By Robin WassermanSeptember 25, 2014
Conversion by Katherine Howe
The Fever by Megan Abbott
IT BEGAN, as trends do, with the cheerleaders. Katie Krautwurst, a blond high school cheerleader from Le Roy, New York, woke up from a nap to discover she couldn’t stop twitching. Two weeks later, her best friend, cheer captain Thera Sanchez, was seized by a similar array of strange symptoms: facial tics, stutters, fainting spells. One girl twitching might have been stress, or sudden-onset Tourette’s. Girls plural was medically messy.
Especially when, as high school trends do, it spread.
Within a few weeks, Lydia Parker and Chelsey Dumars were beset by uncontrollable ticks and hums, and by the winter of 2012, 18 of the high school’s 600 girls had fallen prey to the mystery illness. Chaos, unsurprisingly, ensued. Parents sounded a war cry; school officials bunkered down; journalists stormed the barricades. Erin Brockovich sent in a team to test for contagion from a 40-year-old toxic spill, while anti–HPV vaccine activists sounded the nefarious-side-effects alarm (although there was no indication the girls had received the vaccine recently, or at all). One doctor argued it was obviously PANDAS, or Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus, a catchall category of bizarre reactions to strep throat (although none of the girls had had strep in recent memory). Concerned news anchors weighed in across the network dial as parents and their twitching teenagers visited couches on Dr. Phil and The Today Show, all of them groping for a definitive diagnosis or evidence of a conspiracy covering one up. Eventually — despite vehement denials from the girls and their parents — one narrative overwrote the others: conversion disorder, the transformation of emotional strain into physical symptom. The girls resisted the diagnosis, but doctors were adamant. Le Roy’s mystery illness was an epidemic of what we once called — in the bad old days of unreconstructed misogyny — hysteria.
Mass hysteria in small-town America? Cheerleaders swooning and seizing on the field like 19th-century gentlewomen? It was a perfect storm of narrative possibility. The question wasn’t whether someone would turn it into fiction, only when, and who.
The who, it turns out, is Megan Abbott and Katherine Howe; the when is as soon as humanly possible. Both novelists have said in numerous interviews that they dropped everything as soon as they caught wind of the Le Roy story, Howe’s fascination with the case dovetailing neatly with her study of the Salem witch hysteria, Abbott’s novel “seeming to shimmer to life with the intensity of, well, a fever dream.” More than two years later, the fruits of their labors are upon us, borne within weeks of each other. It makes sense that this story would have sparked something in these two particular authors: Abbott has made a name for herself plumbing the depths of teen depravity and building lush mysteries that hinge on questions of adolescent sexuality and group power plays. Howe isa direct descendant of three Salem “witches,” and it’s clear Le Roy’s resonances with the country’s most famous hysteria outbreak were too much to resist.
Each novel follows the basic contours of the Le Roy story, touching on the various speculated diagnoses, the outcry of concerned parents and cable news amicus briefs of environmental warriors, public health advocates, and the self-appointed guardians of the moral fabric of the nation’s youth. Howe’s Conversion is the more aggressively ripped-from-the-headlines of the two. Though this is ostensibly the story of high school senior Colleen Rowley and her efforts to puzzle out what’s making her friends so sick, Howe’s efforts to match the real-world epidemic beat by beat force her to sacrifice some emotional depth and at times flatten her characters into mouthpieces for social commentary. A parallel storyline set in the days of the Salem witch trials livens things up, but still carries a whiff of homework. Abbott’s The Fever, on the other hand, is a rich cognac of a novel, a decadent indulgence that slides down easily and leaves you, in the end, unsteady on your feet. It runs hot, suffused with pheromones, secrets, and Shakespearean misunderstandings, all fueled by an incisive and impassioned cri de coeur of adolescent sexuality. If Conversion is the based-on-a-true-story Lifetime movie (and I say that as a devoted consumer of the genre), The Fever is the Sofia Coppola adaptation, complete with gauzy close-ups of adolescent curves and a moody indie soundtrack.
