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The Magic and True Meaning of Hysteria

Hysteria as Magic—and Power. Photo by Marlee Banta
All photos by Marlee Meghan Banta. 35mm film, 2015. Marlee Meghan Banta aims to show viewers the state of her brain at its most heightened: abstract, dreamy, and melancholy. She works experimentally, sometimes shooting a roll of film and rewinding it back, then shooting back over it; other times soaking the whole roll in her bathroom and then blow-drying it; other times simply leaving it alone. Through these experimental processes, she depicts feelings of depression, anxiety, and pain, and tries to capture moments of passing beauty.

Throughout history, women have been silenced, and the result is “hysteria.” What if we harnessed emotion, instead of denigrating it, in our global culture?

Every year it happens. Girls fainting in droves. Girls laughing, crying, singing compulsively, unable to stop. Or ticking and twitching, their bodies convulsing, as if possessed.

We wonder over them like oddities. We tell their stories like mysteries, tales of magic or malingering: the girls of Salem, who hung half a village on the altar of their madness; the schoolgirls in Tanzania who began to laugh and, for weeks, could not stop. Or the girls of LeRoy, New York, who began to tic and twitch, their bodies pulsing like dying hearts, beating despite blockages, beating to survive.

History has dubbed these cases mysteries. Science has labeled them outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness, a phenomenological condition in which involuntary symptoms spread through close-knit groups for no discernible reason. To explain what happens to bodies in the throes of MPI, scientists cite “mirroring” behaviors such as yawning. But the cause of mirroring behaviors isn’t known, either. Nor can scientists tell us why the groups affected by MPI are almost always female.

Early medicine had an easy answer: hysteria, which takes its name from the Greek word for womb and was commonly used by Hippocrates to diagnose women who eschewed their prescribed cultural role. Ditto Aristotle, who said that women were weak-minded, manipulative, easily swayed by the thoughts and behaviors of others, and therefore unfit for public life. It was men’s work to run the world, just as it was men’s work to diagnose, categorize, and “protect” women. That the control and systematic silencing of women under the guise of protection is what enabled patriarchy as a hegemonic structure to develop and take hold, was, unsurprisingly, never mentioned.

Emotion has historically been silenced as a sign of female weakness and labeled as “hysteria” in our culture. Photo by Marlee Meghan Banta.
Photo by Marlee Meghan Banta. 35mm film, 2015.

Centuries have passed, but our cultural tendency to label women’s behavior “hysterical” persists. In 2011 and 2012 when the girls of LeRoy were struck with their Tourettes-like symptoms, many rushed to call them mysterious, magical, bad. But unlike generations of women before them, women silenced by culture and gender, race and class, the girls of LeRoy located their power, and spoke back.

The outbreak began with Katie Krautwurst and Thera Sanchez, best friends, who one after the other awoke from naps with a series of involuntary neurological symptoms, from numbness and tingling to tics and twitches. As days and then weeks went by, these symptoms spread, slowly passing to girls outside their social circle. It eventually impacted a 36-year-old nurse, a girl who lived miles away but had recently attended a LeRoy school dance, and a single boy. By the time the outbreak reached its climax, 17 teenagers had been directly affected, throwing their families, their school, and their town into crisis. State officials began testing the high school campus for contaminants, while parents of children not yet afflicted worried that their kids were next. The national news arrived and social media blew up with accusations of the girls’ malingering; conspiracy blogs cropped up, positing black magic and witchcraft.

At the root of much of the attention the girls garnered was the fundamental belief in their culpability, their badness. They had brought their symptoms on themselves, somehow—or worse, they had faked them—because it was in their nature to do so. When a team of doctors at the DENT Neurologic Institute in Buffalo performed every medical test they could and found nothing, they finally issued a diagnosis: MPI and conversion disorder (the conversion of stress into voluntary physical symptoms the subject experiences as involuntary). Conversion disorder is common, the doctors assured. MPI, although rare, usually occurs in insular communities like LeRoy. But it couldn’t be, most of the girls insisted, because there wasn’t any stress or trauma in their lives.

On daytime talk shows, Katie, Thera, and several other afflicted girls sat for interviews, their bodies twitching in tandem, as if in conversation. But the girls insisted theirs was not a disease of the highly empathic, the overly emotional; no, there was truly something medically wrong with them, something that could be treated and cured, something that could be understood by the prevailing cultural logic, which is unemotional, white, Western, male.

The more media attention the girls received, the worse their symptoms became. Erin Brokovich flew in to investigate; parents packed into the school auditorium to demand answers, pointing fingers like pitchforks at superintendents and EPA officials. But as time passed and potential causes were exhausted, interest waned and the media disbanded. It was then that stories of the stress the girls had experienced—everything from physical abuse, to poverty, to sick parents—trickled forward, adding credence to the conversion disorder diagnosis. The girls hadn’t hidden the extent of their trauma purposefully, they just hadn’t seen it as relevant because they’d spent their whole lives learning to numb themselves to its sting. It’s really not that bad, they insisted in interviews and articles, I’m used to it, I don’t feel anything. And yet, eventually, some of the girls caved to the psychiatric care prescribed by the DENT doctors and improved; others pursued courses of antibiotics that also seemed to help, most likely due to the placebo effect. In the end, all of those afflicted, recovered. But why their symptoms spread in the first place remains, like MPI itself, a mystery.

 
Had we all been raised to speak our pain rather than stifle and hide it, what would be different?
 

Emotion as a sign of femaleness and, therefore, weakness is a global problem and detrimental to all. In America, where women are privileged compared to other patriarchal cultures, the abilities of girls and women to rationally assess, plan, and lead are still constantly doubted, the assumption being that emotionality impedes, rather than aids, in high-stakes decision-making. But rarely does the marked absence of men’s ability to identify and express their feelings (a condition studies show is a product of nurture, not nature) come up, even as America continues to cultivate the interwoven epidemics of domestic violence and mass shootings. Throughout history, women have been utterly silenced and the result is “hysteria.” But in the singular and pivotal emotional realm, men have been silenced too, and the result is violence.

Had we all been raised to speak our pain rather than stifle and hide it, what would be different? Would the LeRoy girls have struggled so against their initial diagnosis? Would the outbreak have occurred in the first place? Who would occupy the American presidency? Who would have danced joyously and safely until dawn at Pulse Nightclub? Who would have left the Harvest Festival in Las Vegas with their lives?

But such is not the world we live in. The current push to legislate women’s reproductive health and access to legal abortions and contraceptives, as well as the documented tendency of medical professionals to brush off women’s real pain as imagined, stress-induced, or “hysterical” shows us the slippery ways that ideas developed centuries ago to oppress women endure today. It was self-protection that prompted the LeRoy girls to insist on physical, instead of emotional, origins of their illness. But the fact that the root cause was almost certainly emotional does not make it unreal. When unspoken, when stuck inside the body, pain seeks release, expression. Tics, twitches, tremors, tears—take your pick. This has always been the case for women in particular because women have historically been silenced, tasked with the challenge of persisting despite the patriarchy in which we live. We manage the best we can and we fight back when it is warranted. Our task now is to reclaim, reframe, and move forward. In our hands, hysteria can become not a sign of weakness, but of ingenuity.

Throughout history, women have been silenced, and the result is “hysteria.”
Throughout history, women have been silenced, and the result is “hysteria.” What if we harnessed emotion, instead of denigrating it, in our global culture? Photo by Marlee Meghan Banta. 35mm film, 2015.