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Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture [Paperback]

Elaine Showalter
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Jun 1998
‘Daring and provocative’ Independent

Product details

  • Paperback: 9999 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; New Ed edition (5 Jun 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330354779
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330354776
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 526,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Book Description

‘Hystories is an exhilarating book which lobs politically incorrect cocktails in all directions . . . it is important and impressive in opening up a debate and reminding us of the psychological relevance of history’ Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times ‘Groundbreaking . . . this is undoubtedly a brave book and one which should be welcomed for generating arguments which so far have been silenced’ Julie Wheelwright, Scotland on Sunday ‘Hystories is guaranteed to make us take a more reflective look at the fears and demons that so rampantly haunt our fin de siècle’ Lisa Appignanesi, Independent ‘Provocative and immensely readable . . . Showalter’s gift is for lively, literate and interpretive synthesis of specialized academic scholarship, in language that bridges the popular and scholarly worlds . . . we can be thankful for a commentator as sane, courageous and clear-headed as [she]’ Mark S. Micale, Times Literary Supplement ‘Considered and level-headed’ Ruth Rendell, Daily Telegraph ‘This is a brave book, not only because it dares to question feminist orthodoxies, but also because it reminds us that feminism’s purpose is the investigation of truth, not the perpetuation of blame’ Erica Jong

From the Publisher

Controversial analysis of hysteria in all its modern forms
Hysteria has traditionally been seen as female territory but in this pertinent and lucid book Elaine Showalter argues that it is a disease that is universal. Hysterical disorders, far from dying out with the end of Victorian sexual repression, have in fact flooded the media in the 1980s and 1990s. From Gulf War syndrome to Satanic ritual abuse, these epidemics of psychogenic disease and memory have much to tell us about the anxieties of Western culture. Elaine Showalter's piercing study has provoked controversy all over the world and has opened a debate that will continue to intensify as the millenium draws near. "Daring and provocative" Indpendent; "An exhilarating book which lobs politically incorrect cocktails in all directions" Financial Times; "Groundbreaking...this is undoubtedly a brave book and one which should be welcomed for generating arguments which so far have been silenced" Scotland on Sunday; "Considered and level-headed" Daily Telegraph; "This is a brave book, not only because it dares to question feminist orthodoxies, but also because it reminds us that feminism's purpose is the investigation of truth, not the perpetuation of blame" Erica Jong, Observer

