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van der Hart, O. (2016). Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris (2011) by Asti Hustvedt, published by Norton (Paperback edition, 2012, Bloomsbury). Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 10(2):161-166.

(2016). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 10(2):161-166

Book Reviews

Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris (2011) by Asti Hustvedt, published by Norton (Paperback edition, 2012, Bloomsbury)

Review by:
Onno van der Hart

Medical Muses describes the case histories of Jean-Martin Charcot's three famous women patients in the Salpêtrière, Paris, during the second half of the nineteenth century. After this book was recommended to me, looked for readers' comments on line and was struck by the fact that it had evoked highly polarised reactions. With hardly any middle ground, approximately half of the reviews were extremely negative and the other half completely positive. Something must be the matter, then, I thought. One thing became clear immediately: all the negative ones, often including coarse language, were submitted first. They give the impression that a rather organised campaign was made against the author's suggestion, at the end of her book, that present day ME-CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis-chronic fatigue syndrome), among a few other illnesses, might be a successor to nineteenth century hysteria.

An independent scholar with a PhD in French literature from New York University, Asti Hustvedt has thoroughly studied these patients' published and unpublished case histories, medical archives, relevant French nineteenth century literature, and a number of other sources. She delved into the history of this period of French psychiatry, including the organisation and functioning of Charcot's neurology ward at the Salpêtrière. Central to the book are the sad but also fascinating case histories of these three “medical muses”, Blanche Wittmann, Augustine Gleizes, and Geneviève Legrand. The author describes their severely traumatic childhood histories and subsequent painful lives before being admitted to the Salpêtrière (Blanche at the age of eighteen, Augustine at the age of fourteen, and Geneviève at the age of sixteen), adding as much detail of their life circumstances as she could find.


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