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• Pouring cold water on media hysteria.

By Helen Hunt Jackson.


PHYSICIANS TELL US THAT  there is no known disease, no known symptom of disease, which hysteria cannot and does not counterfeit. Most skilful surgeons are misled by its cunning into believing and pronouncing able-bodied young women to be victims of spinal disease, “stricture of the œsophagus,” “gastrodynia,” “paraplegia,” “hemiplegia,” and hundreds of other affections, with longer or shorter names. Families are thrown into disorder and distress; friends suffer untold pains of anxiety and sympathy; doctors are summoned from far and near; and all this while the vertebra, or the membrane, or the muscle, as it may be, which is so honestly believed to be diseased, and which shows every symptom of diseased action or inaction, is sound and strong, and as well able as ever it was to perform its function.

The common symptoms of hysteria everybody is familiar with,–the crying and laughing in inappropriate places, the fancied impossibility of breathing, and so forth,–which make such trouble and mortification for the embarrassed companions of hysterical persons; and which, moreover, can be very easily suppressed by a little wholesome severity, accompanied by judicious threats or sudden use of cold water. But few people know or suspect the number of diseases and conditions, supposed to be real, serious, often incurable, which are simply and solely, or in a great part, undetected hysteria. This very ignorance on the part of friends and relatives makes it almost impossible for surgeons and physicians to treat such cases properly. The probabilities are, in nine cases out of ten, that the indignant family will dismiss, as ignorant or hard-hearted, any practitioner who tells them the unvarnished truth, and proposes to treat the sufferer in accordance with it.

In the field of literature we find a hysteria as widespread, as undetected, as unmanageable as the hysteria which skulks and conquers in the field of disease.

Its commoner outbreaks everybody knows by sight and sound, and everybody except the miserably ignorant and silly despises. Yet there are to be found circles which thrill and weep in sympathetic unison with the ridiculous joys and sorrows, grotesque sentiments, and preposterous adventures of the heroes and heroines of the “Dime Novels” and novelettes, and the “Flags” and “Blades” and “Gazettes” among the lowest newspapers. But in well-regulated and intelligent households, this sort of writing is not tolerated, any more than the correlative sort of physical phenomenon would be,–the gasping, shrieking, sobbing, giggling kind of behavior in a man or woman.

BUT THERE IS ANOTHER and more dangerous working of the same thing; deep, unsuspected, clothing itself with symptoms of the most defiant genuineness, it lurks and does its business in every known field of composition. Men and women are alike prone to it, though its shape is somewhat affected by sex.

John (above), Al (below).

Among men it breaks out often, perhaps oftenest, in violent illusions on the subject of love. They assert, declare, shout, sing, scream that they love, have loved, are loved, do and for ever will love, after methods and in manners which no decent love ever thought of mentioning. And yet, so does their weak violence ape the bearing of strength, so much does their cheat look like truth, that scores, nay, shoals of human beings go about repeating and echoing their noise, and saying, gratefully, “Yes, this is love; this is, indeed, what all true lovers must know.”

These are they who proclaim names of beloved on house-tops; who strip off veils from sacred secrets and secret sacrednesses, and set them up naked for the multitude to weigh and compare. What punishment is for such beloved, Love himself only knows. It must be in store for them somewhere. Dimly one can suspect what it might be; but it will be like all Love’s true secrets,–secret for ever.

These men of hysteria also take up specialties of art or science; and in their behoof rant, and exaggerate, and fabricate, and twist, and lie in such stentorian voices that reasonable people are deafened and bewildered.

They also tell common tales in such enormous phrases, with such gigantic structure of rhetorical flourish, that the mere disproportion amounts to false-hood; and, the diseased appetite in listeners growing more and more diseased, feeding on such diseased food, it is impossible to predict what it will not be necessary for story-mongers to invent at the end of a century or so more of this.

Westboro Baptists.

BUT THE WORST MANIFESTATIONS of this disease are found in so-called religious writing. Theology, biography, especially autobiography, didactic essays, tales with a moral,–under every one of these titles it lifts up its hateful head. It takes so successfully the guise of genuine religious emotion, religious experience, religious zeal, that good people on all hands weep grateful tears as they read its morbid and unwholesome utterances. Of these are many of the long and short stories setting forth in melodramatic pictures exceptionally good or exceptionally bad children; or exceptionally pathetic and romantic careers of sweet and refined Magdalens; minute and prolonged dissections of the processes of spiritual growth; equally minute and authoritative formulas for spiritual exercises of all sorts,–”manuals of drill,” so to speak, or “field tactics” for souls. Of these sorts of books, the good and the bad are almost indistinguishable from each other, except by the carefullest attention and the finest insight; overwrought, unnatural atmosphere and meaningless, shallow routine so nearly counterfeit the sound and shape of warm, true enthusiasm and wise precepts.

Where may be the remedy for this widespread and widely spreading disease among writers we do not know. It is not easy to keep up courageous faith that there is any remedy. Still Nature abhors noise and haste, and shams of all sorts. Quiet and patience are the great secrets of her force, whether it be a mountain or a soul that she would fashion. We must believe that sooner or later there will come a time in which silence shall have its dues, moderation be crowned king of speech, and melodramatic, spectacular, hysterical language be considered as disreputable as it is silly. But the most discouraging feature of the disease is its extreme contagiousness. All physicians know what a disastrous effect one hysterical patient will produce upon a whole ward in a hospital. We remember hearing a young physician once give a most amusing account of a woman who was taken to Bellevue Hospital for a hysterical cough. Her lungs, bronchia, throat, were all in perfect condition; but she coughed almost incessantly, especially on the approach of the hour for the doctor’s visit to the ward. In less than one week half the women in the ward had similar coughs. A single–though it must be confessed rather terrific–application of cold water to the original offender worked a simultaneous cure upon her and all of her imitators.

NOT LONG AGO A very parallel thing was to be observed in the field of story-writing. A clever, though morbid and melodramatic writer published a novel, whose heroine, having once been an inmate of a house of ill-fame, escaped, and, finding shelter and Christian training in the home of a benevolent woman, became a model of womanly delicacy, and led a life of exquisite and artistic refinement. As to the animus and intent of this story there could be no doubt; both were good, but in atmosphere and execution it was essentially unreal, overwrought, and melodramatic. For three or four months after its publication there was a perfect outburst and overflow in newspapers and magazines of the lower order of stories, all more or less bad, some simply outrageous, and all treating, or rather pretending to treat, the same problem which had furnished theme for that novel.

Probably a close observation and collecting of the dreary statistics would bring to light a curious proof of the extent and certainty of this sort of contagion.

Reflecting on it, having it thrust in one’s face at every book-counter, railway-stand, Sunday-school library, and parlor centre-table, it is hard not to wish for some supernatural authority to come sweeping through the wards, and prescribe sharp cold-water treatment all around to half drown all such writers and quite drown all their books!

Helen Hunt Jackson is the celebrated author of Ramona. This essay appeared under the title ‘Hysteria in Literature’ in Bits about Home Matters (1873), her first book.

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