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, but slightly lacking focus 4 May 2005
By A Customer
The difficulty with a book on hysteria is that by definition it covers a multitude of vaguely defined subjects. Showalter tries, and mostly succeeds, in describing what was meant by "hysteria" throughout different periods of history, showing how it was viewed by patients and physicians. She discusses the changing theories about the causes of hysteria, as well as showing how the symptoms themselves changed as patients ideas about hysteria changed. While being interesting and well-written, the discussion of psychosomatic illness was slightly lacking in depth and science: I preferred Edward Shorter's "From Paralysis to Fatigue".
The book also covers modern forms of "mass hysteria", such as alien abduction, recovered memory and chronic fatigue syndrome, showing how easily people can be persuaded to believe that their problems are caused by some outside entity rather than looking at their own emotional problems or stresses.
Showalter also discusses feminism and the links between literature and hysteria, which I found a bit bizarre.
Overall it is a good and readable book, but does somewhat lack focus by covering a broad range of subjects in too little detail and by wandering off into unrelated areas.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I just wanted to say, having ACTUALLY READ this book, that thethose who attacked it here were the ones who made me buy it. That being said, this is an excellent survey on the subject, with wise insight into those who exploit, to their own ends and further victimize people by using the stimatization of one word: hysteria--- while not examining the power of psychosomatic illness. While I would toss out most of the Freudian crap, it---it only makes sense that our culture is making us sick. We are dehumanized by corporate materialism, social darwinism, social isolation, and definitions of worthiness based on bank accounts and toys. At the same time, everyone is told they are expendable. Is it any surprise, that people are depressed?
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5 of 12 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
H Y S T E R I A, H I S A N D H E R S published in <i>National Review</i>, 9/1/97 -- by STEVE SAILER (Mr. Sailer is a businessmanand writer.) . .. . . .
SOMETIMES you get what you ask for. Back in 1985 Elaine Showalter, a Princeton English professor specializing in the social history of mental health, concluded her critique of the traditional psychotherapy profession by proclaiming: ``The best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement.'' By 1997, the mental-health industry has become thoroughly feminized, but Professor Showalter has had second thoughts: ``The therapist's role is more and more to affirm, support, and endorse the patient's narrative, . . . and not to challenge the truth or historical reality of the patient's assertions.'' This credulous atmosphere, she believes, has helped unleash ``hysterical epidemics,'' such as the disgraceful witchhunts for satanic cults running day-care centers. Mrs. Showalter cites five other ``hysterical'' outbreaks: the booms in recovered memory of incestuous abuse, multiple-personality disorders, alien abductions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Gulf War Syndrome. For an academic treatise with a first printing of only 7,500 copies, Hystories has already generated quite a backlash. In hounding the author, Chronic Fatigue sufferers have proved especially energetic. . . . . . .. .
Mrs. Showalter's strongest chapters are on epidemics like the satanic-abuse and alien-abduction scares, whose alleged causes are wholly imaginary; and on Gulf War Syndrome, whose primary cause is real but not specific to that conflict: ``war makes people sick.
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7 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No evidence = No credibility 21 April 1997
By A Customer
The publisher of Ms. Showalter's book, Columbia Press, shouldbe ashamed. This slanderous pulp should have never been published and should definately not be promoted. Without any medical ^M citations, Ms. Showalter has written a very biased piece of work that is in itself very hurtful to Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) patients by perpetuating the myth that these illnesses are "all in the head".^M ^M
On a positive note, because of Hysteries, many doctors have come to the defense of CFS patients. Dr. Marsha Wallace was on Washington local TV^M just recently and she went on and took on Showalter person to person emphasizing that her patients don't get better with antidepressants and^M psychiatry. Dr. Ben Natelson commented in a radio interview that CFS is a real disease when the topic of Ms. Showalter came up. Dr. Paul Levine, on a recent chat on Prodigy, stated in regards to CFS being considered a hysterical disorder, that "any physician who believes that this is true is^M not keeping up with the literature and should be informed that (s)he needs updating." Dr. Philip Lee, assistant secretary of health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recently stated, "It is not, as some have characterized it, some sort of psychological problem. Recovery is slow and uncertain for^M many clients." ^M
How can Ms. Showalter justify her hysterical disorder thesis by ignoring these medical professionals and the medical literature that is published clearly indicating this is a physical disorder? What is her hidden agenda? ^M ^M
Controversy can be turned into dollars regardless of the negative impact it has on its victims. This is pure greed at its finest, folks.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Overview of Psychological Epidemics 23 Dec 2013
By Garnet - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Honestly, when I got this book and started reading it I had this "ah hah!" moment because, after reading many books on the topics of alien abductions, DID/multiple personality, recovered memory work, false memory syndrome, and satanic ritual abuse, I had come to my own theory that much of it fell under a modern version of what used to be called "hysteria." Then here I stumble across this book which basically says my own theories definitely hold water.

The book starts with a few chapters that introduce hysteria from the 1800's, both in women and, less frequently, in men. She talks about how the various hysteria doctors of the day became celebrities, as well as some of their patients, and the hospitals would actually put on "shows" for interested people. Come and watch as women contort themselves and display other odd behavior. The books goes on about how, back in Classical times, they thought that women's strange behavior was caused by a "wandering uterus," hence the name "hysteria." In Victorian times, the symptoms were all over the board, from convulsions to being mute even to having what they called a "double personality, ie, the beginnings of the idea of DID/MPD. The theories of the doctors involved were all over the place, but basically boiled down to...no one really knew what was causing this. Worst still, once a hysteria doctor began working in a hospital, then the hospital and even those working there, nurses and other doctors, would sometimes start to develop some of the same issues, which very much underlines that this is likely a version of mass hysteria.

Our friend, Freud, introduced the idea of repressed memory and how it can manifest itself physically in the body. At first, he believed all the stories that his patients were telling him, but eventually realized that too many of them were just fantasical and what he was really tapping into was something from the unconscious. The author of this book ties that together with the psychological epidemics that we still see today...including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome (a modern version of shell-shock), DID/MPD, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction. It is implied that, as time goes by, yet more of these epidemics will appear as they are a human means of physicially expressing stress and anxiety along the lines of cultural and social expectations. For sure, some people will argue with the author's points, but she presents several cases for each type of hystory, which makes it pretty clear that there is no way that a physical reason is involved in many of these cases--the symptoms are all over the place and even the wives of men with GWS seem to develop strange symptoms, as do the doctors who work with them. Symptoms which make no sense for someone who was nowhere near the battle zone.

