Rebecca Dunham on Hysteria

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Dunham, author of “Glass Armonica,” 2013 Spring winning poetry piece. Excerpted in the print issue, read the entire poem here.

In the winter of 2012, the story of the girls of Le Roy, New York was all over the news. In this small town, there was an inexplicable outbreak at the local high school, with over 18 students (mainly girls) afflicted by stuttering, strange tics, and uncontrollable convulsions of the limbs and head. Some traced the cause back to a 1970 train accident in Le Roy that released toxic chemicals into the soil. Others noted the “sticky orange substance oozing out of the playing field,” natural gas wells on school property, and toxic waste clean-up sites within a few miles of the school.

I followed the story avidly, intrigued by similarities to the infamous Salem witch trials (as a New Englander, I’ve had a longstanding interest in these). Eventually most doctors diagnosed the outbreak as a mass “conversion disorder” and went on morning news shows and talk shows explaining the diagnosis. What is conversion disorder? Although none of the experts used the word, it is essentially a newfangled way of referring to hysteria.  In other words, it was all in their heads.

The poetic sequence “Glass Armonica” developed out of my research into historical notions of hysteria and the treatments administered by doctors (including ovariectomy, pelvic massage, and vaginally-inserted devices used to produce “hysterical paroxysm”). I sought to merge the evolution of hysteria as a diagnosis – with a specifically female etiology – and the voice of a contemporary speaker diagnosed with conversion disorder. Even the etymology of the word hysteric traces its roots to the Latin hystericus, meaning “belonging to the womb.” Within this sequence, Mary Glover’s case is central because it was in relation to her case that Edward Jorden first produced a pamphlet spelling out the etiology and symptoms of “a disease called the Suffocation of the Mother.” According to Jorden, hysteria was the result of an afflicted uterus.

Franz Mesmer was also known for his treatment of hysterics. He believed that through the manipulation of magnetic forces/fluid, he could heal his patients. He often played an instrument called a glass armonica during these sessions. Mesmer’s most famous patient was the blind pianist, Maria Theresia Paradis, who – as a result of his “laying-on of hands” – announced that she could see.

During my research on the subject I happened upon a book called Invention of Hysteria by Georges Didi-Huberman. Didi-Huberman gathers together photographs taken in the late nineteenth century at the Salpêtrière hospital of Paris. The Salpêtrière is notorious for having housed insane and incurable women patients, “hysterics.” Under the direction of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the inmates were photographed to provide evidence of hysteria’s specific form and diagnostic criteria. One of Charcot’s favorite cases, and among the most frequently photographed, was Augustine. She later escaped the Salpêtrière hospital, and lived out the rest of her life disguised as a man.

My hope in “Glass Armonica” is to complicate notions of women’s health that are too often considered to be “all in the patient’s head.” This is not limited to something as rare as conversion disorder; many illnesses that disproportionately afflict women have been similarly characterized (fibromyalgia comes to mind). As a feminist poet, my experience of the world as a woman is inseparable from my identity as a writer. The gift of literature is its ability to help readers actually experience and connect with new points of view. At its best, good writing can change us, and change the way we interact with the world long after the text has been finished. That would be my hope for any poem that I am able to send out into the world.


To learn more about Rebecca Dunham, visit her at








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