Both have their pleasures, and both are animated by the same questions: Who is the enemy, and does it attack from without or within? The mysterious infection becomes a Rorschach test for what these characters believe about their community and, more importantly, their daughters. Have the girls fallen victim to an invading force or an inner darkness? Have they been transformed, or revealed?
Is modern society inherently poisonous to its young women — or is sickness inherent to the condition of being a girl?
“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition,” Caitlin Flanagan wrote, chiming in on the Le Roy illnesses with a New York Times op-ed on the perils of modern adolescence. “It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”
It’s intentional irony from Flanagan — whose name when googled with the word “retrograde” pulls up nearly 200,000 hits — but it’s also a fair characterization of how the press and the Twitterati reacted when the Le Roy story broke. We’re supposed to be better than this now; hysteria is meant to be a figment of the feverishly misogynistic 19th-century imagination. We live in a post-hysterical world, so what to do with this vestigial remnant of the ugly past? What to do when teenage girls begin ticcing and seizing and fainting with no ostensible physical cause, when they insist, as the girls of Le Roy did again and again, this is not in our heads? We don’t want to tell girls we know them better than they know themselves; we don’t want to invalidate their sense of self or their experience of their bodies (especially when study after study indicates female pain is undertreated due to an across-the-board dismissal of female-reported symptoms by the medical establishment). We’re supposed to know better now: And yet.
It turns out mass hysteria outbreaks in the modern age aren’t nearly as uncommon as you’d expect. In 1962, a laughing epidemic swept its way across a Tanzanian girls’ school. Three years later, 85 students ended up in the hospital thanks to a British girls’ school fainting craze. In 2002, 10 North Carolina teens — half of them cheerleaders — suffered inexplicable fainting spells and seizures. This August, 200 girls in Colombia sickened with a mystery illness, their parents determined to draw a connection between the contagion and the Gardasil HPV vaccine, despite local and international health experts’ disavowal of the possibility. Even Danvers, Massachusetts, the town formerly known as Salem Village — and the setting for Howe’s book, though there’s been bewilderingly little made of this fact — last year suffered a high school epidemic of tics and hiccups.
It’s not always teenagers; it’s not always teenage girls.
But it usually is.
Epidemiologists, psychiatrists, MSNBC pundits — everyone’s got a theory for why this might be, what it is about the perils of our modern world that are so specifically pernicious to teenage girls. With these novels, Howe and Abbott throw their hats in the ring, but they are — thankfully, admirably — less interested in diagnosing the toxicity of modernity than in exploring the ramifications of a hysterical epidemic and what it exposes about our hidden assumptions and expectations of adolescent girls.
You can’t talk about hysteria in a vacuum, not when the term has a 2,000-year history, all of it intertwined with the marginalization and oppression of young women — but it turns out that to look into that history is to go down the rabbit hole, into a dark and seemingly bottomless well of injustice, righteous anger rising with the fall. So many women forced into silence — into chains metaphorical and all too often literal — by a single diagnosis. How to do them justice, to write about life without crowding out the fiction trying to alchemize it? How to write about hysteria without writing about the centuries of medieval women burned as witches, about anatomical theory that saw the female body as a defective copy of the male version and the female nervous system as inherently compromised, about the thousands of women imprisoned in the Salpêtrière, early modern Paris’s hospital-cum-prison, about soldiers with “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” (i.e., “male hysteria”) thought to be unmanly for their femininedisease, about Freud’s women and Charcot’s women — women whose claim to historical legacy derives solely from the medical men who appropriated and transformed their stories of themselves. And speaking of stories, there are too many: Dora (née Ida Bauer, but Freud called her Dora and we follow his lead), the teenage girl whose father offered her up to his mistress’s husband in exchange for free rein with the man’s wife, the girl who became Freud’s premier evidence for the hysterical female’s inability to know her own mind. Typhoid Mary, whose refusal to accept the medical establishment’s claim over her body led to a life sentence in an island prison and posthumous infamy as an unremorseful killer. Bridget Cleary, burned alive in 1895 by her husband and eight of her friends and relatives, who gauged her wild behavior and concluded she must be a faerie changeling. Not to mention all the women — historians put the number somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 — murdered as witches in the preceding three centuries, accused and tortured, tarred or hanged or burned at the stake. Old women, young women, deformed women, powerless women on the margins, and powerful women needing to be taken down a notch. Women whose main crime was not being men.
