The Hysteria of a Hysterical Culture

A Hysterical Woman (circa 1900)

John Fraim

(Notes: All written today after watching a tv news show Tuesday night, 5/25/21. Sent off copies of this to the women listed in the article. Email to Elaine Showalter at the end of this article I sent to her. Not sure what I’m going to do with this. Publishing it here might be enough.)

In the 19th century, hysteria was considered a diagnosable physical illness in females and was present at the founding of psychoanalysis. The collaboration of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer on hysteria in 1895 created the book Studies in Hysteria (1895), the cornerstone of psychoanalytic movement. It was Freud’s first publication and contained the classic case of Anna O whose treatment marked the beginning case of psychoanalysis. By the 20th century, hysteria had shifted from being considered a mental disorder to a medical illness and the diagnosis of modern hysteria has been relegated into a fragmented group of current medical categories and definitions. Such as epilepsy, histrionic personality disorder, conversion disorders and dissociative disorders among other medical conditions.

In the late 20th century, I came upon an important book in the 1997 book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media by Princeton professor Elaine Showalter. The book argued that hysteria was now manifesting itself in cultural phenomena. This phenomenon arrived in the form of socially and medically accepted maladies, the effects of psychological and physical unhappy lives. The result was “hysterical epidemics” which arose from popular media saturating the public with paranoid reports and findings. The effect, argued Showalter, was to legitimize these “imaginary illnesses” as Showalter called them. Some of the hysterical epidemics of modern media Showalter discussed in her book were illnesses such as dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder, Gulf War Syndrome, recovered (false) memory syndrome, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction and chronic fatigue syndrome. All illnesses starting around the end of 20th century. 

A Groundbreaking Work of Interdisciplinary Scholarship

As Showalter observed, “Hysteria is part of everyday life. It not only survives in the 1990s, but it is more contagious than in the past. Newspapers, magazines, talk shows, self-help books, and of course the Internet ensure that ideas, once planted, manifest themselves internationally as symptoms.” She stressed that people develop these syndromes partly as an excuse for and an explanation of their own failings and sometimes to escape punishment. Some pleaded they committed murder or rape as a different personality. One claimed he was forced to commit a crime by aliens. 

* * *

In “Tales of Memory and Imagination” from the July 1997 issue of Nature, Stuart Sutherland observed “One of the most interesting aspects of these ‘hysterias’ is their causes, many of which Showalter does not mention. They include: the desire for attention; the comfort of being able to abdicate responsibility for one’s failings by ascribing them to an illness; the luxury of receiving therapy (compounded in the case of multiple personality by the fact that in the United States therapy can now be obtained under health insurance thanks to its recognition as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association); the excitement added to a humdrum life by weird beliefs about one’s past; the propagation of hysterics’ stories by the mass media; and the attempts by therapists to push their clients into revealing multiple personalities, non-existent sexual abuse, and even alien abduction in the mistaken belief that such revelation will effect a cure.” 

The view of Showalter was counter to most of the accepted views of the time and she was criticized by patient’s rights groups as well as practitioners in the medical and mental health industries who argued Showalter, with no formal medical training, was not qualified to make these determinations. But the criticisms failed to deter Showalter from her claim that these conditions were contemporary manifestations of hysteria which would come and go. The history of most of these syndromes after the 90s prove her right as most have disappeared. For example, in late December 2019, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation announced its cessation.

* * *

As the hysterical epidemics of the 90s passed, new hysterical epidemics have moved in to take their place in the 21stcentury. An argument can be made that the hysteria of our moment in time is gender dysphoria, or the feelings of a mismatch between one’s birth gender and the gender one later identifies with. People with gender dysphoria commonly identify as transgender. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the critical element of gender dysphoria is “clinically significant distress.”

The causes of gender dysphoria are unknown, but gender identity likely reflects genetic and biological, environmental and cultural factors. Treatment for gender dysphoria may include supporting the individual’s gender expression and role or fulfilling their desire, hormone therapy, surgery or psychotherapy. 

A subtype of gender dysphoria is Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria or ROGD. This subtype is closest to demonstrating the patterns and symptoms Showalter observed in her Hystories. The creator of the ROGD term is Brown University School of Public Health assistant professor Lisa Littman who created the term to describe surveyed parents’ accounts of their teenage children suddenly manifesting symptoms of gender dysphoria and self-identifying as transgender simultaneously with other children in their peer group. Littman speculated that rapid onset of gender dysphoria could be a “social coping mechanism” for other disorders. ROGD is not recognized by any major professional association nor a formal mental health diagnosis at this time.

Although not recognized as a formal diagnosis, the book is endorsed by Abigail Shrier, one of the major voices in transgender research. Shrier, a freelance journalist, comes with impressive credentials holding degrees from Columbia College, Oxford University and Yale Law School. In her controversial 2020 best-selling book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Shrier endorses Littman’s theory of ROGD. 

One of the most interesting points she makes is the “sudden, severe spike in transgender identification” among teenagers born females in the 2010s. She attributes this to a problem amongst “high anxiety, depressive (mostly white) girls who, in previous decades, fell prey to anorexia and bulimia or multiple personality disorder.” In a July 2020 interview on the Joe Rogan Experience, Shrier called the desire to transition a “contagion” and compared it with eating disorders and self-harm.

