13 January 2012


Andrew Scull. Hysteria: The Disturbing History. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Jan Goldstein. Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux Princeton University Press, 2011

In April 1602 a teenage London girl, Mary Glover, had a run in with a neighbour, Elizabeth Jackson, after which Mary, developed strange symptoms such as fits, a constriction in the throat, which made eating difficult, paralysis, swelling belly and etc. This led to the conviction of Elizabeth Jackson for witchcraft, for which she had to suffer a year’s imprisonment and several visits to the pillory.
It also led to a fierce dispute among experts as to whether this was a natural disease occasioned by the wandering of the womb, or indeed the result of supernatural influence.

Two hundred and twenty years later, in the summer of 1822, “Nanette Leroux” (pseudonym) an 18 year old servant girl in the Piedmont dominated semi-state of Savoy was sexual abused by a rural policeman after which she developed symptoms including convulsions, lethargy, periods of mutism, periods of profound rigidity, and periods of somnambulism in which she re-enacted scenes of various kinds, including that of her assault.

The first story introduces Andrew Scull’s history of hysteria, which traces its often winding path from classical medicine's assumptions that it was caused by the wandering of the womb, through the rise of early modern medicine, through the age of 19th century psychiatry to the psychological battle scars of the twentieth century. The second is the subject of Jan Goldstein’s ‘microhistory’, which includes a full reproduction of the doctors’ reports.

In his book Scull traces the arguments between those who saw hysteria as a mainly physiological problem and those who saw it primarily psychological terms. The former included the French neurologist J-M Charcot, who ran the Salpetriere asylum which all the authoritarian élan of the ‘Napoleon of the Neuroses’, a term he took fairly literally judging by his photograph on p110! (left). The latter included his one time pupil Sigmund Freud.

They were united by one main thing though, the idea that hysteria was mainly a disease of women ‘the weaker sex’, though gay or otherwise ‘degenerate’ men may also suffer from it. This idea was only overthrown with the traumas of the First World War. Scull provides some graphic accounts of the circumstances which could lead up to ‘shell shock’ as it was then called. On no account should this chapter be read while eating!

Another common factor across the ages and interpretations was the harshness and casual cruelty of the treatments proposed. The surgical removal of the clitoris, multiple bleeding, Charcot’s circus-like exhibition of his ‘grand hysterics’, Freud’s treatment of Dora K, a teenage girl who appears to have been handed to the husband of her father’s lover as a sex toy in compensation, all the way to the grotesque treatments of the other ranks with battle stress.

Scull notes that after the First World War, grand hysteria disappeared, though all sorts of psychosomatic or possibly psychosomatic conditions survive, and are fiercely contested between those who see them as physical conditions and those who see them as primarily psychological. Examples include ME, Gulf War Syndrome and related disorders. See for example HERE  and comment.

Such debates tend to be based on a false dichotomy fuelled by an essentially dualist separation between mind and body. Today there is increasing recognition of mind/body unity, and given the probability that the unifying factor in also these hysterical syndromes is stress and what we now know of the effects of stress on the immune system, then it is entirely probable that such stress related disorders will include greater vulnerability to all sorts of viruses, bacteria and contaminants which might be otherwise harmless. It should also be pointed out that many “hysterical” symptoms can be seen in other animals under stress, suggesting that they are rooted in deep biological adaptations.

Some of these points come out especially strongly in Goldstein’s analysis, though her own analysis probably owes too much to Foucault and Freud. She does however position the case in his historical setting in counter-revolutionary Savoy, back under Piedmont’s control after previously being annexed by revolutionary France. ‘Nanette’ is a peasant girl who is servant in a bourgeois household, who has had a little more education than many of the girls of her class and time. When she falls ill she comes to the attention of Dr Despine, the Superintendent of the Spa in the main town of Aix-les-Bains. The good Dr Despine is a devotee of ‘animal magnetism’, the ancestor of hypnotism. Under his influence she develops a series of wild talents of the sort that would later be given the title “the higher phenomena of hypnotism”. These included telepathy and the ability to read with various parts of her body including her elbow and her nipples.

Her treatments at the hands of this doctor prefigure the exploitative performances produced by Charcot. These include an occasion in which, when she is bathing nude, various unauthorised spectators are allowed in to watch “the success of the treatment”.

