists for playing key roles in spreading misinformation about certain so-called sicknesses that have ruined so many lives. Repressed-memory recovery, to name one, caught on in the 1980s.

Showalter connects the historical foundation laid in the first half of her book with the assertions of the second when she points out that the modern therapy techniques that lead patients to recover their "repressed memories of sexual abuse" are very similar to Freud's methods in which he had the power to create patients' narratives.

In a short amount of time, thousands were coming forward with these repressed memories (which appeared only after therapy). With help from the media and prompting from feminists who were eager to see any memory of abuse validated nationally, lives were destroyed.

SHOWALTER constructs a well-researched and solid argument. What is missing from her book is a sense of completeness. She rarely refers to the historic foundation she lays in the first portion of her work when dealing with modern epidemics. The reader is left to tie together the historical hysterias and their modern-day counterparts, as identified by Showalter, without a whole lot of guidance.

Though many conclusions are readily apparent, one is left wondering how Showalter might make these connections. For example, she details shell shock as a male hysteria in the first portion of the book but fails to refer back to her research when discussing Persian Gulf War syndrome. Showalter's work is also flawed by lack of solutions to the problems she raises. A quick "let's all work together and fix this somehow" is the best we get.

Showalter's case is a provocative one, however, and readers who are willing to stumble through the dense, postmodern jargon will find themselves facing some very challenging questions about what constitutes illness and how epidemics spread in our society.


Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, by Elaine Showalter; Columbia University Press; 244 pages; $24.95 cloth.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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