Taner Edis

Tales of Hysteria

Review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, by Elaine Showalter. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997. ISBN 0231104588, 244 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.

by Taner Edis and Amy Sue Bix

We skeptics do more these days than shake our head at psychics or roll our eyes at UFO-abduction tales. Postmodern humanities scholars seem out to drag science down, so the Skeptical Inquirer keeps tabs on relativist philosophers, literary critics, Freudian psychoanalysts, and feminist critics of science, as well as the usual suspects. So when a feminist literary critic with a soft spot for psychoanalysis writes a book about topics like alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse, we might expect some gobbledygook about validating the experiences of those people dismissed by the scientific elite and so on. Elaine Showalter—president-elect of the Modern Language Association, no less—would make us think again. Hystories is not only a skeptical book, but an important book many skeptics can benefit from reading.

Showalter is not interested in defending the truth of recovered memories or alien abduction tales; in fact, she thinks they’re obviously false. She does, however, want to explain why such beliefs are so common. Her central idea is that these beliefs are part of hysterical epidemics. She describes America as “a hot zone of psychogenic diseases, new and mutating forms of hysteria amplified by modern communications and fin de siecle anxiety.” Modern media and rapid electronic communications make it possible for “microtales of individual affliction” to explode into “panics fueled by rumors about medical, familial, community or governmental conspiracy.” Our culture creates plenty of opportunity for psychological trouble, and then provides fantastic tales which people grasp at in order to make sense of their condition. Especially when troubled people connect to support networks and authority figures like therapists, stories with no basis in reality take on a life of their own.

No surprises so far. In an alien abduction report, for example, we can easily see a stereotyped, media-spread tale which people use to make sense of sexual conflicts and strange experiences like sleep paralysis. We also notice therapists who collaborate not so much in revealing what happened as creating the story in the first place. Showalter, however, uses her background as an English professor to explore the stories and the cultural and political landscape that the stories take life in. Skeptics often write about the history of psychology and contagious delusions. Showalter also looks at this history, and puts it in a context of gender politics, cultural anxieties, even literary inspiration. The result is a portrait of hysteria which gives no quarter to false beliefs, yet is also aware of how the label “hysteria” has long been employed “to ridicule and trivialize women’s medical and political complaints.” Showalter leads us to see hysteria as a way, sometimes the only way, suffering people can express themselves.

What, then, are the hysterical epidemics of our day? Showalter talks about recovered memories, multiple personalities, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction. More controversially, she adds chronic fatigue illness and Gulf War syndrome to her list. These, she argues, are all troubles for which no convincing medical or external explanation can be found, and all follow the typical pattern of a hysterical epidemic. Showalter’s treatment of subjects like recovered memories, ritual abuse, and alien abductions reflects sources and themes from the skeptical literature, and her direct and sympathetic style of writing makes her account attractive. Humor also helps, as when she skewers Harvard psychiatrist John Mack for his support of UFO abductions by coining “Showalter’s Law: As the hystories get more bizarre, the experts get more impressive.”

Hystories is a good book, but it also has its dubious points. For example, Showalter overemphasizes end-of-century panics. She treats claims of extraordinary apocalyptic fears around the year 1000 as fact, while most historians think no unusual panic occurred at the time. Skeptics are not likely to share Showalter’s favorable view of psychoanalysis either. She mostly agrees with recent critics of Freud such as Frederick Crews, but believes we have no alternative as yet to modern psychoanalysis as a way of thinking about ourselves and the stories in our lives.

Showalter is also overly hasty in calling chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome hysterias. No doubt this is partly true; nevertheless, new information is still emerging about operations in the Gulf War, and researchers have just begun exploring how different medicines, chemicals, and environmental exposure may interact in complex, unanticipated ways. Certainly, veterans’ affairs have become politicized, and psychological factors and communication of rumors have spread questionable beliefs. But Showalter should also have more explicitly underlined the uncertainty, incompleteness, and mistakes in emerging science. A physical ailment with unconventional, complex causes is not as outlandish a hypothesis as an alien abduction. Showalter should also have done more to acknowledge the non-paranoid reasons some women can be suspicious of our medical system. Medical science has produced real disasters like the Dalkon Shield and DES, and it has a history of neglecting women as research subjects. This is no excuse to support hysterias or alternative medicine, but skeptics should be more aware of the problematic historical relationship between women and medical science.

Though not without flaws, Hystories is especially important in the way it shows skeptics can build bridges to communities which seem indifferent and sometimes even hostile to skepticism. For example, skeptics—who seem to be mostly men—have an ambiguous relationship with feminism. Hysteria is largely a female affliction, and too many feminists have supported movements like recovered memory and satanic ritual abuse. Showalter describes hysteria as a desperate expression of pains and fears which cannot find any other socially acceptable voice, and challenges us to find ways to meet our genuine emotional and sexual needs without endorsing hysterical stories. She declares, “Feminists have an ethical as well as an intellectual responsibility to ask tough questions about the current narratives of illness, trauma, accusation, and conspiracy,” and adds that “today’s feminists need models rather than martyrs . . . courage to think as well as the courage to heal.” Those people to whose stories Showalter denies truth will not see her as a sympathetic critic, but she is unapologetic about her skepticism: “Feminism has a strong enlightenment, rationalist tradition of debate and skepticism . . . Our primary obligation must always be to the truth.” On the flip side, skeptics who are tempted to think of feminism only as a shrill political movement out to corrupt science have much to learn from Showalter as well. Hystories raises important questions for skeptics, feminists, and those who consider themselves members of both communities.

Showalter also shows us that skepticism has roots in the humanities as well as natural science. UFOlogists like to argue that the similarity of alien abduction narratives indicates their truth; skeptics explain these by common psychological and social factors and stories spread by the media. A literary critic like Showalter also tends to explain such similarities as resulting from a common background story-template. Indeed, postmodern relativists are in a sense extreme skeptics: they claim even the theories of natural science are but stories with social and psychological roots. It is perhaps obvious to us that science is not just a story, that it is in fact a good way to sort out fact from fiction. But literary critics can help skeptics sort out when we can appropriately say common narrative features are not good evidence for the truth of a story. To be properly skeptical, we need to strike a balance, and the humanities, as well as science, can help us achieve this balance.

Hystories is an imperfect book. But it gets us thinking: about how skeptics might understand real emotional problems without making believers into demented loonies, about how much attention we should pay to our culture when trying to explain false beliefs, and, not the least, about how we can find allies in unexpected places.

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