The author then talks about those who come to see doctors for other issues, such as depression or eating disorders, end up having the doctor work with them to pull out so-called repressed memories and build a narrative of childhood abuse (satanic or otherwise), in order to effect a cure...all without the medical professional hardly ever checking to see if any of it is factually real. This ended up in a huge epidemic of SRA accusations and fears that spread across the US and then to other countries, while law enforcement never found proof of this wide-scale ritual abuse, murder, baby-killings, etc etc. Not that it mattered, since many of these hystories also involve belief in various forms of conspiracies, including thinking the the govt and law enforcement are involved. Essentially, the stories evolve to try to elude being destroyed by factual evidence.

In writing this book, the author understood how she was making herself a target for those suffering from these conditions who are absolutely sure that they have a basis either in some kind of virus or chemical or child abuse or ritual abuse (and the medical-mental health practitioners who are almost rabid at times in their own beliefs), but she does end up showing that, the vast majority of the time, there IS no medical reason for what is happening to the patient in question. When everything has been eliminated what is left is the theory that these conditions have a psychiatric source and not a physical source. Basicially, that they are culture and medical-community and media produced expressions of a real underlying problem--anxiety, depression, etc. They are the acceptable means of expressing in the body what the person cannot otherwise seem to express or deal with. Which means they ARE a medical condition, but the cure is not to encourage and expand upon that behavior, but to get at what is really causing it. Meaning, don't help the patient build a "narrative" that revolves around beliefs in alien abduction or satanic ritual abuse or having multiple personalities or that they were poisoned by the govt in some way, but deal with the underlying pain that is causing the physical symptoms to manifest themselves.

The author makes a compelling case that these are modern versions of hysteria, especially considering that the root population that manifests these issues are mainly women...just as in the Victorian age and in Classical times. She also definitely makes a good argument that GWS is a recent version of what was named shell-shock during the Great War. Not that there might not be a physical basis on occasion for some of those suffering from these disorders, but that generally speaking, they stem from the unconscious and from mental pain, anxiety, depression, stress...which is, of course, something we are all dealing with. It just seems likely that some deal with it in the manner of these psychological epidemics, what the author terms hystories.

The gist of the book is that hysteria is alive and thriving today, and is obviously part of the human condition, a way that some humans (in particular women) attempt to deal with what they can't otherwise deal with or express due to cultural repression or expectation. And that even those in the medical-mental health community aren't immune from "catching" this "disease."

Of course, this books is not the final word. Its quite possible that some of these syndromes DO have a connection to something medical that is yet to be discovered--after all, science and medicine are always evolving--or that some of the people with repressed memories actually were abused a children or even that those who experienced "alien abduction" actually had a spiritual experience or revelation of some kind.

