Monday, June 6, 2011
From what I've been hearing about it, Asti Hustvedt's new book, Medical Muses, totally intrigues me. She studies the issue of hysteria, the now-defunct disease, and links it to "being a woman in an era that strictly limited female roles:"
"I set out to write a nonhysterical book about hysteria, to ground my work in something real. At first I found it unfathomable that these women really were suffering from the spectacular forms of illness recorded by their doctors, an illness that no longer exists. But now I believe that Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve were indeed ill. They suffered from chronic debilitating symptoms. To what degree their disease was socially determined and to what degree it was physically determined is impossible to say. If they showed up at a hospital today, suffering from the same symptoms, they would probably be diagnosed with schizophrenia or conversion disorder or bipolar disorder. They would undoubtedly be diagnosed with eating disorders because they had bouts of willful starving and vomiting. However, if these women were alive today, they might not have become ill to begin with and no doubt would suffer from other symptoms."
Interesting. I also note that Hustvedt's book has been roundly criticized by the chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) community for asserting that CFS, along with anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation, and multiple-personality disorder, is among a "crop of bizarre new illnesses" that, like hysteria, "stubbornly resist biological explanation."
Her stance reminds me of a brilliant former women's studies and biology professor of mine who was adamant that there's no such thing as "premenstrual syndrome," and that PMS is a patriarchal social construct. She'd say: "They should call it menstrual syndrome, it would be a lot more accurate."
Such assertions are no doubt threatening, and hard to swallow, if you're pretty damn positive your own lived experiences of things like PMS, CFS, and fibromyalgia are real, painful, and debilitating.