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Hysterical Men by Mark Micale. (Harvard University Press)

History of the Hysterical Man

Doctors once thought that only women suffered from hysteria, but a medical historian says that men were always just as susceptible


The history of masculinity is very caught up with contemporary events. If there’s something in the history of the time that requires men to suddenly fulfill their most traditional, stereotypical roles -- such as defending the homeland -- then that tends to be a period of very conservative gender attitudes. That ‘s what happened with the Napoleonic period. When there’s a war, and one country after another is being invaded by this short, upstart Frenchman, what becomes important is producing virile soldiers. During and after the Napoleonic period, and especially in Britain, there was a change in how nervous disorders in men were seen. They went from being signs of refinement and civilization to signs of weak and unmanly behavior -- and, a generation later, as signs of physical and biological degeneration.

What about the fact that doctors of the day were almost all male?

Doctors themselves are products of a society and, in the case of Europe when the medical profession first rises, every doctor is by law male, because women are barred from university. Ninety percent of the doctors are coming from the rising middle classes and they were very concerned, as part of their professional ascent, that they appear as men of science. They saw middle-class men as especially rational and controlled and self-disciplined. It’s not surprising that when they saw cases of hysteria in middle-class men behind closed doors, they just didn’t theorize about or print the cases in the way they do so extensively with their women cases. It’s their own image, in their own minds, that they’re protecting. Wild behaviors were an object of study, not something they saw in themselves.

Did writing this book involve assessing any hysterical tendencies of your own?

I joke with my colleagues that, despite the title, this book is not my autobiography. But it does help to be somewhat self-aware psychologically. For me it’s a fascination with a behavior pattern that is opposite my own. Obsession and over-control are my chosen pathologies, my neuroses of choice, and for that reason I’ve been interested in those who negotiate the world through hysterical outbursts.

How has post-traumatic stress disorder challenged and changed our understanding of hysteria?

There should be an entire successor volume beginning with World War I and shell shock and coming up to the present. What some people started calling “male hysteria” was relabeled “shell shock” early in the 20th century. The relabeling is interesting because the term is new, not associated with women, and still suggests an honorable cause, a physical trauma to the nerves. These cases almost exclusively involved men, engaged in an honorable male activity. Since about 1980 they’ve used the term post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s extremely easy to show continuity between the symptoms of late 19th-century male hysteria, World War I shell shock, and present-day PTSD. The sign that suggests that we’ve made progress is that less and less in cases of PTSD is seen as comprising a soldier’s general identity, as something unmasculine.

What men in the modern popular culture would have been described as hysterics? Tony Soprano comes to mind.

A stereotypical example is Woody Allen, but Tony Soprano is a good one. He is struggling with a different model of manhood, one that is gritty and violent, and ethnic and Italian. He breaks out into these unexplained rashes and anxiety fits. He wants the doctors to find an organic cause so he doesn’t have to be considered a “head case.”

He’s trying so hard officially to be hyper-masculine, to be an Italian, to have sex with strange women and so forth but he can’t handle his own neuroses.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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