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Cappello, M. (1988). Alice James: “Neither Dead nor Recovered”. Am. Imago, 45(2):127-162.

(1988). American Imago, 45(2):127-162

Alice James: “Neither Dead nor Recovered”

Mary Cappello

I. Illness and Femininity; Hysteria and Writing

As I listen to the work of particular women who have achieved voice in twentieth century English-speaking culture, Plath, Sexton, and Woolf, for example, I am led to the question of whether a woman can do the new things with words that her self-expression calls for without getting ill or being perceived as ill; and, further, if she can make the necessary aesthetic gesture that compels her toward a new position in the community, in language, and stay alive. It is a general question for now, but it grows, for me, out of the particular phenomenon of hysteria as recorded in case studies and diaries of the nineteenth century.

Hysteria, the elusive playing out of often untranslatable signifiers on the female body, stands (or, more often, lies, writhing or numb) as a representation of what a woman could or couldn't, would or wouldn't, say. Hysteria is an outcome of the simultaneous compulsion toward and deflection of the position of object in a culture's definition of desire. Consequently, it gives birth to a “talking cure”: a dialogue between circumvention and discovery; between the patient as analyst and the analyst as patient; between a new kind of patient and a revolutionary healer.

Since nineteenth century physicians named the womb as cause of all female ailments, it is not surprising that this nebulous “new” neuro-physio-psychological disorder would be called “hysteria.”

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