No Rest for the Hysteric
A Podcast by Caroline Morrison
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Read a transcript of Caroline’s podcast below:
It is 1885.
Your name is Catherine Walker.
You are twenty-three years old.
You have lived in Philadelphia your entire life.
[FOOT STEPS, FLOOR CREAKS]
Recently you haven’t been well.
Or at least your husband Trevor tells you so.
He had caught you crying over the piano and in bed at night.
He says the liquor bottles have been emptying faster.
He finds it strange the way you sit on the riverbank and watch the water flow until sunset.
You caught him once in the drawing room hunched over a desk with your journals and papers splayed across it, and there was a dreadful look in his eye.
For a moment it looked like anger, for a moment you thought he might hit you.
But then you stepped closer and the anger melted away into concern. Into pity.
A colleague of Trevor’s gave him the name of the doctor.
You are lying in bed in a place called Martha’s Vineyard.
The doctor told Trevor that the sea air would be good for you.
But you’ve never seen the sea since you got here. You have seen only this room.
You only know the sea exists because of the salty scent that rides on the breeze.
The room is small. There is the bedside table where the nurses set down food and drink.
There is a desk in the corner with no ink, no papers. There is a shelf with no books.
There is the bed you lie in. You cannot leave the bed. You cannot leave the room.
Trevor didn’t tell you how long you would be sent away for.
He only kissed you on the forehead and told you to, “Get better soon, my love.”
You don’t know how long you’ve been gone.
There are no clocks in the room, nor any calendars.
But there is a tree outside you can see from your window.
You know when you arrived that its leaves were a crisp summer green.
Now they’ve begun to yellow at the edges.
You have not written since the leaves were green.
You have not read since the leaves were green.
You have not sketched or sewn or played piano.
You have not walked. You have not stood. You have not left your bed.
You have not spoken since the leaves were green.
The doctor walks in with the nurse behind him carrying a tray.
“Good Evening, Mrs. Walker,” he says.
He feels your forehead and the pulse on your wrist.
He looks at your eyes and inside your mouth.
He pokes and prods at you like a doll.
He drags over a chair, sits next to you and begins to write.
“You’re getting better,” he says.
He does not ask you how you feel.
When he leaves, the nurse takes his spot beside you.
She sets the tray down on the table, and the smell makes you nauseous.
And she looks at you the same way Trevor did when he decided to send you away.
Your eyes dart to the window. You pray the leaves are brown already, shriveling and blowing away with the wind.
You wiggle your toes under the blankets, praying you still know how.
And you use every bit of strength you can gather to keep your tears behind your eyes.
Because that is what got you here in the first place, isn’t it?
What I’ve just described is the rest cure, a popular psychological treatment for mental illness in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Beyond that, it is a prime example of extreme medical malpractice, abuse of patients, general disregard and disrespect of the mentally impaired, and an absolutely disgusting display of medical misogyny.
Today, I’d like to share with you my analysis of this practice, how it came to be, why it was so popular, and show how many of the sentiments behind it still linger today.
In the late nineteenth century, the rest cure was one of the most common treatments for hysteria, particularly among young women in the western world. The first step was to make arrangements for the patient to be moved away from their homes to somewhere unfamiliar and new. Typically these would be small towns with low elevation, often in river valleys or by the ocean. Beautiful, scenic places, though that wouldn’t matter much at all, because upon arrival, the patient would be confined to bed rest from anywhere between six weeks to several months–in certain cases. It was complete bed rest. Patients were not permitted to leave their beds, to walk, or to go outside. No reading, no writing, no sewing, painting, or other crafts. In many cases, speech was prohibited. As for food, patients were force-fed a high caloric diet as their only source of sustenance, designed to keep them lethargic.
By modern standards, this treatment is so clearly inhumane, and it leaves one to wonder how it came to be so widely accepted in the first place. The short answer is that it was effective, though not effective in the sense that it yielded a cure, effective in the sense that it yielded the desired behavior. I think about it this way: in a world where a woman’s opinion doesn’t matter and is scarcely heard, the threat of this treatment was akin to a threat of torture. It is less that the rest cure cured hysteria, but rather that it scared women into acting the way society thought they should behave, lest they wanted to endure the psychological torture of the rest cure. The problem: hysteria had a very fluid definition, so it was nearly impossible to predict how one was expected to behave.