The more I read for this essay, the more there was to read — and to mourn, to memorialize, to say. Small wonder that its original version was three times as long.
I first heard most of these stories in college, in a class in the history of psychology, and they stayed with me — not because of any feminist awakening or post-adolescent empathetic rage, but thanks to a memorable night when feverish exam prep gave way to several hours of what my friends and I called Madness Charades. We were exactly those kind of nerds, and we were, by that point in the year, our own brand of hysterical. There was something about these women we’d studied, about the apparent distance between us — diligent, well-behaved, on-track good girls — and them. We enacted and embodied the madwomen of history and drove ourselves to fits of laughter, imagining such a thing as loss of control. We converted their pain into our entertainment: Here is the schizophrenogenic mother; here is Charcot’s hysteric; here is Dora, unable to voice her desire and pain. We wore misery and madness like a costume, young enough and lucky enough to pretend that was all it could ever be, something to be put on and taken off at will. We didn’t think about history as an unbroken line, about old-fashioned, “retrograde and non-womyn-empowering” misogyny or gendered oppression or the pathologizing of feminine dissatisfaction. That was all safely in the past; it couldn’t possibly apply to us.
Abbott and Howe, with their own attempts to channel, embody, and transform someone else’s pain, fortunately know better.
An oversimplified thematic distillation of these two contagion stories: Abbott’s The Fever is about sex; Howe’s Conversion is about narrative. Both, at their center, are about power: who’s seizing it, who’s losing it, and how, and why. Who acts and who is acted upon — and will these dynamics be overturned in the wake of disease?
The Fever tells the story of the girls of Dryden High School as they’re felled by a mysterious illness. The first victim is 16-year-old Deenie Nash’s best friend Lise, who suffers a mid-class seizure, her condition quickly deteriorating into coma. Lise is only the first of Deenie’s friends to fall, and the book centers on Deenie’s — and, in alternating chapters, her older brother’s and father’s — attempts to solve the mystery of the disease while navigating the perils of adolescent betrayal and a town gone mad. Abbott’s canny choice to relate two-thirds of the novel through the eyes of its male players allows The Fever to do double duty as the story of both the girls and those who would judge, protect, indict, and silence them. Freud would have had a field day with brother Eli Nash, who is introduced — and almost entirely defined — by his preoccupation with his younger sister’s burgeoning sexuality. Similarly, Deenie’s father, Tom, having already been burned by his wife’s uncontrollable adulterous lust, watches his daughter carefully for signs that she’ll follow in her mother’s harlot footsteps: “Demons had come in the dark, come with the famous Dryden fog that rolled through the town, and taken possession of his lovely, smart, kindhearted wife. And next they’d come for his daughter too.”
For the fathers, mothers, and brothers of The Fever, sex comes in a terrifying multitude of guises. There’s sex as gender and the frailties that accompany it, sex as dangerously irresistible force, sex as weapon to be wielded, and, most often, sex as a thing that happens to a girl — less a consensual act between two people than an ontologically independent agent that descends upon innocent youth. Sex here is both the barbarian at the gates and also — thanks to raging hormones and unchecked libido — the inside man. The adults in Dryden know, and shudder: The call is coming from inside the house. Conversion disorder is a manifestation of repression, and these girls are expected to repress their desires so deeply they cease to exist.
