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On Hysteria

Artist's Statement by Stephanie J. Ryan

 

“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, long associated with the uterus and therefore, with women. Images of women swooning and being revived with smelling salts; of fainting spells and convulsions, of unexplained paralyses, selective amnesia, sleep disorders, numbness, fits, weak nerves, cases of the vapors and of uncontrollable emotional outbursts abound in the popular imagination of cultures past and the present.

 

My mind jumps to mass hysteria of the Salem Witch trials; where fear and ignorance serve as dry tinder for conspiracy theories, superstition, false accusation; where ideas seem virulent, catching like strange wild-fire, changing lives forever.

 

And of Charcot’s famous work with the female inmates at the Salpêtrière in Paris; women who were labeled as Hysterics and paraded before the public in weekly clinical lectures designed to prove the validity of his theories. A spectacle of ‘power over,’ taken as medical fact until Freud, who proposed the startling theory that Hysteria might be caused by repressed trauma.

 

I can’t help but think of Hysteria as being linked to those without voices or agency who perhaps only needed a place to speak and be heard.

 

To be seen and heard is to have agency; to have a voice is critical so that the most vulnerable may be protected and not victimized further.

 

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

 

This has happened for centuries and it happens still.

Some Images and Details from "On Hysteria", on display at Vernissage until October 26th, 2018.