She describes what she sees as difficulties facing birth female teenagers, whom she refers to throughout the book as “girls.” These difficulties range from isolation, online social dynamics, restrictive gender and sexuality labels, unwelcome physical changes and sexual attention. She profiles several teenagers who questioned their gender identities or came out as transgender while experiencing mental health or personal issues.

* * *

The social contagion Shrier writes about among teenage girls in the 2010s sounds amazingly similar to the “hysterical epidemics” of the late 90s. In effect, is ROGD a reimagination of the hysteria epidemic Showalter observed in 1997? Is hysteria now manifesting itself in the cultural phenomena of ROGD? 

There is reason to suspect a close connection between the two. The epidemic of gender dysphoria and ROGD arrived like the hysteria epidemics of the late 90s in the form of social and medical accepted maladies. Such has also been the case with gender dysphoria and ROGD. As Shrier notes, there is a large industry of gender-affirming psychiatric support such as hormone replace therapy and sex reassignment surgery for young people with gender dysphoria. She notes the two are often referred to with the feel-good term of “gender-affirming care.” This care encompasses online trans influencers who encourage questioning youth to identify as trans and experiment with breast binding or testosterone and to lie or disown unsupportive family members.

Teenage Girls (Not everything is so happy)

It’s not hard to understand the support given to teenagers with gender dysphoria from a business standpoint. After all, gender reassignment is an industry, and it grows by bringing more “customer” patients into the industry. Curing those with dysphoria by suggesting gender is not their issue has far less money in it than suggesting gender is the issue. In all of this there are connections between therapists, surgeons and medical practitioners. While it might be mean spirited and wrong to suggest that all those in the gender dysphoria industry are bad people. However, it would be naive to view them as all in for the love of their patients. Just like general medical and pharmaceutical industries are today. 

Besides the support from the professional community, gender dysphoria is supported by other powerful forces in culture. Shrier discusses the transgender-related curricula and policies in schools and parents distressed by their children’s transgender identification or transition. Besides schools, the supportive edifice of gender dysphoria is held up by celebrities and popular media in their increasing trans acceptance. The list goes on and on. From sports figures. Musicians. Filmmakers. News people. Politicians. Gender dysphoria is the darling of modern, woke, popular culture. There is little doubt about. 

* * *

Just as Showalter received much criticism, so too is the case with Littman and Shrier and others who challenge society’s view of gender dysphoria and ROGD. In effect, they challenge the main narrative of culture today with that fearsome weapon called an alternative view to the main narrative of culture. The narrative is close to the heart of the great cultural issue of our time in the identity politics of gender. While the views of the three women above have been criticized, there has also risen much support for what they are saying. The alternative view today. For instance, critic Naomi Schaefer Riley writes that Littman and Shrier are correct in asking what was ailing adolescents who appeared to suddenly begin identifying as transgender. The question is important and remains not sufficiently unanswered so far. 

But in our intense battle over identity politics, can there ever be one answer to the phenomenon of gender dysphoria? Answers are put forward from both sides of the political spectrum. Yet in all the answers, the young are still left to navigate their own way through all the cultural noise, images and propaganda. The inner-straights they navigate are like the straights Sinbad traveled through on his ship as the psychedelic voices of the Sirens continued worked to pull him off course.  

In her book The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1980 (1985), Elain Showalter notes that hysteria – once known as the “female malady” – is called depression today. She argues that cultural ideas about proper feminine behavior shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity from the Victorian era to the present. Is gender identity and dysphoria a modern reincarnation of hysteria that started Freud’s career? Do cultural ideas about modern identity shape the definition and treatment of identity problems? Or do they truly originate within the depths of oneself. As Jung would say, the psyche. Not placed there by the hysteria of a hysterical culture.

And Jung also said that the great symbols never change. Rather, they simply take on the clothing of their times. This might be the case with hysteria. Maybe it is part of an old symbol we haven’t figured out yet. An old symbol at the center of things yet one we seldom look at. A symbol at the heart of the human condition that never changes but rather wears the hysteria and hysterical “clothing” of its time. 


Email sent to Elaine Showalter, 5/26/21.


First came upon your brillian Hystories in 1997 when it first came out. At the time was working full time in private industry as a marketing executive but also writing in all my spare time about symbolism. Many of my articles were published on Jungian sites and I had written two large unpublished manuscripts on symbolism and media by the time I arrived at Hystories

Sending you something I wrote today based around Hystories. First draft and you’re the first to see it. Inspired by seeing a segment on a television news show last night that sent me directly back to your 1997 classic. 

Wonder if you have ever considered hysteria in light of gender dysphoria? Turning your attention to revisiting an old interest. Probalby a current one too. Viewing that old bundle of psychological conditions contained in the word, concept, idea, practitioners, patients and culturral narrative called hysteria. How it reappears in different form in different times, to match the concerns of the times it appears in. Jung said the great symbols never change but rather take on the various clothing of their times. 

Anyway, wanted you to see this. Not sure what to do with it. It appeared quickly, pretty much unannounced, an invaded almost, without much warning. Like important things often do in my life.

Best regards, 

John Fraim

PS … Brief about me on my site at <>

Leave a Reply