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The Invention of The “Hysterical” Woman

I’m reading a fantastic book you need to add to your list called, Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. It’s about abuse. I know, light reading for your morning, but stay with me. I’d heard it recommended before but didn’t think it was relevant to my life. I was wrong.

Something I learned while reading Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery (also phenomenal) was that what we called “hysteria” was sexual abuse. I’d never heard it stated so plainly. She cites where Freud figured it out and then…proceeded to cover it up. A coverup that has spanned a literal century. Deviant behavior, likewise, was simply being gay or trans. Both “hysterical” and “deviant” populations were being “treated” with psychotherapy and electric shock, but (surprise surprise) they were not the problem. The problem was society.

By focusing on them, we kept our gaze off the real problem: a system that supports the perpetrators and discredits the victims.

For as powerful as #metoo has grown as far as community, awareness, solidarity, support, and consciousness-raising is concerned, there has been little movement in perpetrators standing up and saying, “I did that.” Which is a big part of what we need if this is going to stop happening.

Sexual abuse occurs to one in four women. One. In. Four. This is not a niche issue this is a fucking epidemic. And that’s only what’s been reported.

That’s why this is relevant.

If you think you don’t know anyone who has experienced this, think again because it is statistically impossible that no one around you has been abused. It is only possible that they aren’t telling you.

Nearly everything I thought I knew about abuse was wrong. It’s not mental illness, it’s not the alcohol, it’s not rage or improperly managing emotions, it’s not socioeconomic, it’s not a momentary lapse in judgment and control, and it’s not his unresolved issues with his parents.

It’s his value system.

Abuse is not a psychological or emotional problem. It is a thinking one.

(I use the pronoun his deliberately as the vast majority of abuse occurs at the hands of men towards women. Anecdotally, you can ask yourself why men aren’t flocking in secret to shelters to save their children. And if your answer is “because it’s taboo,” Bancroft’s book reviews that too.)

(Likewise, men who have unprocessed mom trauma or were abused themselves tend to be violent towards other men, not women. Men who abuse their partners have a value system problem. Not an emotional one.)

(and yes we see the same thing in same-sex couples – read the book for more details on the indisputable research)

The values include things like entitlement (to behave like an asshat for being The Provider) and the belief that he is justified in his action (she “deserved it”) and that he is a victim (“they don’t listen to me at work and they don’t listen to me at home!”).

In 99.99% of cases of reported abuse women are telling the truth. The incidence of “false accusations” is…not a thing. Especially since you lose a lot more than you gain if you report your abuse publicly and involve the law. There are few supports for women who aren’t punched in the face (literally) and even then the default assumption is “it takes two to tango” which is in fact, false. It takes one. (read the book)

The legal system offers little protection from anything when it comes to domestic issues or issues concerning rape and assault. I saw this first hand when I watched a friend of mine endure the unthinkable after her own rape and chose to take on the system. The legal battle and the credibility battle (and subsequent scarlet letter) that results from your truth-telling is generally “not worth it” to most women. Your character is called into question, as is your mental health, your stability, and your memory. You become someone people don’t want to hire because they fear “being accused.”

I dream of a world where we hire those who’ve decried “Racism!” “Bigotry!” “Abuse!” “Sexual violence!” “Manipulation!” “Gaslighting!” and we use them as the compass that they are – helping us identify wrongdoing so we can address it. Instead, we default to calling them “sensitive,” “crazy,” “batshit,” “attention-seeking,” “dramatic,” and “hysterical.” Or, “in it for the money.”

Dr Ramani interviewed Lili Bernard about being drugged and raped by Bill Cosby and I highly recommend a listen if you’re someone who still believes “women should just leave” and “these things don’t happen to people like me” and “no can mean yes” or “if it happened more than once, shame on her.”

What stood out to me especially, was how little the legal system appears to know about trauma and the well-documented evidence-based responses to it.  The reason we know the hysteria of the 1860s – 1940s was sexual abuse was, well, for one women told us, and for two the symptoms they exhibited were identical to those of men with “shell shock” coming back from World War One. It was PTSD. And left untreated, you begin to believe you’re truly going insane. Only it was laudable and respectable to see your male comrade having nightmares and flashbacks and suddenly become violent, but “insane” and “unacceptable” for a woman to express any modicum of rage or dysregulation.

We know in fascinating detail what happens to memory during a traumatic event – what gets encoded and what doesn’t. We know that you can block out what happened to you but – as in the case with Lili Bernard – you can have visceral responses to stimuli without conscious awareness. In her case, it was the sound of running water or light peeking through a crack in a door that would send her body into full fight or flight. Still, we use this to discredit victims, when it is direct evidence of the crime having happened.

Follow the symptoms and you will find the truth because The Body Keeps The Score. The proof is in your symptoms. Your body has memory, it’s remembering.

What struck me most about Bancroft’s thesis was the issue of values. The evidence is compelling and it leads to a very different conclusion as far as intervention is concerned, especially as it pertains to the values we uphold as a society and as parents, partners, and friends.

