Psychotherapy as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the so-called female “hysterics” of the late 19th and early 20th century. Their inexplicable symptoms included loss of voice, paralysis of limbs, anorexia, bulimia, and fainting fits. Many of these women — including Anna O., Elisabeth von R., Dora, and Jane Avril (a dancer at the Moulin Rouge who was painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) — were treated by Sigmund Freud, who made them notorious in his writings.
The stories of these women and how their perplexed doctors founded psychoanalysis are brought to life in Hysteria, a graphic novel written by Richard Appignanesi with drawings by Oscar Zárate. The second book in SelfMadeHero’s Graphic Freud series, it makes Freud’s dense, psychobabble-filled texts accessible to a 21st-century audience, and illustrates part of the complicated lineage of contemporary approaches to human suffering.
Told from the perspective of a wizened old Freud, Hysteria’s narrative spans from his early lectures on the wonders of cocaine to his training with Jean-Martin Charcot at La Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, which housed 5,000 mostly female mental patients.
In patriarchal, repressive Vienna, hysterical symptoms “were asking subversive questions about femininity,” as novelist Deborah Levy writes in the book’s forward. “What does it mean to be a woman? Who is her body supposed to please and what is it for? Does she construct her femininity through being an object of male desire? If she is required to cancel her own desires, what is she supposed to do with them? Hysteria is the language of the protesting body.”
Hysteria only grazes the surface of these questions and is best approached as an entertaining primer on Freud’s foundational case studies. What this graphic novel does very well is convey the theatricality and humanity of the “icons of hysteria.” Freud’s own dry writing style often sucked the life out of gripping stories; Hysteria’s gestural illustrations and conversational narration restore it.
The material here is an illustrator’s dream, as Charcot himself knew — he constantly drew his patients while high on hashish. Zarate’s drawings capture the grotesquery of hysterical suffering, with bug-eyed women stricken with “epileptoid convulsions” and “Clownism spasms” or prostrate in “passion poses.” Sometimes you wish Zarate had taken a cue from the hysterics themselves and gone a little crazier, for lack of a better word, with his ink illustrations. They’re beautifully drawn, but with a controlled aesthetic; more spontaneity and expressionism might’ve suited the story better.
The diagnosis of hysteria, which dates back to Hippocrates’s time in the fifth century BC, has long been gone from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But the questions raised by this “language of the protesting body” are as relevant today as they were a century ago. And though this language now has many new names and forms, it’s still prevalent (as is the stigmatizing of “crazy” women).
The graphic novel’s approach to these contemporary parallels is a little goofy and moralizing, but still strikes a chord. Though prophecy was always more Jung’s thing, Freud sees the future. He talks to Princess Diana, who, following a car crash was hospitalized and died at La Pitié-Salpêtrière, and suffered for years from anorexia, bulimia, depression, and self-harm. “She’s one of us,” says the ghost of “icon of hysteria” Anna O. Soon; he sees crowds of people on cellphones Googling “Prozac,” “Lexapro,” and “What’s causing my anorexia?” “Have you people learned nothing from psychoanalysis?” Freud yells at these poor neurotics, then announces the Moral of the Story: “Inexplicable symptoms can often be traced back to physical conversions of unconscious conflicts.” A little on the nose, yes, but it’ll give you plenty to talk about with your therapist.
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