Defining hysteria in the context of cultural and historical analysis is a complicated task, mainly because hysteria didn’t really refer to one specific condition, but was more of an umbrella term for any number of symptoms, conditions, and ailments. For example, possible symptoms of hysteria included depression, infertility, trouble sleeping, heightened anxiety, social ineptitude, and even an affinity for writing. In essence, any sort of behavior that might make men uncomfortable could be categorized as a symptom of hysteria. In some cases, women were experiencing conditions which we now know as PTSD, postpartum depression, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and many other mental and neurological disorders. In other cases, the behavior displayed by so-called hysterics was simply the natural reaction to an abusive living situation. No matter the cause, symptoms were almost always maladaptive, meaning they had significant effect on the daily lives of sufferers, and for a woman, seeking medical help was a gamble. Who knew what the doctor would do to you? At best, you’d be prescribed a tonic or advised to seek a broader social life. At worst, you’d be sentenced to a prison disguised as a bedroom.
Though my specific focus for this project has been the field of psychiatry, the medical mistreatment of women was rampant throughout many fields of medicine. Furthermore, general prejudice in the medical treatment of women has been present for the majority of recorded history, dating back as early to the time of the ancient Greeks. Many ancient cultures held the idea that women were inherently defective, and only paid attention to medical issues that had to do with reproductive processes. Though these are dated ideas, they still are rather prevalent in how we view modern medicine. Those who identify as women in the present day are far more likely to have serious illnesses misdiagnosed or played off as simply caused by stress and treated with a mild pain reliever or anti-depressant, rather than being given a full investigation and diagnosis. This is especially evident in diagnosis of chronic pain disorders and cancers. Not only does this ignorance cause significant unnecessary pain, it also causes many otherwise avoidable deaths.
History is about more than reading stories, more than memorizing dates and names. History is about understanding the motivations and fears that led the people of the past to make the decisions they did, no matter how awful the outcome. History is about empathy. History is about overcoming bias. History is about understanding, and it is crucial to understand ugly parts of history like this. It is our responsibility in society to know, to understand, to prevent; It is our responsibility to understand that without human intervention, we are doomed to repeat atrocities of the past over and over again. Usually, we don’t even notice we are doing it.
While the rest cure has been out of use for nearly a century, medical misogyny in psychiatry did not disappear with it, problematic tactics have simply evolved as our society has advanced.
On January 17th, 1946 Surgeon Walter Freeman performed the first transorbital lobotomy on Sallie Ionesco by driving a tool akin to an icepick through her eye socket and into her skull, severing brain connections. The result? A docile, submissive Sallie. Unable to focus, learn, or deeply feel anything. A robot housewife with seldom a complaint or opinion. A shell. The procedure became wildly popular even in minor cases. Many died from complications.
1950. The Soviet Union declares the Lobotomy unethical and bans the practice of it. Other world powers begin to follow suit. Though unpopular, lobotomies were performed in the United States well into the 1980s.
1954. Wallace Laboratories introduces meprobamate, the hot new sedative, and it’s profitable, very profitable. Suddenly the happy pill business is booming. Benzodiazepine hits the market. Then Valium. No one knows the long-term effects of these tranquilizers, but what they do know is that they make the housewives stop complaining, the children quit their tantrums, and life a little more tolerable. Doctors are handing them out like candy, and by the 70s, 20% of American women are being prescribed Valium each year, and 10% are addicted. Critics nickname the pills “emotional aspirin.” It takes away the pain for a little while, but it’s hardly a cure.
1978. Myrna Dennis had been a long time patient of her psychiatrist Dr. T. H. Allison. After thirteen years of seeing him, she was beaten, drugged, and raped by him an a Dallas Hotel. Afterwards she was completely abandoned by Dr. Allison, and checked into a mental hospital. The result: a Myrna more traumatized and broken then she was before her thirteen years of treatment. Cases of sexual abuse by mental health professionals became prevalent. Some psychiatrists used sex to hold power over their patients, threatening to have them admitted to hospitals or have custody of their children taken away if they would not comply. Others promised patients that sex could cure their ailments.
As we have grown to be a more empathetic and equitable society, significant progress has been made in the field of psychiatry regarding gender bias, both from a clinical and ethical perspective. It is why treatments like the rest cure are absolutely unthinkable today. But this does not mean problems do not still linger. Significant gender based bias has been observed in diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders for nearly fifty years, especially in personality disorders. It is a well known fact in the field that most diagnostic criteria are based on outdated studies which observed only the behavior of men. It is a well known fact in the field that personality disorders can display themselves in vastly different ways depending on gender. And yet there has been little significant change to account for these known biases.
Now, in the midst of an American mental health crisis, we must look at our past mistakes and learn from them. We must listen to the voices of those who are oppressed. The fight for gender equality in America is not over. Inequality can be sneaky-hiding deep down in the systems we are reliant on.
