Monday, June 6, 2011

Hysteria's Roots

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.

7 comments:

Got It, Ma! said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. It seems as though we draw this really strict line between biological and psychological illness. It's not a line that has any basis in fact. It just reinforces a lot of really harmful notions about mental health and mental illness. Every illness has a psychological component. But it's as though illnesses caused by unhealthy cell growth get research funding, while those caused by brain and body chemistry get looked at askance, especially if those suffering from them are predominantly female. On the one hand I can see how those suffering from CFS would find the assertion that CFS resists biological explanation troubling, because once we assert that an illness has a significant psychological component, that illness suddenly falls off the radar for much of the medical establishment, who unfortunately believe in a total separation of mind and body. On the other hand, we need to move in the direction treating the whole person, and illnesses like CFS that have confounded strictly biological explanation may offer up a new frontier of medical research which could seek answers on more levels. Just as "women's work" has been trivialized over the years, so have "women's illnesses" been branded "psychological" as yet another way to marginalize women's experiences. And by buying into the negative connotation of psychology, in a way we buy into our own marginalization. I'd argue that if CFS has a significant psychological component, that shouldn't make it seem any less of a "real" illness.

Jac. said...

Wow, @Got It Ma! That is an awesome comment. Need to walk away and think about it...

the milliner said...

ITA with what @got it, ma! said. I'm on stress leave (burnout) from work right now and I have definitely found it hard to tease apart the psychological issues from the physical ones. It all just seems to be part and parcel of the overall issue. Kind of a 'chicken or the egg' thing...not sure which one came first or to which extent they are related.

Because of the medical establishment's tendancy to separate the two things, I've found it very helpful to have gathered my own group of medical/well being experts (medical doctor, chiropractor, massage therapist/osteopath, psychotherapist). I find that grouping their feedback all together gives me the most complete picture of what's going on.

Cloud said...

Stop! I already have too many things on my "to read" list!

One thing I'll add to what the others say- even a "psychological" component of an illness probably has some physical manifestation, which can perhaps be a point of intervention. Our minds are in our brains, after all.

mom2boy said...

"anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation" - but those have got to fall under an OCD umbrella I would think and those three are probably being singled out because they show up more frequently in women. Like @Cloud said - our minds are in our brains and there has to be a physiological start point for even "mental" issues.

hush said...

@Got It, Ma! - I'd like to officially present you with the award for Best Comment Ever on my blog! Amen to all of that, sister! Yes! What is up with the strict line we draw between the physical and the psychological? I blame the patriarchy.

@the milliner - I hope you get well soon!

Got It, Ma! said...

@Hush - Aw, shucks! I'm blushing. Delighted to have found such a friendly group of smart readers. It really does sound like an interesting book. I'm putting it on my non-fiction list, but it has to take second place behind the biography of Cleopatra I've been trying to get to since Christmas!