The female hysteric represents an extraordinarily complicated type, of a completely particular and excessively versatile nature, remarkable for her spirit of duplicity, lying, and simulation. With an essentially perverse nature, the hysteric seeks to fool those around her, in the same way that she has impulses that push her to steal, to falsely accuse, to set things on fire.
—Gilles de la Tourette, Traité clinique et thérapeutique de l’hystérie d’après l’enseignement de la Salpêtrière, 1891
In the Before
The color of the era of psychiatry, that science of the soul, is red. The red of longing, the red of sex and fantasy sex. The red of love alleged to reside in the heart, which, so we’ve been told, is also red, though who of us has seen a heart? The color of the era of soul science is red, though in the before we didn’t yet think in eras. For a short while, we didn’t think about sex either. Instead, we listened for the names our mothers and fathers called us: mon petit chou, ma chérie, ma poulette, ma puce, ma bichette, mon bichon, mon bout de chou, ma poupée, ma princesse. After the short while ended, there were the names men, some of them our lovers, called us: mon coeuer, mon lapin, mon ange, mon amour, mon chaton, mon loulou, ma moitié, mon doudou, ma chérie, mon lapin, and others we will never tell you. Here, those of us not yet fluent in the language of hysteria, the language of our pain—amorous supplications, eroticism, ecstasy, hallucinations, crucifixion, mockery, menace, the cry, et cetera—have no names. Those who have mastered that language are the prettiest or the most ecstatic, the doctors’ best girls, until another best girl comes along. The best girls are lifted up out of the crowd and slipped between clean sheets in a private room where there are windows to open and close, and quiet to hear their thoughts. We, the unfluent, the unbest, are the left-behind crowd, a jumble of limbs, a tangle of unwashed hair, the smell of dirt in the creases of the backs of knees, the damp rust smell of blood when we bleed, though some of us never begin. In other words, our indistinction distinguishes us.
Sometimes we hold hands to feel the difference between us. This body, that body. Sometimes, those of us who can write use our fingers to trace the names we tell no one on each other’s backs the way the doctors sometimes write on our skin the name of what ails us, or their own names, or the name of the hospital. Bright red lines rise to meet the metal of the knife tracing letters on our skin. Our blood writes itself from the inside out, the words become scars, the scars disappear. When we trace our secret names on each other’s backs, we do not draw blood. If only we had knives. Those of us who can’t write letters trace shapes—circles or squares or ones we’ve invented—that ask questions designed to bring each other closer. Sometimes we use our mouths. Down the staircase of a spine: where you are from, did it smell like chicory and anise? Over the curve of an ass: what did your mother’s voice sound like? Down one thigh: when you were a child, what was the first thing you saw when you woke up? Up the other: what was the last thing you saw before you went to sleep? We use our tongues in the warm wet folds our lovers in the before called la chatte, la foufanne, le kiki, or maybe there were no lovers, only men who rooted around like the doctors as if it were a treasure chest down there, or a myth, and not an everyday fact. The doctors root and root, looking for science or treasure or the Holy Grail. They don’t find anything with their rough, unspecific hands. That’s not true. Some days, a doctor surprises us, his fingers asking who are you where did you come from why why why. Our hands, our tongues are rough, but they are specific—what does your joy sound like what does your childhood smell like how does your sadness taste. Our fingers make words, our tongues repeat them. Then there are days we are too tired to muster the desire to desire.
When we arrived, the doctors told us Christ bled from his right side. Why then did He bleed from His left side where He hung on the cross over the door into the amphitheater? Was it a trick? Look again, they said, but there wasn’t time to look again, and we weren’t the best girls, so we didn’t have occasion to ever walk again underneath Christ bleeding from whichever side, into the amphitheater to perform the language of our pain. The proof of our illness was an invisible lesion on our brain; the language of our pain needed to be abundantly clear.
We, the unbest, may have never seen the amphitheater door again, but in the before we saw many doors. Endless doors: broken-down doors, doors we broke down, doors we crawled, walked, sashayed, were coaxed, led, dragged through. Once we walked through the door into the era of soul science, doors began shutting all around us, and then they disappeared. Those doors that led all sorts of places, where did they go? Where did it go, the land of doors? Sometimes still, in the jumbled, tangled, blurry dark, a door takes shape, a door swings open, and an I breaks free. Maybe that I lived by the coast and swam in the sounding sea. The door slams shut and is sucked back into the darkness. Where did it go?