A central figure in her story is a fellow servant Joseph Mailland, who becomes her ‘caretaker’ and note taker (words like ‘manager’ and even ‘’pimp’ come to my mind). He seems to occupy a sort of liminal zone between father and lover, with a definite bias to the latter. It is interesting how her symptoms abate when he puts his hand on her breast. He is a character in her various somnambulistic dramas (the later is quite literal, they really do involve little playlets), and is the testifier to some of her more dramatic feats. She can read his mind (on one occasion coming up with the comment which can be translated as “Babe you know I’m not the sort of girl who hangs around in bars!” Quite)

She decides that there is a sure way to cure her, or at least help her, that is for her to be bought a watch, a rare and expensive item at the time. It is hard not to translate this into modern terms - all will be well if you will only buy me a Porsche. She eventually cures herself (for a time at least) by masturbating to orgasm in the bath. Or so she says. The issue of the watch may give us the clearest clue as to what this might all be about, though I suspect the answer may be simpler than suggested by Goldstein’s rather complex hypothesis involving Nanette’s menstrual periods.

My reading of this story is as follows; in the beginning Nanette’s problems are an expression of what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder occasioned by the sexual assault, but there is more to it. The assailant as a police officer is an agent of the oppressive state, and it is not difficult to suspect that he may have used this to intimidate her, and to imply that she is nothing more than a village slut he can have his way with whenever he wants. This incident reminds of her position as being part of a oppressed age group in a oppressed gender in a oppressed class in a oppressed occupied state in a wider oppressed empire. She is at the bottom of the hierarchy, little Miss Nobody. She has been made to feel utterly worthless. We can thus see that the ownership of the watch is a symbol that she is worth something after all, she is a somebody, she has something that the other village girls do not. Here we see the beginnings of the modern consumer culture, where people’s worth is measured in terms of the consumer goods they produce.

The watch may also be a symbol of order, as Goldstein suggests, and it seems there is an element of taking control of her sexuality, as the semi sexual relationship with Maillard seems to imply. She is in control of that relationship, she determines how far he can go. Should he want to go too far she reminds him that she is not “that sort of girl”. Her cure by masturbation also implies her control over her sexuality, but it also implies something else, her turning the tables on the doctor and hangers on who have voyeuristically exploited and embarrassed her, she now sets out to embarrass him.

But sexuality does not strike me as the main source of her behaviours, the somatic disorders and subsequent learned behaviour start with quite another emotion, repressed rage, and the fear of where that rage might take her. Her periods of mutism echoes the silences imposed on the oppressed, and her fears that in revealing and denouncing the assault she might have said too much. The paralysis a way of preventing her striking back (at a biological level it represents the repression of the flight/fight response). The dramas she enacts act as a form of release, as do periods of altered states of consciousness. In her “normal” consciousness she takes on the role of the demure “proper lady”, she can be released in periods of altered states, which included hours of gaiety followed by tears, behaviour which resembles that of intoxication.

She may not be the sort of the girl who hangs around in bars, but she has other techniques of liberation, inherited from folk traditions of altered states.

As with the various patients of Charcot and others, Nanette, by being a ‘hysteric’ can become, at least a local, celebrity, then as now a way in which a working class girl could escape the prison of her environment, but as now, at the price of being the object of public voyeurism. The magic tricks such as reading with various parts of her body are clearly forms of
performance, but they also feature some symbolic aspects of ways of saying that she knows things that she shouldn’t.

Eventually Nanette marries, but when she becomes pregnant for the first time, her symptoms start to reappear, as she realises that being a peasant wife and mother is going to be far from a bed of roses. Was she seeking another escape, is so she failed for neither Despine, nor his correspondent and editor Alex Bertrand show any enthusiasm for renewing their studies. Indeed Bertrand is aware that many of her claimed phenomena have only appeared when she met Despine, and many were only authenticated by Maillard.

Perhaps the biggest enigma of grand hysteria is its disappearance, this seems to have coincided with the emancipation of women in the first half of the twentieth century, offering new escape routes. New media may also have washed away the folk culture which sustained it, and we should not ignore the possibility that some of its phenomena were the result of physical illnesses which were gradually eradicated though improved nutrition and sanitation. -- Peter Rogerson.

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