Showalter identifies clusters of syndromes, or mini-epidemics, which she suggests represent late-twentieth century manifestations of the entity which was called hysteria in nineteenth century western culture. Opening with the history of psychiatry's involvement in hysteria in the time of Charcot and Freud, she traces the replacement of hysteria or conversion reaction by modern hysterical analogues such as: chronic fatigue syndrome, recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome, multiple personality syndrome, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction.

In separate chapters she examines each of these entities--how it presents, how it fits into her theory of mass hysteria as a cultural response to the millennium, and how it is being handled by health care professionals. Showalter contends that "Redefining hysteria as a universal human response to emotional conflict is a better course than evading, denying, or projecting its realities." (p. 17)


Showalter admittedly has a bias in her interpretation of the "hystories" she explores and her discussions reflect her theory that although the sufferers of these syndromes are truly experiencing the discomfort and pain they describe, the genesis is not in individual physical pathology. She seems to be appealing to the health care system to reconsider its tendency to label unexplained symptoms as disease and instead to find ways to confront the cultural paranoia from which she feels these symptoms spring. While Showalter's position will be controversial, it makes a contribution by challenging us to find additional (non-medical) strategies to help these people.


Elaine Showalter is Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities and Professor of English at Princeton University.


Columbia Univ. Press

Place Published

New York



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