JUNE 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 6


Elaine Showalter's "Hystories"

Alice Munro's "The Love Of A Good Woman"

David Remnick's "Lenin's Tomb"
Mitchell's "Your Other Half"



BUY Elaine Showalter's "Hystories"


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May's review of Mitchell's "Your Other Half" inadvertently stated that the authors had been divorced twice each. In fact Wayne Mitchell has been divorced once, while his wife Tamara has been divorced twice. ROM apologizes for the error.

Hystories __ Hystories
Elaine Showalter

by Elaine Showalter

US: Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231104596, price $14.95 USD, price through Amazon.com $11.96 USD.

UK: Picador Books, ISBN 0330354779, price 6.99 GBP, price through Amazon.co.uk 5.59 GBP.


My brother and I live 300 miles apart, so birthday and Christmas gifts are often in the form of nice, rectangular books. Since we have no idea what we have on our respective shelves, each of us goes to great lengths to find books the other would not have bought himself. (For last Christmas, little bro was sent a Handbook of Colloquial Tibetan, which he has read but not, so far, used. There must be a Tibetan restaurant somewhere in London...)

So he takes the can for providing this month's book, the paperback edition of Elaine Showalter's refreshing look at hysteria. The original edition was greeted with plaudits and brickbats, since she debunks some of the modern, touchy-feely myths of modern life. At the same time, she hardly belongs to the "pull yourself together" school of medicine, since she acknowledges that the symptoms of hysterias are very real and concrete to the sufferer.

Her thesis, insofar as a book of 224 pages can be reduced to a sentence, is that some modern phenomena such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome and so on can be regarded as modern manifestations of hysteria. They are evidence of psychological damage manifested as physical symptoms; the damage may be simple stress, or our inability to meet the expectations of others. They may result from increasing alienation, the conviction that we are unable to control our own lives, and - a little perversely - from two conflicting views of our world. View A says that we live in chaotic times where everything is out of control and that life is difficult because no-one is in charge, View B tells us that big brother has us so tightly buttoned up that people cannot actualize their own lives. You pay your money, you take your choice.

In Britain we have been through a few of these outbursts in recent years. There were a couple of years when there always seemed to be items in the news about social workers raiding neighborhoods to rescue children from satanic abuse, with celebrated legal cases arising in Cleveland and on Orkney. It was a serious jolt to most of us to discover that hard-working professionals we had respected were separating children from their parents on the basis of hearsay, superstition and some vague idea that if the suspects denied it, it must be true. Seen as a hysteria, the course of events is easier to understand. If department A finds that 10% of children are abused, and we've only found 0.2%, we must be missing something, so we had better find some quick.

Part of the evidence was derived from memory recovery sessions, about which I have long entertained doubts. I know that I "remember" things from my childhood that I can hardly have witnessed, or where evidence shows I have run two events into one. In my mind's eye, these are seamlessly joined; in reality, they should be separated by two or three years. Since I have no reason to suppose that anyone else is different, I wonder what credence we can place on others' recovered "memories", and Ms. Showalter seems to feel the same way.

There is no doubt that a diagnosis of hysteria is offensive to many sufferers, and that hysteria has been used by the Establishment / authorities / medical profession as a convenient handle which justifies doing little to reach a root cause. As with too much of psychotherapy, we are so delighted to have a diagnosis - any diagnosis - which seems to make even superficial sense, that we do not enquire too deeply into its likelihood.

Given Ms. Showalter's background and previous work I nearly cast this one into the outer circle of my bookshelves, nevermore to see the light of day, but instead of a ranting feminist tract I found a clear, well-argued and common sense argument. If there is no solution offered, it is because there is no easy answer, but given a better and more logical diagnosis of the problem than we have had hitherto, who is to say that we cannot construct our own salvation?

GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.

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