November 4, 2011


Made to Disorder: When mental disorders are a cultural product. (Jessa Crispin, 10/28/11, Smart Set)

Back in the 1980s, multiple personality disorder was a thing. The thing. You don't hear so much about it today; it's like we all woke up one day and thought, right, probably not possible after all, let's move on. But when MPD was hot, it wasn't just something to be burdened with, a problem to be overcome: It was something to be proud of. Look at how complex you are, you contain multitudes, literally! Gloria Steinem called MPD "a gift." As Debbie Nathan tells it in Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case, after the disorder became an official diagnosis in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hundreds of thousands of MPD diagnoses were made. Psychiatrists were calling it an epidemic; they claimed that potentially millions of Americans (mostly women) had this affliction/gift.

At the base of this disorder was abuse. Abuse so intense and dramatic that it was wiped from victims' memory but still shattered their psyches. From the mid-1980s to the early '90s, on Oprah, on Sally Jessy Raphael, on Maury, on Geraldo, doctors and victims and Satanic specialists told us that our country was in the grips of a devilish epidemic. Underground cults were ritualistically abusing the nation's children; black magic gatherings were slaughtering untold numbers of newborn babies (the ever-renewable source of newborn babies was never revealed). This had been discovered not through forensic evidence, but through memories recovered, a great many of them from multiple personality disorder patients.

But there was also something else at the base of this disorder. It was the strange and mysterious dynamic between analyst and analyzed, between healer and patient.

If you remove any details that reveal time or place, stories of fragile, impressionable young girls who go into psychiatric treatment for mysterious ailments begin to sound oddly similar. As so often happens when you're chasing a historic mystery, one story tugs on another, and women through time find themselves in the same situation over and over again -- the dress and setting is different, but they are all essentially playing the same role. The symptoms and the diagnoses of the frightened patients may change from idiopathic paralysis to blackouts, and the treatment from ovarian compressions to psychotropic medication, but a pattern emerges nonetheless.

So Blanche in Asti Hustvedt's Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris became Alice James in late 19th-century Boston in Jean Strouse's biography. They both became Sybil in 1970s New York City, and also Erika and Julie Ingram in 1988 Olympia, Washington in Lawrence Wright's Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory. Hustvedt notes the strange contagious properties of these disorders, and how quickly a mental illness -- something that is supposed to be innate, a "chemical imbalance" with biological roots -- can become a cultural fad. "As was true for hysteria, these contemporary disorders [anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation, chronic fatigue syndrome, and multiple personality disorder] are thought to be contagious, spread by suggestion, imitation, and therapy." And like hysteria, which was all the rage in the 19th century, multiple personality disorder and recovered memories swept through the lives of a great number of girls and women before disappearing almost completely. After all, no one comes down with a case of hysteria anymore.

We learn how to be mad, the same way we learn how to be male or female, or how we learn how to participate in society. We look to others we respect and imitate their behaviors. We follow the instructions of teachers and parents, and we are subtly punished or rewarded for various quirks until we learn to mold ourselves in a certain way to avoid responses we don't like and attain the responses we do. 

And the beauty of it for the fadists is that nowadays lots of money and drugs flow to you if you--or your child--have some cooked up syndrome--ADHD, Asperger, etc..

Posted by at November 4, 2011 5:47 AM

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