In Darcy Lockman’s book All The Rage, she points out a similar problem, though the book is not about abuse, but parenthood. She noted that there has been a drop off in equity among couples with children since the 80s. There’s been a plateau where many of us pay lip service to ideas of equity, but uphold the opposite in our homes.

And that unspoken disconnect leads to harm.

This same issue is apparent in cases of abuse, where we uphold one image in public and another in private.

The power-over system of values that we uphold is dangerous. But more dangerous is the denial that we are doing this at all.

The cultural gaslighting on this point is what disturbs me the most. Speak up even slightly and you’re met with minimization, dismissal, assaults on your character, and the presumption of participation in your own abuse (if, of course, it happened at all).

I sit at dinner after dinner listening to men make jokes and women laugh about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen and their wives are so anal about what the kids eat and need to just relax. Those of us who do not laugh are told we are being sensitive, need to tone it down.  I do not laugh because it is not funny. I am sensitive because this is serious. It is not a joke. The values we carry directly lead to harm. This isn’t correlative, it’s causal.

Abuse is not a psychological problem it is a value system one. 

I remember when a girlfriend of mine told me she’d been assaulted by a guy when we were at a club in Meatpacking in Manhattan. I’d watched the interaction. We were walking down a set of circular stairs and he and some friends were walking up. He stroked her mid-region as he walked by her and she turned to me and said, “Did you see that?! He just assaulted me!”

My immediate thought was that she was being dramatic and embarrassing. And I hoped no one heard her. Then I wondered if I could be kind to her face but cool with the guys. I was part of the problem.

My mid-section and lower back were constantly caressed by men when they walked by me. I was taught to see this as a compliment. She was supposed to be flattered. Never occurred to me that perhaps this was inappropriate and they were the ones in the wrong and I didn’t owe anyone access to my body because of what I was wearing, what time it was, or what bar/location I was at. I was part of the problem. My value system placed “be liked by men” over loyalty to my friend’s experience and her discomfort. My value system told me to place the man’s comfort over my own.  To call out his behavior would make me one of those “difficult women,” and then I’d be ignored and lose all my status (aka: my proximity to power and safety). Plus, couldn’t you just take a compliment? Wow, women these days. SO SENSITIVE! If you didn’t want to be touched, why were you wearing a midriff??

About a decade later I was at dinner with some friends when I overheard one of the men say, “I don’t do anything,” about his role with his newborn son. “[My wife] does all of it, so I went back to work even though I could have more time off to help, but there was nothing for me to do, not to be offensive or whatever.” This was followed by complaints that she is naggy and critical and complains a lot. “She does it to herself you know? She gets SO worked up.”

If you’re hearing jokes about women nagging, complaining, being bitchy, insane, critical, emotional, or “nuts,” asking too much, and needing too much – pause and ask yourself if perhaps she’s simply being ignored. Not just by her partner or boss, but by society in general.

Perhaps instead of chastising, blaming, shaming, and mocking her, you should listen to what she is saying.

Each of us is responsible for our own behavior.

But we are ALL responsible for the value systems we pass down to our children and maintain in our own lives.

Abuse is not a psychological problem. It’s a values-based one.

Bancroft’s book outlines how men who abuse feel justified in their abuse and hold tight to the belief that they are entitled to certain privileges. Their value system dictates that they are the real victims, their experience is more valuable, important, and credible than the victim’s, and that victims provoke their abuse (“by running their mouth!”) and “deserve it.” The abuser abdicates all responsibility for his own behavior. This is consistent across populations and socioeconomic classes.

There is no emotional skill deficit, anger management issue, lack of awareness, or addiction issue at the root (though these issues may absolutely, and often do, coexist).

When people accuse me of being “oversensitive” when I ask why my daughter can play with cars, but their sons can’t play with kitchen items – this is why.

It is not oversensitive. It is literally THE problem.

When we teach boys that they are “above” caregiving, cleaning, cooking, and compassion –  we are promoting the very problem we seek to destroy. When we call men the “head” and women the “neck,” when we say “But he is so nice to me, there’s no way he did that,” when we secretly agree men are entitled to sex if they pay for drinks, when we call reasonable smart women with good ideas “difficult,” when we blame a woman for a man’s behavior – we are upholding the value system that leads to abuse and dehumanization.

If we don’t start taking collective responsibility here now, we’re going to keep perpetuating the very problems we claim we want to change.

Get your own copy of Why Does He Do That?, The Body Keeps The Score, and Trauma and Recovery and educate yourself.

The number is One. In. Four.

And that’s just what is reported. Imagine what isn’t.

Men, call out your friends. Many of you are the good ones and we need your help. Raise your sons to respect women, stand up to bullying, value caregiving, and share power. Raise them to participate in parenthood and fatherhood, what friendship is, and show them what real courage and integrity are (and what it is not).

Speak up when your friends are asshats behind closed doors.

The hysterical woman is an invention. She doesn’t exist.

“The dominant psychological theory of the [twenty-first] century was founded in the denial of women’s reality.” – page 14, from Trauma and Recovery, A Forgotten History.

Let’s stop denying reality.

One. In. Four.

It is one. in. four.

It is all of us.




PS: Here are some great resources: