Inspiring women & book report: Medical Muses

In 1985 in Ireland, reports of moving religious statues poured in from all over the country and were regularly reported on the news. Small groups of young and old would hold candlelight vigils by the statues that occupy the parks and greens in residential neighbourhoods. I remember being at a few of them. The hysteria was particularly prevalent among young girls and teens, where it was intertwined with teenage melodrama, a fascination with the supernatural and even bullying.

I was nine at the time and became terrified of religious iconography. I remember avoiding looking at the Sacred Heart image that hung in our kitchen. But every classroom had a statue of Mary and a crucifix, so risk of exposure ran high. Rumours flew around the school about statues being seen to move, to bleed, to weep and dares escalated. Girls were regularly in tears. One fainted on the upper hallway of my school claiming she saw the Virgin Mary move. But the hysteria was not confined to schoolgirls. Old and young were in thrall of this phenomenon and the more that was reported the more it felt like something real and foreboding was happening in the country. Rational explanations were thin on the ground and suggestibility ran high.

Eventually, the furore just plain faded. But there was no closing resolution, no cathartic analysis and something about that phase has always troubled me. Those extremes of fear and fervor made a strong impact on my young mind. And then it was over. But I never fully recovered from those feelings and the power of collective consciousness when trained on one idea, no matter how implausible.

I found myself thinking a lot about the Moving Statues when I was reading Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses, a non-fiction book about the early attempts to diagnose hysteria as a medical condition and the women who were victims, patients, celebrities, pawns and players at the hands of a male medical establishment led by Jean-Martin Charcot. Much of the book is about the history of medicine, neurology and roots of psychology and the experiments, both fascinating and grotesque, conducted on these women - three in particular Blanche, Augustine and Geneviève. Where Hustvedt still finds relevance is in the relational; how the women relate to, and mirror, society's and their doctor's systems and expectations.

The nature of hysteria as it was then classified is not without its modern parallels. I think Ireland's summer of moving statues is one. Hustvedt thinks that widespread manifestations of certain psychological ailments might be similar. It's true that most of us don't swoon or seize or experience paralysis during the day as was seemingly common in the 1800's, but we do starve, self-harm, suffer chronic fatigue and depression today. And it would be wrong to think of every practice and insight from that period as antiquated. For example, the doctors - Bourneville especially - progressively reclassified a lot of the behaviour previously associated with witchcraft, sainthood and demonic possession, as the somatic illness they termed "hysteria".

The most striking theme of the book is the dance between humanizing these patients, examining the psychological underpinnings of their behaviour (rape, abandonment, poverty) and the extreme objectification of them as female patients. The establishment was on the cusp of change - somewhere between religious demons and acknowledgement of the psycho-somatic. Indeed, a young Freud attended Charcot's lectures and cited them as influential. But that leap was still beyond the dominant mindset... a mindset sometimes as alarmingly insidious as the Church it criticized. Countless examples are cited where the famous patients of the Salpêtrière Clinic were put on show and manipulated by their doctors. The research was often more carnival than curative; we learn less about the patient's clinical progress towards wellness than the medical contortions they were put through in the name of exemplifying one theory or another.

At the same time, this is not a simple story of unwell women being used and abused by a male medical establishment. As I mentioned, there are moments of great humanism between doctor and patient. It's well argued that Charcot's hysteria provided these women with some kind of taxonomy for expression of their illness or trauma. And the idea of the suggestibility of hysteria (from literature and theatre) has parallels with our fears about the suggestibility of diseases like anorexia (through the internet, magazines, the fashion industry). There's also a recurring suggestion that the women were playing the system, a system that made them into celebrities and muses. But this doesn't make their hysteria fake. A flair for drama may play a role (as it did with schoolgirls and Moving Statues). But that makes it no less real. If the women were acting, they were true method actors.

"Blanche really "had" hysteria. She lived during a period that allowed her to express her suffering in a particular way, through a particular set of symptoms, symptoms that are no longer an admissible way to express illness.
     Diseases do not exist outside of diagnoses. As any American who has spent time outside of the country knows, different cultures experience bodies—their organs and bones and blood—in different ways. The French suffer from Mal au foir of liver ache. The Japanese can be afflicted by taijan kyofusho, an intense fear that their body is offensive to others... Each of these disorders is recognized by their respective medical communities as a valid diagnosis. Every culture molds bodies; bodies adapt and respond with appropriate symptoms."

Like the moving statues in Ireland, the concept of "hysteria" presented by Charcot faded suddenly. And the patients gradually disappeared, seemingly abandoning the newly-shunned taxonomy of behaviour that classified them as "hysterical". Today, they would possibly be diagnosed as bipolar, schizophrenic, depressed, having eating disorders, self-harm impulses. Medical classifications may be more finessed now, but just because we've stopped using the word "hysteria" doesn't mean the disease these women suffered was less real or relevant.

While the reader no doubt seeks to understand whether what these women suffered from was 'real' or not, Charcot never questioned the reality of their suffering. "Hysterical" patients today are not so often taken at their word by their general practitioners. As medicine has parsed into separate disciplines - specializing in mind, in brain, in body - the mind-body relationship has arguably become dismissively narrowed in general medicine. This often leads to much prolonged pain for patients whose illnesses cannot be immediately tied to an ostensive physical cause. Charcot's patients were not forced to run this gamut of medical skepticism and as such, we may yet have something to learn from Charcot.

"Blanche, Augustine and Geneviève suffered countless indignities as patients in Charcot's hysteria ward. Charcot was an imperious authority figure who treated hysterics at the Salpêtrière as medical specimens. Yet, unlike "hysterical" patients today, their suffering was never dismissed as not real... By acknowledging hysterical authenticity, he did nothing less than articulate a new paradigm for illness, one that superseded the tenacious mind-body that we are still muddling about in"
(p. 310)

Hustvedt's writing is compelling, scholarly, humanizing and insightful. She resists the urge to project a modern understanding of mental illness from an imperious standpoint, instead examining history within the paradigms of Charcot's theories and Salpêtrière Clinic. And while flair for drama played a role in hysteria, so it does in the truth of the stories of Blanche, Augustine and Geneviève. Hustvedt lays bare her research, sharing illustrations and photographs and she's transparent about lingering question marks and leaps of faith. Even with such forthrightness, the compelling drama of these stories, the excitement of Hustvedt's own research and journey, is gripping.

Image credits:
1. Medical Muses by Asti Hustvedt
2. Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière (1887) | André Brouillet, via
3. Photograph of Blanche Wittmenn by Paul Regnard - 1879-1880 (scanned from book)
4. Photograph of Augustine Gleizes by Paul Regnard - 1878 (scanned from book)
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