Hysteria: Definition—psychological disorder marked by emotional excitability and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. The term has a controversial history as it was formerly regarded as a disease specific to women.
It is precisely the disclaimer of the dictionary description which attracted author Maud Casey to give a voice to the unfortunate marginalized girls and women who were committed to the nineteenth-century Salpêtrière mental asylum in Paris. Under the guidance of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot they were diagnosed with hysteria, a term Charcot coined to describe a group of symptoms. The resulting book: City of Incurable Women is written in a chilling descriptive poetic prose and uses real photographs and medical records to fictionalize stories, of some actual and some invented women.
Casey will be appearing at the Academy Art Museum as part of Shore Lit author series this Friday October 28 to discuss her writing and research. Shore Lit founder Kerry Folan said of Casey’s writing that it is “both lyrical and beautiful and gives life to women who’ve been erased from history. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This book is for anyone who is interested in the evolution of women’s healthcare. But it also will reach people who loves language. Maud’s book pushes the bounds of what a novel can do. It’s exciting to see.”
‘Poetic’ and ‘lyrical’ are not words often used to describe a book with this type of subject, but 19th century psychiatry is a topic that has interested Casey for many years. Her extensive research on her previous novel, The Man Who Walked Away, a real-life case history of a patient—Albert Dadas, facilitated her exploration into the world of mental incarceration. “Had Dadas wandered into Charcot’s, hospital,” says Casey, “he might have been diagnosed as one of the few male hysterics. But here was the difference: this diagnosis presumes that a man is experiencing these symptoms due to a traumatic event outside of himself. And with a woman, it’s always that it’s her body that is the problem.”
One of the books Casey used in her investigation was Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière. It was these photographs that haunted Casey. Glass plate photography was the technology of the time, and subjects would have to hold a pose for up to five seconds in order for the photograph to be ‘taken.’ Hysteria is typically defined as a disease of movement and yet these photographs showed the opposite. “So there was this weird, I still don’t know quite the word for it, but like a collusion, a collaboration of sorts, where the women and girls would have to hold the poses. And as a novelist, this held an immense fascination for me. Here are these photographs, but what was going on outside the frame?”
There were also events Charcot held for medical students known as ‘Tuesday lessons,’ where hysteria cases would be presented. “For those Tuesday lessons.” Casey said, “he specifically chose girls and women who were either very photogenic, or their stories were particularly dramatic, or they were particularly good in the public sphere.” These become a popular spectacle, drawing both attention and crowds outside of the medical field.
Casey speculates that in both cases–the photographs and the Tuesday lessons–girls and women were chosen due to their ability to be ‘stage ready’ and perform. In exchange, they more than likely, received special privileges.
But just who were these women? It has been reported that the Salpêtrière mental asylum at times contained thousands of girls and women, many who were orphans, daughters of prostitutes, or working in domestic situations where they had been abused. Certainly, they were poor. “There was indeed a lot of pain in the lives of these girls and these women. Now, whether that meant that they were mentally ill is an entirely other question,” says Casey.
What Casey hopes is that her writing humanizes these girls and women, some of whom were considered incurables and admitted for life. “My hope is that the book be like an undoing, a pulling at the knot of certainty that these doctors created around the diagnosis of hysteria. The most presiding message, if there is one in the book, is that human beings are unfathomable mysteries, and my hope is that if it leads to anything, it leads to restoring the sense of their inscrutable humanity,”
Maud Casey is also the author of The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions, The Man who Walked Away, Drastic, Genealogy, and The Shape of Things to Come. She lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches a creative writing program at the University of Maryland.
City of Incurable Women is a Literary Hub “New Books to Dive Into” selection, a Publishers Weekly “Books of the Week” selection, a Center for Fiction “Bookstore Picks” selection, a Politics and Prose Bookstore Staff Pick, and a selection for the American Library in Paris Book Award Shortlist
Shore Lit founder Kerry Folan is a professor of writing and literature at George Mason University. She founded Shore Lit with the aim of enhancing local cultural offerings with regular, free author events open to the public.
Mau Casey will be appearing at the Academy Art Museum in conversations with Kerry Folan on Friday, October 28 at 6 pm. The event is free. Guests are encouraged to RSVP to the author reception starting at 5:00 pm. (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/shore-lit-reception-with-writer-maud-casey-tickets-394354754687)
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.