The novel is a picture of adolescent passivity: Girls don’t act out, they’re acted upon, and it’s not just the adults in their lives who deny them any agency of their own. The girls themselves, especially Deenie, seem bewildered by the sexual impulses and temptations that have inexplicably befallen them. At the outset of the novel, Deenie loses her virginity in the manner of an Oscar Wilde character losing his parents: carelessly. It’s not a choice she makes, but a thing that happens to her, without intent or will: “How it happened that two hours later she was in Sean Lurie’s car, and a half hour after that they were parked on Montrose, deep in Binnorie Woods, she couldn’t say for sure.” Sex happens to Deenie, just as pretty happened to her friend Lise, just as adultery happened to her mother. (“Couldn’t keep your legs together couldn’t stop yourself look what you’ve done look what happened,” Tom accuses his wife, villain and victim all at once.) It’s a schema that figures the journey from innocence to experience not as transformation, but as possession. And it’s this possession by foreign, dangerous impulses that — despite an absence of evidence and reason — the townsfolk of Dryden all assume must be connected to their mystery epidemic.
They’re in good company — there’s a long history of connecting female disease to sexual impulse and dysfunction. The word hysteria is Greek for uterus, and the disease was initially understood as an expression of uterine rage. (Not for nothing did Galen recommend genital massage to alleviate hysterical symptoms; 1,600 years later, the medical establishment eagerly welcomed the new mechanical vibrator as a relief for weary fingers.) The 15th-century witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer) proposed that “Witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” Witchcraft was a female malady: British church records from this period accuse the occasional man of practicing witchcraft, while witch was a label reserved for women. Men could practice evil; only women, by virtue of their weak wills and powerful libidos, could embody it.
As society dispensed with the devil and rebranded madness as a disease of the mind rather than the immortal soul, women were still considered fundamentally suspect and susceptible, damned by their uncontrollable urges. They had to be protected, from the cruel world and, equally, from themselves. Whether it was a uterine rebellion or — as Freud refashioned the disease — a psychic collision between desire and wanting not to desire, female sexuality wasn’t just a cause of hysteria, it was the definition. “The symptoms of the disease are nothing else than the patient’s sexual activity,” Freud wrote, detailing his triumphant treatment of the young Dora. The body revealed desires and impulses suppressed by the mind, gave voice to things that couldn’t or wouldn’t be said. The body told a story that the mind refused to know. Lucky for his girls that Freud was there to know it for them.
Abbott’s narrative is structurally engineered to lead us down the same garden path — it opens not just with Deenie’s loss of her virginity, but also with the administration of the HPV vaccine to the girls who later fall ill, inviting the reader to share the characters’ post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. After, therefore because: After sex, contagion. After knowledge, sin. After sin, pain. Abbott’s smart enough about sexuality here to be writing in defiance and critique of these assumptions about adolescent lust; we’re meant to judge these fears as projection, to interrogate the presumed connection between sex and disaster rather than taking it as the characters do, on faith. But because the book is as much mystery as social commentary, and the mystery does, as it turns out, hinge on adolescent sexuality unchained, the narrative ends up ratifying the very assumptions it invites us to question.
The passivity of these girls, stranded helplessly in the hormonal storm, can only be a deliberate choice on Abbott’s part, who, in her previous novel, gave voice to some of the most memorably Machiavellian girls in recent literary history. Dare Me, her saga of conniving cheerleaders, is a master class in the deployment of adolescent sexuality for personal gain; Abbott’s cheerleaders are wholly aware of the power they wield and disdainful of those who would underestimate or, worse, dare to protect them from enemies without or within. These girls, invested with the power of the uniform and the team, were “magnificent teen gladiators,” with “the hearts of warriors,” their bodies under absolute control: “My body, for instance, it can dip and leap and spring and I am as if untouched, no fear flapping behind my eyes can touch my body, which is invincible and all mine.” Dare Me reads as the anti-Fever, a story of control, power, bodies that maintain an iron reliability even as everything else spins out. Taken together, the two books are intriguing mirror images of each other, Fever the portrait of the adolescent girl as we need and fear her to be, Dare Me, perhaps, that same girl as she needs to see herself — the latter terrifying in its willfulness, the former in its passivity, reality cohering in a superposition of the two.
