In this informative, timely and often harrowing study, Elaine Showalter demonstrates how cultural ideas about ‘proper’ feminine behaviour have shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity for 150 years, and given mental disorder in women specifically sexual connotations. Along with vivid portraits of the men who dominated psychiatry, and descriptions of the therapeutic practices that were used to bring women ‘to their senses’, she draws on diaries and narratives by inmates, and fiction from Mary Wollstonecraft to Doris Lessing, to supply a cultural perspective usually missing from studies of mental illness.
Why am I reviewing an academic textbook? That’s not fun fiction-y goodness!
I’m going to do it anyway. I thought this book was fantastic, especially if you’re at all interested in women’s literature, the history of psychiatry, the history of patriarchal society and the history of mental illness. It’s really fascinating, I promise!
I was only really meant to read a couple of sections of this, but ended up going back and reading the whole thing, because it was really well written, really well researched and just all round fascinating. I had never really considered the history of mental illness and how it was treated, but this has definitely changed my outlook. It’s interesting how many things have changed around the treatment and perceptions of mental illnesses… and unfortunately, how many things have stayed exactly the same.
The “hysterical woman” has infiltrated popular culture, literature and the general societal opinion of women. We are still seen by some as mentally weaker, more prone to hysterics and less able to compete against men intellectually. Men are still seen as the dominant sex in many cultures and classes all around the world- whether we like to admit it or not. This idea has been around for millennia, but came to a head in the dawn of psychiatry in the early 19th Century, when women were treated very differently to their male counterparts.
There are some pretty shocking sections, but nothing too graphic. I felt more pity and anger than revulsion- some of the “cures” were simply barbaric and so counter intuitive! Some were so disgusting that I wanted to cry for the women who were forced to endure them. Doctors and society in general had such skewed ideas about what women were going through in their lives and how the brain works. Showalter argues that many women were driven to “hysteria” through pure boredom- not hard to imagine, considering how cloistered women were during the Victorian era and into the 21st century.
If you’re at all like me and are fascinated by shell shock and war trauma, there’s a fantastic section on the similarities between veterans with shell shock to female hysteria patients. Some of the treatments used on both sexes were disturbing, especially when you read further about how sure the doctors were of their having “cured” people by using them. There’s a story about one man who was suffering from mutism and nightmares after being in the front lines for months on end, who was treated by a doctor who zapped him with thousands of electric shocks in the mouth until he spoke. The doctor considered the man’s lack of war dreams a “success”… disregarding the fact that the nightmares now involved being given electric shocks in the trenches. Terrifying.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t review or recommend the textbooks I read for university on my personal blog, but I’m making an exception for this one- hell, I bought my own copy! It’s a really accessible and interesting look at women’s experiences of mental illness since 1830, with a great many literary references- I have a long list of books I would like to chase up and read after seeing them in here!