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On Hysteria

On Hysteria Postcard.jpg

Artist's Statement 


“The front pattern does move - and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes, only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles so;”


― Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall-Paper.


I have been thinking about hysteria:


Of the word, hysteria, as being derived from the Greek word for uterus, hystera (ὑστέρα’).


Of an affliction known as the nervous disease, for centuries associated with the uterus and therefore, with women. I see images of women swooning and being revived with smelling salts; fainting spells and convulsions, unexplained paralyses, selective amnesia, sleep disorders, numbness, fits, weak nerves, a case of the vapors. I think of uncontrollable, emotional outbursts attributed to women that abound in the popular imagination of cultures past and the present.


My mind jumps the idea of mass hysteria and the Salem Witch Trials, where fear and ignorance served as dry tinder for conspiracy theories, superstition, false accusations; where ideas seemed almost virulent, catching like strange wild-fire to disrupt lives forever.


I recall Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous work with the female inmates at the Salpêtrière in Paris; women who were institutionalized, often because they had no family. The women were labeled as Hysterics and paraded before the public in weekly clinical lectures designed to prove the validity of Charcot's theories. As he stated, he didn't seek to cure them, but to study them. A spectacle of ‘power over,’ taken as medical fact until Freud, who proposed the startling theory that Hysteria might be caused by repressed trauma (but later recanted.)


I can’t help but think that Hysteria is linked to those without agency, without a voice to speak, and who perhaps only needed a place to  be heard.


To be seen and heard is to have agency. We all need to find our voice is so that the most vulnerable may be protected and not victimized further.


I think, that to be hysterical is to be a woman lost in a maze of trauma, and further traumatized in her efforts to escape by the efforts of others, who insist upon defining her, diagnosing her, and “treating” her, to apply their “cure” to her.


This has happened for centuries and it happens still.

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