It’s no coincidence that the powerless girls in The Fever are atomized, each alone with her own confusion and secrets, while the power-hungry strivers in Dare Me derive their identity from being part of a team. On and off the page, individual girls are to be afraid for, while grouped together they’re a thing to be afraid of: There’s more than safety to be found in numbers. There’s a transformative power. Our collective anxiety about “mean girls” (not to mention the experience of anyone who’s attended middle school) is evidence enough of that — sometimes we seem to think of girls, plural as a creature unto itself, a cannibalistic beast that consumes its own.
The first Le Roy girls struck by the mystery disease were also cheerleaders. Mass Psychogenic Illness is, not uncommonly, a disease of the popular — a disease that strikes those who’ve proven themselves astute at gauging power dynamics and playing the power of the group for all its worth. There’s no agreed-upon explanation for why MPIs so commonly strike teenage girls, and while it may be tempting to see this as some constitutional fragility or a buckling under the unreasonable weight of societal expectation, I’d like to think it’s driven at least in part by the desire for strength, a subconscious understanding that there’s power in numbers, in being one of many, joining one’s voice — even if it’s the voice of the body — with the chorus.
It’s this conversion of victimhood to empowerment that Howe’s Conversion wants to explore, and it proposes a mechanism of metamorphosis: the power of story. The plot of Conversion shares its basic outline with The Fever: A high school girl watches her peers begin to seize and tic, and does her best to figure out why. But here it’s the alpha girls who fall ill first, while honors student Colleen Rowley is too worried about the valedictorian race and her Harvard application to pay this epidemic of the popular much mind. It’s not until the illness hits her own friends that she gets a vested interest in solving the mystery. Sex and secrecy may drive the plot, but Howe’s main concern here is the question of who owns the narrative. She tracks the media mob descending on the school, its reporters hungry for a story, while the triumphantly ill queen bees secure a spot on a national talk show couch to tell the world of their pain. The girls of Conversion use passivity and vulnerability to their advantage, milking illness for power by seizing control of their story. As the epidemic and the novel develop, resolution hinges on the stories the narrator and her friends tell about themselves, the personas they’ve crafted and the truer stories they’ve been too busy or frightened to hear.
Interwoven with this contemporary drama is a parallel storyline set a few years after the Salem witch trials, in which the power of narrative comes to the foreground. We see how the girls of Salem used their illness to gain power — how the men around them literally fell silent in the presence of their bodily ailments, and trusted their story enough to execute several of their townsfolk. This story spills out from one of the girls, Ann Putnam (a historical figure), who, more than a decade after the trials, is making her confession to a reverend, a narrative seduction described in overtly suggestive terms:
I can tell I’ve seduced the Reverend so that he won’t let me go ’til I’m done. His lips are parted. He wants for me to keep talking. I bask in this feeling. I hoard his attention for myself, soaking it up, filling every pore with it, knowing that soon it will be snatched away.
All this is paired with a subplot in the modern-day storyline, in which Colleen learns about Arthur Miller’s commandeering of the Salem story for his own purposes, somehow turning a tragedy in which both aggressors and victims were primarily female into a story of men. Here Howe transforms what first seems like a facile historical comparison into a compelling feminist commentary on the appropriation of narrative and the concept of “history” as a contingent, constructed object reflecting the agenda of those who’ve written it.
The Fever is a book about girls, while Conversion, packaged as a young adult novel, is explicitly for them, so maybe it’s no surprise that the latter explores these issues of empowerment and concludes that, by controlling their narrative, girls can be the agents of their own destiny. This reassuring prescription is complicated by the fact that — in the novel as in life — when it comes to conversion disorder, salvation comes only from accepting someone else’s narrative about yourself over your own. (This dilemma may explain a superfluous eighth-inning twist that offers readers an alternate explanation for the events of the story, and with it, the possibility of unfettered female control.)
