Was Hysteria Ever A Real Mental Condition?

Was Hysteria Ever A Real Mental Condition?

and Why Did Keira Knightley Study Old Films for Hysteria for Her Role in "A Dangerous Method"?

The LA Times has the low-down on a few movies centering on mental illness including “A Dangerous Method” starring Keira Knightley which focuses on the mental illnesses of one woman back when “hysteria” was a serious mental condition. To prepare for her role in “A Dangerous Method,” Director David Croneberg had Knightley watch old movies in which the female characters had been diagnosed with hysteria.

As director David Cronenberg describes it: "Hysteria has pretty much been either medicated away or the conditions that gave rise to it — repression and shame and the fear of making a misstep in a very rigid society — no longer exist."

Hysteria no longer exists as a diagnosis, and for good reason: many now view the diagnosis of hysteria as a way for men in the past to control and subjugate women. The idea that hysteria no longer exists because women are no longer so repressed is only partially correct; mainly, hysteria does not exist any longer because men are not allowed to lock women up in mental hospitals (or their bedrooms as in the case of the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”) for having more emotional reactions than men do.

Some of the conditions that were considered to be signs of hysteria included irritability, a slightly swollen stomach, and a tendency to cause trouble. To me, the first two signs mentioned above sound strangely similar to the conditions used to diagnose PMS. The last symptom, of course, sounds like it must have been a convenient excuse for a man to get his wife out of the way.

Several specific diagnoses have popped up which relate to both men and women and seem to fit the descriptions of actual hysteria. Again, the entire hysteria diagnosis was only from a male’s perspective; that I know of, there weren’t any diagnoses for men with too much aggression, for example.

I first learned of hysteria when I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” in school; in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a woman slowly goes insane in her bedroom (where she is incidentally locked up) and starts peeling off the wallpaper in her room. Whenever I read this for school, the woman’s condition was also described as “hysteria” and was taught as a way to show the differences between the psychiatric diagnoses of the past and today.

The film “A Dangerous Method” looks a little different; the story centers on the main character’s sexuality more than anything else. I'm not expecting anything resembling a realistic portrayal of what mental illness looks like from the outside.