Author Interview – Caroline Morrison
Q: Please introduce yourself: What is your preferred name, pronouns, and major(s)/minor(s)?
A: My name is Caroline Morrison (she/her). I’m a double major in Psychology and English (Creative Writing) with a minor in Neuroscience.
Q: What inspired you to write about the rest cure?
A: The rest cure seems like a really specific topic, I know, but for me, it’s one of those rare places where some of my biggest academic interests—adult psychopathology, Victorian history, and Gothic literature—collide, and it’s actually something I’ve been interested in for a while. I remember reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” back in high school and being absolutely fascinated by the story, and Perkins Gilman’s own horrific experience with the rest cure. Because of its ties to literature, I thought it would be the perfect topic for me to use to experiment with a more creative style of rhetoric.
Q: What would you like Phoenix Rhetorix readers to remember about your piece after [reading/watching/listening] to it?
A: I’d like readers to remember that even though the rest cure had been out of practice for nearly a century, many other forms of oppressive medicine have been used against women and people with mental illness in years since. Remember that the most important part of historical analysis is the application to modern issues.
Q: How do you see your piece contributing to Elon’s ongoing conversations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion?
A: In the past few months conversations regarding women’s rights, specifically surrounding bodily autonomy, have been heated. I hope my piece can help remind people how inhumane it is, and how damaging it can be to take away one’s freedom over their own body regarding major medical events. I want this piece to shock you. I want this piece to disturb you. I want this piece to scare you. Notice where we are; see where we are headed.
Q: What writing and/or research skills did you develop in completing this piece?
A: While working on this piece, I learned a lot about integrating creative aspects into academic pieces. I think a lot of students have the idea that every project you work on in college needs to be almost overly formal. Personally, I think creativity is necessary for further advancement in academia.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?
A: You are always going to do your best work when you write about something you are truly passionate about. Sometimes that’s going to take quite a bit of extra work, but I promise it pays off when you have a finished project that you are genuinely proud of. Follow your heart; it’s not every day you have the space and resources to write something important to you.
ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Mason Hayes
Q: During your ENG 1100 class, what about Caroline’s piece stood out to you?
A: Easily my favorite part of Caroline’s project is her inventive use of stylistic elements (sound, music, and effects) to tell a story and make an argument in “Ain’t No Rest for the Hysteric.” Our 1100 class spent time discussing how publications reframe academic research for public audiences using different writing mediums–podcasting being one of them. But sometimes it can be overwhelming as a first-year writing student to fully embrace the writing tools available in the podcasting medium. Caroline showed a lot of motivation to make these tools work for her project, and I think the final product is a fantastic representation of what students can do with writing outside of print.
Q: How did this piece evolve as Caroline completed this course assignment?
A: “Ain’t No Rest for the Hysteric” started as a pretty standard research assignment–students were required to compile literature from mainstream and academic sources to inform a larger argument or position on a topic of significance to them. Then, after all the research was finished, a second project required them to rework their research for public audiences. Caroline said she was interested in combining creative writing with her research really early in the process (which I was really excited about). Then, once we talked about podcasting in class, it seemed like her method for talking about misogyny in psychiatric care was totally set.
Q: Did Caroline face any particular challenges with this assignment? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?
A: Caroline’s work on this project was very independent. The biggest challenge we personally discussed was feeling justified in taking a “creative” approach to communicating research–I think a lot of students enter classes like 1100 with a sense that they shouldn’t take risks. But after volunteering for some workshop sessions and getting feedback from me and our class, it seemed like Caroline knew where she wanted to take her ideas. I think Caroline’s work here is great proof that trying something different can really pay off.
Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with Caroline on this project?
A: Being approached with new and exciting directions for a project is one of my favorite types of conversations to have with students. There were a handful of times when I remember Caroline asking about small ways she might make interesting changes to her project, or ways that our assignment requirements could better reflect her work, and I’m glad she did. In the end, the most rewarding part was seeing all of her questions and suggestions come to fruition when her final project was turned in–being able to experience her podcast and remembering when some of the ideas arose in our class was really fun.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?
A: Writing projects in the ENG 1100 course can and should be personally fulfilling, so never be afraid to ask your instructor about trying something new or different. Some of the best work I’ve received (as evidenced by this podcast) comes from students who are willing to learn new skill sets and communicate with me about risks and creative choices they want to make in their writing. Try the ideas you’re not sure about and know that your instructor is probably really excited to encourage you.