The panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.
The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie's best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.
As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town's fragile idea of security.
Please join me in welcoming Megan Abbott, author of The Fever! She gracious provided me with this amazing guest post with her thoughts on hysteria and women.
In recent weeks, since The Fever has come out, more than once someone has started to ask me a question about hysteria, then stopped him or herself and rephrased the question, or put the word in “air quotes.” One asked me, cautiously, when I myself used the word, “Isn’t that a sexist term?
There’s no easy answer to that question and no easy way to talk about the long and twisty history of hysteria and women. On the most basic level, how many women out there have been told, when expressing anger, or even a firmly held opinion, has been told they are being “hysterical”? It’s a loaded term, and it always will be.
The preferred medical terms for the kind of hysteria I write about in The Fever are conversion disorder, which refers to uncontrollable and very real physical symptoms deriving from a psychological cause, and mass psychogenic illness for instances when these symptoms then spread to multiple individuals. (Conversion disorder is the individual diagnosis; when it spreads, it’s called mass psychogenic illness). In many ways, both are much more sophisticated and serious versions of conditions we all understand: you’re nervous about public speaking and you lose your voice. You’re under stress at work and you become nauseated. And, in terms of the mass variation, someone sneezes or yawns, and so do you. Or, in a more extreme form, someone smells a strange odor at the office and becomes ill. Soon enough, others smell it too. Become dizzy. Become sick. Hysteria, right?
Yes, and no. The word hysteria has in fact out of favor among health/mental health professionals. Perhaps because of its complicated history and definitely because it’s a term that has been used to describe so many different nervous conditions and it’s so culturally laden that it’s become meaningless. The primary reason for rejecting the term “hysteria” is due to its complicated history during which, for centuries, it was used to punish and pathologize women.
Hysteria as a term dates back at least as far as 1900 B.C., when “hysteria”— a nervous disorder with symptoms including seizures and a feeling of suffocation— was believed to be caused by the movement of the uterus from its normal place within the body (the word itself derives from hystera, the Latin word for womb). In ancient Egypt, cures were proffered: perfumes could fumigate the woman’s body to draw the uterus back up into position, or potions could be taken orally to drive the uterus back down into position. Plato even writes of the displaced uterus as caused by women’s lack of sexual activity. The remedy? Marriage and pregnancy
Over the centuries it has taken many forms, but hysteria has consistently been considered a “women’s disease” and each era’s interpretation seem to reflect that era’s own anxieties about women. In the Middle Ages, hysteria was blamed on witchcraft and demonic possession. In the 17th century, hysteria was thought to be a brain disorder: women easily “catch” hysteria because they have more delicate constitutions. In the Victorian era, in many ways the “heyday” of hysteria and a time of particularly conservative gender ideals, the condition took on moral overtones with many doctors blaming hysteria’s prevalence on troubling female sexual behavior and the woman’s innate capacity to deceive.
At the end of the nineteenth-century and into the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud intervened and offered a different interpretation, seeing hysteria as the result of emotional crisis. He believed “hysterics” had suffered some kind unresolved trauma or intense conflict that then took physical form: nervous tics, losing one’s voice, etc. Working with patients, he strove to trace hysteria back to its first onset as a means of cure. Uncover the trauma and begin to work towards healing. Much of Freud’s work with “hysterics” still suffered from the prejudices of the era and Freud’s own strict notions of sexual development, but he did free hysteria from past associations with immorality or degeneracy. He believed so-called hysterics were normal people who suffered from a blocked or fragmented thinking caused by trauma. And women were more likely to suffer because they suffered greater social repression.
In The Fever, the role trauma may play in the condition “seizing” the girls—including Deenie’s close friends—emerges slowly. But in terms of the way the condition spreads, I was very compelled by theories suggesting why conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness are in fact more common among women and girls (even if it’s not exclusive to them). There are many theories, including that these conditions are more common in repressive or restrictive environments and women, historically, have been placed more commonly in these environments. Or that mass cases occur among girls and women because they are more likely to empathize with one another. Or that it’s not necessarily more common among females; it’s just that women may be more likely to seek help for their conditions. Sociologist Robert Bartholomew, an expert in mass psychogenic illness, told me that at least part of it has to do with “how females are socialized to internalize stress.” Further, pointing to the dramatically high prevalence of mass psychogenic illness cases in Malaysia, he notes that females there are “taught to obey authorities, and believe they are mentally inferior to males … They are also at the bottom of the power hierarchy.” Ironically, the outbreak becomes a way for females with no voice to have a voice. During an outbreak, suddenly everyone begins listening to them.
(One sidenote: one must also consider the role of gender bias in diagnosis. There have been many studies about conversion disorder in men, particularly veterans. Further, cases of MPI have been known to occur among men in the military, further suggesting gender has nothing to do with it, but repressive/restrictive atmospheres and individuals under stress and in close proximity may be the real culprits.)
I’m barely scratching the surface here in terms of the complicated relationship between women and hysteria, and The Fever only considers a corner of it, but it’s fascinating to think more about it and I’d love to hear what you all think.
Thank you, Heather!
Thank you Megan! Come back tomorrow for my review of The Fever AND a giveaway!