[CW: domestic violence, mental illness]
I am fifteen years old. My face is carefully, tenuously blank. I’m a Greek statue; marble lips cold and stony eyes turned downward. Only my hands betray me.I set the table with trembling fingers. The ceramic plates tap, send out waves of vibrations onto the placemats as they are lowered. My shoulders tingle with the ache of freshly bloomed bruises.
Over dinner I count, and he tests my will.
One: a comment about my weight.
Two: a comment about my friends.
Three: a comment about my stupidity.
And then I snap.
I shrug off his attempted hug as he laughs, feeling dread in my stomach as my eyes fill with frustrated tears. The words ring in my ears before he says them:
“Why so sensitive?”
While the inherently feminine inclination toward oversensitivity is a myth that has been widely dispelled, perceptions of feminine hysteria continue to have a devastating impact on the lives of women today. Before I started to write this article, I had planned to deliver an informative but relatively detached piece on this transgression. However, the more I delved into the history of feminine hysteria, the more aware I became of how its contemporary incarnation is intertwined with my own personal history, and the clearer it became to me that hysteria is not simply about reacting to the performance of a controversial and radical femininity. It is about invalidating the reactions of women to genuinely difficult situations.
It is the tradition of wielding institutional sexism against women, and then humiliating them for their reaction to it. It is a tradition of emotional abuse. This may seem like a stretch, but stay with me.
The practice of diagnosing patients with “hysteria” has significantly declined since the American Psychiatric Association repudiated its status as a medical condition in the early 1950s. A few hundred years ago, however, you could be diagnosed with hysteria for practically anything – provided you were female, of course. Coming from the Greek word “hystera”, the psychiatric condition was characterised only by its choice of women as victims. Old Mate Plato, the founder of modern philosophy, declared in his writing that it was the uterus that made women irrational – those pesky reproductive organs actually wandered around the female body, driving us to madness.
The fact that not all women have uteruses aside, accounts of these medically-diagnosed cases demonstrate how the disease became a catch-all for the misogynistic dismissal of women. In the Victorian era, women were routinely instituted for hysteria for displaying any kind of “unladylike behaviour”, including but not limited to: reading, disinterest in men or sex, too much interest in men or sex, sleeping too much or too little, same-sex attraction, witchcraft, rage, crying, and showing any other kind of emotion leading to the identification of being “oversensitive”.
HYSTERIA & I
Oversensitivity seems to be the second defining feature of hysteria today (the first still feminine identity – let’s be honest, Freud aside, people would never genuinely call a man hysterical).
Women are declared oversensitive for talking passionately, for getting angry, upset, or for showing any kind of emotion in their interactions. They are mocked for the same emotionality that we socialise women to have, and often the emotional reaction comes from a place of frustration. That is why I believe it to be abuse.
Not to toot my own horn, but I would consider myself somewhat of an expert on the topic of emotional abuse. People who know me well enough are aware of my first-hand experience with family and domestic violence; I am a Bad Survivor in the same way that I’m a Bad Feminist, and a Bad Gay – I am damn mouthy about it.
For me, it is very clear how my experience of the hysteria problem is emotional manipulation. When I was growing up, I would often dissolve into “hysteria” at the slightest mockery from my father. I would shake and cry hot and angry tears, lock myself in the bathroom, make myself sick – all very extreme behaviour for a simple joke about my being stupid, right? But I wasn’t simply reacting to a silly joke, was I? I was reacting to barriers my abuser had set up for me to fail. Reacting to years of being mistreated and neglected. The psychological abuse was just as valid as everything else I went through – the gaslighting, and the manipulation, and the humiliation. And as soon as I shed a single tear, my father knew he had won. He would grin and use it to degrade me further, to humiliate me in front of whoever was present.
I am not saying that this is the experience of all women. But I am saying that all of us need to do better.
Men, in an argument between yourself and a co-worker about sexism, when she gets heated, know that you are in the position of power. That you stand for every systemic barrier that has been built against her. And do not EVER use her passion and her emotion to invalidate her experience. And can we talk about the fact that the world’s most famous case of hysteria revealed that actually listening to women when they were feeling overwhelmed was found to be the best “cure” to hysteria?! Bertha Pappenheim was a patient of Freud and Breuer whose medically diagnosed “hysteria” was “cured” through the act of actually talking and listening to her. After this, she became an incredibly successful psychiatrist herself. It’s almost as though when men listen to women, rather than dismissing their problems as emotional madness, the world becomes a better place. Although let’s be honest; If I was a 1920s housewife, I’d personally go for the vibrator cure for sure.