I study the photographs taken in the 1880s at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris by Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud’s mentor—pictures of women who had been labeled hysterics. People believed they were mistresses of deception. Their charade: Paralysis, bulimia, abstinence, sensitivity, exaltation, insomnia, sleeping attacks, twisting, panting. Wild-haired. Wild-eyed. Silent. Screaming. Ribbons in their hair. Ribbons on their gowns. Charcot wanted to help—catch the hysteric in the act, fix her on film. Proof! Evidence! He’d make her suffering real, believable. He led each subject into a pitch-black room. Alone in a dark isolation chamber. Then a sudden burst of light.
In one photograph a woman named Augustine stands next to a tripod almost as tall as she is. She’s close enough to touch it. Her dress is dark, her hat and apron white, a nurse’s uniform. She leans back, surprised, her left hand at her side, her right hand open. Stamped across the bottom of the image: Catalepsy. Provoked by a Strong Light.
What is captured on Charcot’s film? Augustine’s body displays an expected reaction to a sudden flash. She pulls back. This is not catalepsy—catatonic state, paralysis, sleeping sickness, coma, daze, dream, ecstasy, stupor, reverie—but Charcot’s words make it so.
In another photograph, Augustine makes her body a bridge, bent back ninety degrees, hands clasped between heart and throat.
Augustine’s body speaks: I will show you what you want to see. This is what women learn to do: Please.
I will bend my body back. I will be still. I will scream, pant, twist, sleep. I will be what you believe me to be.
I read Augustine’s body as escape. Disguise. Cover. You think you see me, but I show you nothing.
In this photograph, here, is Hortense, a patient of Charcot’s who suffered from photophobia in one eye— hypersensitivity to light. Too much light resulted in that eye’s paralysis. She endured hypnosis, hydrotherapy, electroshock, drugs, physical therapy, and the cuirasse—a leather harness strapped to her, buckled again and again. The patient remains in all those positions in which she is arranged. If they held her eyes open, they stayed open. If they didn’t hold her eyes open, they closed. In Charcot’s photograph, her velvet coat is buttoned, its collar embroidered with two flowers, and she looks directly at the camera, one eye closed, one eye opened. She winks.
Hystera, Greek for womb. Hippocrates believed the womb could wander, an independent creature inside the female body—a body that craves moisture and warmth, that needs sex. Any unnatural behavior—celibacy, for example, or living alone—makes the uterus too light, too dry, so it wanders. When it presses against the intestines, the woman chokes. When it sits against the diaphragm, the woman is unable to speak or breathe. When it compresses the arteries, the woman sleeps, her head heavy. When it lands next to the brain, hysteria.
We think we know better now: It’s not a womb illness. It’s a mental illness. Somatic. We call it by its right name: Conversion Disorder—a loss of physical functioning without any physiological reason. The patient converts emotional problems into physical symptoms. It appears after stressful events. Your leg may become paralyzed after falling from a horse even though you weren't hurt. You may lose your ability to walk or swallow or hear. You may have trouble with balance. You may forget. One psychiatrist defines the symptoms of Conversion Disorder as a code that conceals the message from the sender as well as from the receiver.
One patient went into a psychogenic coma following a throat operation. The team of surgeons discovered she had been repeatedly raped as a child. He stifled her cries by smothering her with a pillow. For many people, symptoms of conversion disorder get better without treatment, especially after reassurance from the doctor that their symptoms aren't caused by a serious underlying problem.
It’s just in your head.
If it’s just my head, the soldier in my class said, then I don’t need to go back to the doctor.
I look at one more photograph: The light has been turned off. A nurse is holding a woman who has fallen back. Lethargy. Stamped across the bottom of the image: Resulting from the Sudden Extinction of Light.
“Photography and Hysteria: Toward a Poetics of the Flash” in Baer, Ulrich. Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.