I've been looking for a good social history on hysteria for awhile now and I came across this book at work. It wasn't exactly what I was looking for but it was quite interesting. The author looked at the history of women and "madness" and the way they were treated by doctors and psychiatrists in the 19th and 20th century. It was an interesting women's history, some parts better than others, but I think ultimately if the author was trying to reclaim women's voices in relation to their treatment she failed.
One of the biggest problems with this book was that by only looking at women's treatment she failed to see what was gendered treatment and ideas and what was practice for everyone. Things were broken down too much into sex first and other things second. In other words whether someone was a man or woman became their most important distinguishing feature which I thought created its own gendered differences.
The other problem with this book seemed to be the lack of addressing the reality of mental health issues for women. Nearly all the examples she used of women diagnosed with conditions were women who would not be classified as having those conditions today. For example Sylvia Plath being schizophrenic, instead of depressed. By doing this she made it seem like none of the women were actually mentally ill and in need of treatment. To me this came across as very false. These cases to me were the exceptions not the norm, and as such gave a distorted view of the history of mental illness.
The first part of the book looked at Psychiatric Victorianism (the history of the first half of the Victorian era). She discussed the treatment of the mentally ill in asylums, and the development of them, and then the treatment of women in general. Her biggest criticism of women's treatment was that it was based on gender stereotypes of the time. Women were expected to be docile, not interested in sex, and reserved. It was a very good look at the gender stereotypes of the time, however by analysing from a 20th century perspective she didn't really fit these generalisations in context. Complaining that women's treatment in Victorian psychiatry silenced women (98) didn't really differ from the treatment of non-mad women in normal society. Comparing women's treatment in the asylums, to that within mainstream society, would have given a better understanding I think. Only at the very end of the section does she mention that women who lived in asylums often had easier and more pleasant lives than those without.
One thing that was interesting, that I didn't know about while reading this section was her talking about Florence Nightingale's depression (or hysteria) and her book/memoir called Cassandra about a woman restricted by society, which sounded really interesting.
The next section looked at Psychiatric Darwinism, late 19th century to early 20th century treatment of women. This part focused largely on the development of hysteria and the symptoms and treatments thereof. For me it was interesting to see how closely the symptoms of hysteria matched those of saint possession, demon possession and mediumship in other times and other cultures. Having studied these other areas it was interesting to read Showlater's interpretation of these symptoms. She saw hysteria as a sign of protest, a way to get attention, though never addressed whether these were intentional or not. She also failed to address what the women gained, why reacting this way was seen as a successful form of rebellion when it brought them nothing but grief in the form of treatments. She also failed to address the success or failure rate of treatments, such as the rest cure.
She also drew heavily on women's literature to illustrate her points, while this made more sense for the earlier history I questioned its use in the later stages of the book. Particularly when she stated she was specifically focusing on English not American history, and then used examples from America, such as Charlotte Perkins and Sylvia Plath. I couldn't help but wonder why she'd not looked at actual case notes from the institute of psychiatry instead.
The chapter that seemed the oddest to me was when she looked at male hysteria among soldiers from World War I. Here she tried to present that the soldiers were suffering from hysteria, and were treated in the same way as the women. To me this kind of undermined her earlier argument that treatment was based on a gendered model. For if the male patients were being treated the same way, then were not the psychiatrists attempting cures that had nothing to do with gendered stereotypes at all. She also seemed confused to the cause of the man's shell shock, stating that it was because of the failure of gender stereotypes, men were shocked because they were supposed to be "men at war" and weren't able to cope. Rather than actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, because world war one was a totally horrific thing to have to live through.
The writing on the 20th century seemed equally odd. Here she mentioned schizophrenia, which despite being a disease that was equally split between men and women she said was seen as feminising because of the treatments such as ECT and lobotomies. (An argument that really didn't hold out). She seemed to fail to identify schizophrenia as a real illness, and I admit I felt it was all a bit strange.
One of the most interesting things I did learn was that there was a female psychiatrist who was a contemporary with Freud who denounced his ideas for being totally sexist, and failing to understand women's problems had nothing to do with "penis envy".
I definitely learned some fascinating things while reading this book, and despite its flaws I'd definitely recommend it. It didn't quite do what it was intending to do, but nonetheless there are some really interesting parts and some good insight, particularly into the gender divisions of Victorian society....Continua