Hysteria, as reframed by Freud, was a disease of not knowing. Cure came from submitting to the analyst’s version of your life story; resistance of that version was considered a symptom, all denial evidence of disease. Though the name of the condition has changed, this prerequisite for cure has not. “Maybe they knew better,” thinks one of the girls in Conversion, as one adult after another tells her that her symptoms are emerging from a stress she’s not even cognizant of feeling. That the only way to heal is to accept the diagnosis, get the therapy, take the drugs, believe her doctors that everything she believes about herself is wrong. “I wavered, torn between what they were telling me and what I was telling myself.”
Conversion disorder is the diagnosis no one wants, an overwriting of personal judgment — an erasure of self. It says something about how important it is for us to be believed that we chafe against diagnoses that invalidate our experience of our own bodies — even when the diagnosis is physical health, ostensibly something to celebrate. To accept the diagnosis can feel like accepting culpability in your own illness — and ceding control over your own story, replacing it with a stranger’s narrative that says, you may hurt, but there is no pain.
We live in a world where speech is considered the ultimate route to empowerment. The right to tell our story, the insistence on telling our story — on reality TV, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Facebook — it’s become the way we measure our import and our lives. And there’s a sense in which conversion disorder is simply another, desperate form of speech — a declamation by the body in defiance of a silenced voice. But the language of the body is vague, its story involuntary. Translation is dicey, subject to distortion. In both these novels, the girls’ condition becomes a pretext for the game of who knows them best, their bodies and their minds — parents, friends, boyfriends, teachers, doctors, pundits, or the girls themselves. It’s a veiled struggle for ownership: Who owns their story, and who has the right to tell it?
This is a compelling, if tricky, question to grapple with in novels that are simultaneously giving their girls a voice and, by drawing on real-world events, reshaping real girls’ stories to their own purposes. Howe makes a pointed critique of Miller — but only in the process of doing much the same thing he does. I’m obviously not indicting the conversion of life into art (is there a better definition, or argument, for fiction itself?), but if Howe and Abbott are going to ask who has the right to tell a girl’s story, it seems fair to note that, in writing these novels, they’ve answered their own question.
Mass hysteria, even if we now decline to call it by that name, can seem like a materialized metaphor for adolescence, the apotheosis of all our clichés of teenage girldom — the contagion of belief, the desperation to fit in with the crowd, the heightened and vaguely sexualized emotion — but remember that our modern-day understanding of hysteria emerged in chronological concert with the invention of the modern teenager. In 1905, Freud published his case study of Dora; it was only a year later that Frank Wedekind unveiled Spring Awakening, his radical play about the blossoming of adolescent sexuality and the dangers of pretending it out of existence. All these questions of knowledge, ignorance, and denial, of powerful forces beyond control, of acting rashly and acting out, are constitutive of our modern definition of adolescence.
We worry for our girls. We — parents, teachers, journalists, big brothers, doctors, celebrities, religious leaders, bloggers — see danger for them everywhere. Estrogen in milk, anorexic models in fashion magazines, math-hating Barbies, sexy Barbies, sexy Halloween costumes, sexy everything, sex education or the lack thereof, online bullies, online predators, eating disorders, mood disorders, rapists, rape culture — it’s a dangerous world out there for the vulnerable, for the naive and the easily corrupted. It makes sense to worry for them. But worrying about them is also another way of saying — and saying to them — that we think they’re weak. Vulnerability offers an excellent excuse for dismissal, something women have understood for centuries, something modern teenage girls know all too well. How often we disdain their narratives, relegating stories for and about teenage girls to categories meant to defy serious consideration: See the easy and viciousdismissals of the Twilight phenomenon (as opposed to the consideration offered to serious bildungsroman about boys — and the respect accorded to the men who write them); see the shaming of adults who dare to read fiction written for teengers; see the kerfuffle over whether that young adult fiction is too much for its frail, easily influenced girl readers to handle; see the eruption of venom when a woman young enough to be thought of as a girl creates a show called Girls and the gatekeepers of high culture have the temerity to take it seriously.
