The New York Times
Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Parisby Asti Hustvedt
A fascinating study of three young female hysterics who shaped our early notions of psychology.Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve found themselves in the hysteria ward of the Salpetriere Hospital in 1870s Paris, where their care was directed by the prominent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. They became medical celebrities: every week, eager crowds arrived at/p>… See more details below
A fascinating study of three young female hysterics who shaped our early notions of psychology.Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve found themselves in the hysteria ward of the Salpetriere Hospital in 1870s Paris, where their care was directed by the prominent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. They became medical celebrities: every week, eager crowds arrived at the hospital to observe their symptoms; they were photographed, sculpted, painted, and transformed into characters in novels. The remarkable story of their lives as patients in the clinic is a strange amalgam of intimate details and public exposure, science and religion, medicine and the occult, hypnotism, love, and theater.
But who were Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve? What role did they play in their own peculiar form of stardom? And what exactly were they suffering from? Hysteria—with its dramatic seizures, hallucinations, and reenactments of past traumas—may be an illness of the past, but the notions of femininity that lie behind it offer insights into disorders of the present.
The New York Times
A compelling analysis of hysteria told through the stories of three young women afflicted with the illness.
In the late 1800s,the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris was notorious for its controversial director, neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, and for its large population of women diagnosed as hysterics. The illness was mysterious, as Charcot's careful clinical methods failed to reveal a biological source of symptoms, and its treatment equally opaque; hypnosis, ether and metallotherapy are a few examples of Charcot's experimental methods. Three of the hysterics, Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, all young women when they were admitted, became celebrities under Charcot's care. Their dramatic physical transformations when suffering a hysterical attack, and Charcot's ability todirect their minds and bodies while they were hypnotized,fascinatedthe public that clamored to see the spectacle for themselves. Hustvedt (A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China, 2001, etc.) delves into the stories of these three women, exploring how their experiences inform modern psychology and medicine, as well as revealing the true storiesbehind their treatment and exposure.The author questions whether these women weretruly afflicted, or were they playing a role? Was Charcot truly reaching medical breakthroughs with his analysis, or was he manipulating his clients in order to gain prestige? Citing ample historical evidence, Hustvedt contends that the women were legitimately affected by chronicphysical symptoms that fell into the grey area between psychosomatic and somatic disorder. In some ways, she suggests, it's possible that the manner in which women were treated in 19th-century Frenchsociety may have been manifested through these symptoms. Many of the women at the hospital were unmarried, poor, fatherless or abused, and strange myths about femininity abounded. Charcot was a pioneer for treating hysteria as a legitimate medical affliction, but after his death, his reputation suffered. However, he—and the stories of his three star patients—raise important questions about the mind-body paradigm, especially in women,a tension that the author suggests remains misunderstood in modern medicine.
Insightful, provocative medical history.
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