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Breger, L. (2015). Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, by Asti Hustvedt, Norton, New York, 2011, 384 pp.. Psychodyn. Psych., 43(4):665-673.

(2015). Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 43(4):665-673

Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, by Asti Hustvedt, Norton, New York, 2011, 384 pp.

Review by:
Louis Breger, Ph.D.

The “medical muses” of Asti Hustvedt's captivating book are three famous hysterics, studied by Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetriere hospital in the 1880s. If the reader is aware of any of this it is probably because Sigmund Freud was a visiting physician at the hospital in 1885 and was very taken with what he observed there, as well as with Charcot: the most renowned neurologist in Europe. Hustvedt—whose Ph.D. is in French literature—became interested in hysteria as she encountered it in 19th-century French archives and decided to research and write about the patients themselves, thinking she would find women victimized by misogynistic, tyrannical men. What she discovered was far more nuanced and complex and the value of her thoroughly researched book is to spell this out in detail.

One might ask why readers today would want to learn about these women who lived more than a hundred years before psychoanalysis and our present understanding of mental illness and the many forms of treatment now available. A study of the 19th-century world of hysteria will reveal that much of what Charcot—and later Freud—struggled to understand is still with us. Hustvedt discusses all this from a bio-psycho-social point of view; that is, she examines the medical side of these women's illnesses, presents a clear picture of their history and experience, as well as a detailed description of the social world of the Salpetriere hospital. Her book is a model for work with many forms of psychological disturbance, both then and now.

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