We could do better; we have done much worse.
It was said that on certain nights, if you stood outside the Salpêtrière, you could hear the women scream. It was called a hospital, but for its first hundred years, it was a hospital with no doctors, no medicines or cures, and no attempts at treatment. It was a hospital with basement cells and chains, a hospital cum poorhouse and asylum and prison, from which the only release was death. It was a hospital filled with perfectly healthy women, chained up alongside the sick. From its founding in 1656 to the day in 1795 when Philippe Pinel infamously loosed its chains, the Salpêtrière was, in Charcot’s words, a “grand asylum of human misery,” a Versailles of pain and suffering. Swollen with more than 8,000 female inmates, it was Paris’s dumping ground for unwanted women: beggars, madwomen, prostitutes, invalids, orphans, widows, heretics, political radicals, all were imprisoned together, chained in their cells and effectively silenced forever behind its stone walls.
The 19th century saw the Salpêtrière’s transformation into a medical and teaching institution (as well as a tourist attraction for the eager flaneur). Madness was medicalized and modernized — and, in the process, feminized. By mid-century, it had lodged itself into the cultural consciousness as what Elaine Showalter famously dubbed “the female malady,” with Jean-Martin Charcot as its preeminent diagnostician. Under Charcot’s defiantly “modern” Belle Époque leadership, the Salpêtrière remained a home for damaged women — damage as defined by the men who brought these women through its gates, and the men who held the key to releasing them.
It still exists today, a functioning hospital in a liminal zone where Paris’s gothic cathedrals and souvenir shops give way to a city noticeably less quaint, a city made of city stuff, construction scaffolding and graffiti, Brutalist architecture and a skyline studded with steel and glass office buildings. On the day I trekked out there, a man was living in a tent on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital, talking to the pigeons; a few blocks down, just outside the hospital gates, a woman slept under a park bench, tucked beneath a cocoon of ratty blankets and fraying bags. The skies were heavy and gray, and if I say that they opened up the moment I stepped through the hospital gates, it will sound like poetic license. My only defense is that sometimes life delivers poetry.
Sometimes, though, we impose the poetry, with its comforting rhyme and reason; sometimes we reshape reality to fit a fairy tale. We see witches everywhere, we create evil stepmothers and wicked temptresses and lost little girls. It seems so painfully obvious now, with the luxury of hindsight, the way hysteria once functioned as an expression of contempt for women and their health, a catchall non-category used to make women seem constitutionally susceptible to madness, to eliminate their testimony from court, to infantilize them out of control of their own lives and finances, to rule them out of public discourse. We’re supposed to be better than this now; we are better than this now. But The Fever and Contagion — and the real-world events they draw from — painfully illustrate the ways in which we can be better still, the ways we continue to be threatened by the things young women might say, whether with their voices or their bodies. They evoke the Panopticon, remind us that judgment and expectation are slyly effective ways to discipline and punish — that we don’t need locked doors and chains to coax girls into silence.
Charcot’s world-famous hysteria clinic at the Salpêtrière — the lecture rooms where the 19th century’s self-appointed king of hysteria paraded his patients weekly before an assembled intelligentsia, forcing his women to enact their madness for the audience, punishing them if they refused — has been torn down. All that remained for me to see of his Quartier des Folles is a line of squat one-story buildings, divided into a set of narrow individual cells. A small, waist-level platform juts from each of the cells. This is where the hysterics — or rather, the women branded hysterics, because the one-size-fit-all category could always stretch to suit — were once housed. This is where, each day, the women were taken from their cells and chained to the small benches, so they could, for brief and supervised periods, see the sun.
Robin Wasserman is the author of the forthcoming novel Girls on Fire.
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