What the author mainly indicates with this book is that we really need to look at everything on a case-by-base basis and consider that one potential cause could be a modern version of hysteria and treat the problem accordingly. And not let it get out of hand and turn into a shared group hysteria that does more harm than good.
22 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Wandering Focus 1 July 2000
By Courtney L. Lewis - Published on Amazon.com
I really had high expectations for this book - the author worked for the Wellcome Institute of the study of the History of Medicine affiliated with Cambridge University - and I felt a historical look at how women's experience of illness (since men are rarities in the hysterical world) ties into modern conceptions of chronic illness would be particularly insightful. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the level of scholarship in this volume. Her earlier chapters centering on the development of the clinical concept of "hysteria" through the 19th and early 20th century are her strongest and best researched and the insights she makes regarding connections between influential thinkers are excellent.
Showalter ties the psychological basis of vaguely explained or ephemeral illness to more modern diseases like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome with its numerous psychological and physical symptoms and pinpoints the difficulty of many chronic illness sufferers. Namely that we "live in a culture that still looks down on psychogenic illness, that does not recognize or respect its reality. The self-esteem of the patient depends on having the physiological nature of the illness accepted. The culture forces people to deny the psychological, circumstantial, or emotional sources of their symptoms and to insist that they must be biological and beyond their control in order for them to view themselves as legitimately ill..." While this insight is excellent and, I believe, very true, what the author misses out on is the profound personal nature of the experience of chronic illness with its various ramifications.
Her final conclusion - that feminism and the feminist interpretation of the "hysteria" phenomenon has raised women's expectations of themselves without the inherent power to fulfill those expectations and that the way we should deal with this outcome is simply to study the various aspects of hysteria further - falls flat and does not seem to be well-grounded in the previous context of the book. Unless you are really interested in 19th century medical/women relationships (the one strong point of the book), I think you can miss this one.
27 of 42 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Hystories: Ignorant of scientific fact 18 April 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Showalter claims that theories legitimizing chronic fatiguesyndrome as an actual illness are "on the other side ofscience" and implies that a handful of questionable experts have legitimized the illness. While her findings serve to support her theory, her investigation misses or overlooks scientific research from peer-reviewed medical journals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health. In reality, the CDC includes CFS on a list of "Priority 1 New and Reemerging Infectious Diseases" along with hepatitis C, malaria, and tuberculosis.
^M Showalter fails to acknowledge a wide range of peer-reviewed scientific research documenting immunological dysfunction, deficits in cognitive function, and neuroendocrine system abnormalities in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.
^M ^M Had Showalter's book been written at the turn of the century, she would have included multiple sclerosis (once known as "faker's disease") among her list of "hysterias."
^M Meanwhile, today, over half a million American adults and children are suffering from an illness which Showalter dismisses as a "psychic problem" and "coping mechanism." The former Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Philip R. Lee, wrote a public letter last fall describing CFS as a "scientifically recognized disease syndrome. . . not, as some have characterized it, some sort of psychological problem." Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complex illness characterized by incapacitating fatigue, neurological problems, and a constellation of symptoms that can resemble other disorders such as mononucleosis, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus.
^M ^M Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), is already poorly understood by the American public. Showalter plays on popular misconceptions, propagating misinformation while watching her stardom (and her book's sales) soar.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Arguments not well defended 23 Oct 2011
By T. Dreiling - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Although I agree with the conclusions of the book her arguments were not stated is a strong way. Many were just a rehash of some of the most outlandish cases, cases referred to as 'high strangeness" She does show how the media plays a big part into flaming the fires with sensational broadcasting. As it turns out not one shred of evidance has ever been verified from any of Rivera's sensational satanic cult specials, yet thousands of people entered therapy for things that never happened. She also talks about male hysteria which is seldom touched upon, So, some good points if no a terrific book.
34 of 57 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This is a shabby piece of work. 3 April 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have an agenda: I have had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 10 years and though I am light years better than I was, I am still plagued by exhaustion and neurocognitive difficulties. These are my cards. Elaine Showalter's motivations for including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in her book Hystories are more obscure. Ostensibly, it is to help deluded creatures like me recognize that the cure for what ails us lies in Freudian psychotherapy; that if we got our psychological house in order and acquired the skills for living a protracted time on the couch would bestow, we would recognize that we were equal to the challenges of modern life and wouldn't need to hide behind the screen a chronic, debilitating illness provides. We have been aided in this by the mass media and by the support groups established for advocacy and succor. The source of our infection lies not in some bacterial or viral agent, but in our speech, our susceptibility not in some genetic predisposition or immune system stressor, but in our psyches. I think this is a fair summary of her views. There are several problems with this. A search of Med-Line will reveal a copious literature that's been written on CFS over the last 10 years or so. She discusses none of this. When she invokes a recognized authority on CFS, Dr. David Bell, a deeply compassionate man, who has never wavered in his belief in the organic basis of the illness, the archetype of the good doctor in my opinion, she distorts his words beyond recognition. Dr. Simon Wessely, a British MD, the authority of choice, whose Svengali she plays Trilby to, has been discredited repeatedly in articles she never mentions. No peer reviewed psychiatric literature has ever indicated that people with CFS were any more likely to be somatizing than anyone else. And on and on. This is the worst treatment on the subject of this illness I have encountered. It is a rank farrago of innuendo, procrustean concept, and either inept, but more likely dishonest method. It is not scholarship but slander, slander because by her patronizing tone and tendentious methods, it is clear she has nothing but contempt for those she views as hysterical. A couple of suggestions: Oslers Web, by Hillary Johnson, provides the most comprehensive overview of the illness and how it was (mis)handled by the government, academic and professional institutions, and the media and is now available in paperback. Also, an excellent analysis of multiple personality and the sometimes problematic nature of memory is Remembering Satan, by Lawrence Wright. Both are available from Amazon. As for Showalter, caveat emptor! This one's a real stinker: get it from the library.
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