5th Sep 2012
Medical Muses by Asti Hustvedt
An illness that had previously been dismissed as feminine frailty – the symptom of a ‘wandering womb’ – was catapulted to dizzying medical heights and granted the status of a neurological disease.
Decades before Freud first proposed his theory of the Unconscious, the doctors at the Salpêtrière pioneered the idea that thoughts, trauma and ‘reminiscences’ could cause very real and physical symptoms.
In Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Asti Hustvedt unfolds the story of a cultural epidemic through the rigorously researched case studies of three women:
Blanche, the hysterical diva who became Charcot’s star performer in the medical theatre; Augustine, the Salpêtrière’s most photographed patient who escaped the hospital confines in drag; and Geneviève, the ward’s resident witch, who suffered stigmata and erotic religious convulsions.
Through these women, each of whom had a history of abuse and oppression, Hustvedt explores a complicated medical misogyny that made heroines – but passive ones – of its victims.
Hysteria proved more elusive than most diseases, in part because it was so strongly associated with deception. Doctors warned that hysterics could not be trusted, while rival hospitals depicted Charcot as ringleader of a fraudulent and unethical circus.
Medical Muses uncovers the Salpêtrière’s startling use of hypnosis to immobilise its patients, and techniques such as dermagraphism, a practice in which doctors and interns carved words and images onto the patients’ skins in the belief that hysterics bore a heightened cutaneous sensitivity.
These astonishing practices, combined with forays into the occult, expose the dehumanising work of those doctors who sought to turn women into static symbols, mere illustrations or blank slates for a medical textbook.
Hustvedt shows that hysteria was bred and cultivated in Salpêtrière. It was an illness created both by the doctors who diagnosed it, and the patients who fulfilled their expectations in what Hustvedt describes at least a partially symbiotic relationship – a move that allows her to avoid the trap of labelling her female subjects as merely passive victims.
Yet, for these women, and many like them, the symptoms were palpably real. All diagnoses, Hustvedt convincingly argues, are products of their time, and there still exists a plethora of mental illnesses, and many forms of self-harm, that almost exclusively affect young women.
Medical Muses is a fascinating introduction to pre-Freudian psychiatry and a great historical exploration of the pitfalls and prejudices of medicine. Above all, it is the story of the muses that stole the show, the women who would not be pinned down, and the disease that defied diagnosis.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in unpacking the history of psychiatric medicine and the histories of those women it silenced.