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A New Understanding of Mental Disorders A Theory of Feelings Addictions Memory and the Self"Intimate" Violence against Women1001 Solution-Focused Questions101 Healing Stories101 Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started Using Hypnosis50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God8 Keys to Body Brain BalanceA Brief History of Modern PsychologyA Conceptual History of PsychologyA Conceptual History of Psychology: Exploring the Tangled Web A Cooperative SpeciesA Guide to Teaching Introductory PsychologyA History of Modern Experimental PsychologyA History of Psychology in AutobiographyA History of Social PsychologyA History of the BrainA History of the MindA Hole in the HeadA Matter of SecurityA Mind of Its OwnA Natural History of Human ThinkingA Place for ConsciousnessA Scientific Search for AltruismA Short Introduction to Promoting Resilience in ChildrenA Social History of PsychologyA Stroll With William JamesA System Architecture Approach to the BrainA 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PersonalityOn the Frontier of AdulthoodOn the Origins of Cognitive ScienceOn The Stigma Of Mental IllnessOnflowOpen MindsOpening Skinner's BoxOrigin of MindOrigins of PsychopathologyOther MindsOut of Our HeadsOut of the WoodsOvercoming Depersonalization DisorderPanpsychism and the Religious AttitudePanpsychism in the WestParenting and the Child's WorldPassionate EnginesPathologies of the WestPatient-Based Approaches to Cognitive NeurosciencePediatric PsychopharmacologyPeople Types and Tiger StripesPerception & CognitionPerception beyond InferencePerception, Hallucination, and IllusionPersonal Development and Clinical PsychologyPerspectives on ImitationPhantoms in the BrainPhenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal KnowledgePhenomenology and Philosophy of MindPhilosophical Foundations of NeurosciencePhilosophical MidwiferyPhilosophy and HappinessPhilosophy of PsychologyPhilosophy, Neuroscience and ConsciousnessPhrenologyPhysical RealizationPhysics in MindPieces of LightPlaying with FirePositive 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If the word 'hysteria' sounds outdated to you, Asti Hustvedt's study of three star hysterics might give this nineteenth-century phenomenon new meaning. Although this diagnosis is no longer in use, it is probably one of the most famous psychiatric conditions. During its heyday, it developed into something close to a cult, and the word 'hysterical' is nowadays a common description of agitated, neurotic behaviour. But what does a closer look at the epicentre of hysteria reveal? Is it even relevant to a clinician working in the twenty-first century? After having read Medical Muses, the answer to question number two is a definitive yes.
'The hysteric' is a recurrent concept in late nineteenth-century literature, and Hustvedt came across numerous references to hysteric women as a graduate student in French. Curiosity about these women drove her to comb hospital records, read case histories, memoirs and letters, and gather information from the scientific and popular press of the day, in order to find out more about their lives and life circumstances. The result is a tantalizing book about the world revolving around hysteria, its participants and its consequences on individual lives.
Hustvedt's prose is delightful to read, and Medical Muses reads almost like a novel. Three women, star patients of the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, are the main characters whose stories Hustvedt tells with equal amounts of empathy and detachment. These women's stories are intertwined with their doctors' stories, (doctor-patient relations were intimate at the time, to say the least), especially that of the charismatic and imposing chief physician at the time, Jean-Martin Charcot. Also called "the Napoleon of Neuroses", this neurologist made lasting impressions in the fields of medicine, psychiatry and psychology. He contributed to the description and definition of several neurological diseases, findings that are still relevant today. Through his intense interest in hysteria, he developed the label 'hysteria' from medical trash can to a serious diagnosis. Relying on his powers of observation, Charcot studied the chaos of symptoms associated with hysteria in order to define the illness, and he was relentless. This dramatic process was followed by colleagues, students, journalists and artists, and gradually it captivated the attention of the general public. Hysteria became fashionable, and Charcot became famous and admired. The experiments and methods used in the Salpêtrière during Charcot's time are no less than stupefying. Even though the things that happened in this world-renowned hospital seem insane to us now, it's not too difficult to see the parallels to today's trends in diagnoses and the frenzied use of medication to treat anything from grief to psychosis. The loss of perspective and caution is neither new nor old.
Medical Muses is a great book that I would happily recommend to anyone. The intricate mix of illness, gender, art, fame, love, medicine, science, religion, power and theatre awakens numerous questions and perspectives on psychiatry. How was this possible? What created this phenomenon? Who was fooling whom? To whom was it of help? What were these women suffering from, and why didn't men suffer from hysteria? Charcot's main interest did not at any point seem to be to help his patients, he only wanted to examine them; it was not the hospital that was to be good for the patients, it was the patients who had or had not clinical value to the hospital. Hustvedt is the trustworthy guide who confidently, yet curiously, depicts the development of hysteria through the lives of four of its star performers, Charcot, Blanche, Augustine and Geneviève. The story is captivating on several levels, and I would say it is simply not to be missed.
© 2011 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works in a psychiatric health care center in Volda, Western Norway.
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