In the before, sometimes our mothers were women who walked through doors and gave birth out of wedlock, and then we were foundlings, whose tendency for deviance came from our deviant mothers. Enfants trouvées, found children, though had we ever been lost? When you are in your own life, you are not lost at all. You are in the middle of it. Our bodies, we are in them. Our bodies, here they are, still, and we are here, still in them. In the before, sometimes we were foundlings carried through town hall doors where we were given names—Anne, Josephine, Margaux, Pauline, Thérèse, Valerie, Virginie, Zoé, Marie, and names we have forgotten. We were named in front of whoever was on hand. A cobbler, a tailor, a candlestick maker, the mayor of such and such small town; witnesses to make our names real. Yes, she is called this. She is called that. Yes, that is her. Her and her and her. In the before, sometimes we were born the posthumous child of a miller and sent to a farm in rural Marçay to a foster family who received the usual government payment of eighty-four francs per year for taking in a foundling. To protect a foundling from her innate tendency toward deviance, the family was told, put her to work until she turns eight. When we turned nine, sometimes we were deemed too old for foster care, and back we went through the doors of the foundling home. Lost and found and lost again. Sometimes we were sent back through the doors of the nunnery, because the mother superior wanted more hands for the manufacturing of sheets. In the before, sometimes we were sent through the doors of a kind widow at the center of Poitiers, where we learned to sew, and then the widow, finding her widowhood unbearable, died.
Sometimes in the before, we were never lost to our parents, who were brushmakers or storekeepers or grain and fodder merchants or worked in the factories or worked by the river doing laundry. We lived close to the Seine, easier to walk out the door and carry the loads of laundry, or we did not live close to the Seine, or our mothers were pretty enough or there was something else about them as alluring as prettiness or maybe it was just that they were women. Whatever it was, the dock workers held open another door, offering them different work than carrying loads of laundry. Sometimes we lived in an apartment above the hardware store where all day long we listened to talk of nails and cookware. Or we lived in an apartment behind the hardware store where the bedroom was dark and windowless and the walls of the kitchen were black from the stove, and our mothers were too tired to clean or whitewash, because all day they cleaned and whitewashed someone else’s kitchen walls. We slept in attic beds on poorly joined planks, the wind blowing through the roof, rattling the string of onions hung in a corner. Or we slept somewhere else entirely. In the before, maybe we lived in the city, under open gutters pouring shit into the streets. Or we lived in the country, where we strung out rope to dry our clothes; when they were too heavy they fell into the vegetable garden and we had to start over, wash them again.
Sometimes in the before we were girls who hated waking up, and our mothers pulled us out of bed, stood us up, sent us out the door with knitting—twenty rows on that sock before you play—for our walk to the school that was too far to attend regularly. Sometimes we were the girl who put the knitting in her bag and forgot about it, distracted by the whip she brought along to crack at the branches of the walnut tree to make the nuts fall into her apron so she could eat them later when she was in the meadow grazing the cows, Bardella the spotted one and Sarina the black one. When she walked through the school door, Delphine was her one friend, Louise the other, though sometimes she called Delphine Bardella and Louise Sarina, Bardella Louise and Sarina Delphine. Sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, because she loved the cows that much, because she loved her friends that much.
Sometimes restlessness made us naughty, or we suffered from utopian urges, which made us restless too. Or we mostly behaved and then, because we were used to the country and running with the cows and the other girls, we got pins and needles from sitting too long. Our mothers sent us out the door with jump ropes to jump the pins and needles out, and when that didn’t work we walked around the courtyard and forgot to return to class and the sister would bang on the window. Sometimes, for punishment, she would put us in a dark room behind a closed door. Sometimes we were the girl who was put in the dark room where there were several baskets of cherries, who was careful to even out the tops so no one would notice the ones she stole, who swallowed the pits. Sometimes the sister would say to our mothers, she’s such a good student, if she would only sit still.
Sometimes our mothers thought it was the saint’s illness that gave us pains in our legs. They would soak ivy leaves, placing a mark on each leaf to know which saint. The leaf that came out spotted after the soaking was our saint; our mothers would do a novena to that one. One leaf, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows; a second, Our Lady of the Willows; a third, Saint Jean. Sometimes our mothers made us wear violet. Were our pains cured from the syrup the doctors gave us, the novenas, or the violet-colored clothes our mothers made us wear? We didn’t care, after the pains were gone, what it was that made them go.
Sometimes our mothers would send food—sausage, eggs, potatoes—for the weeks at school when we stayed over. If we were lucky, out the door with a stack of waffles. At school, we all washed our hands and feet in the same enormous earthenware pot. Hands and feet, hands and feet, hands and feet, until the water was black. When we turned ten, it was time to learn the catechism, time for our first communion. Some of us left school because of an infestation that destroyed the crops. Some of us took work behind the doors of the silk factory, where we listened all day to the sound of the tavelles, the skeins of silk winding round and round. The trick was to unreel the skein without breaking the thread. Sometimes we were the girl who wanted a clean apron but her mother wouldn’t give her one, because her mother suspected her dirty aprons were the reason she didn’t throw herself into the river after the sheriff took the furniture when her father could not pay the rent and she was left sleeping on boards. It was true. She didn’t want to be found dead wearing a filthy apron.
The Dull Stage of Reality
Although at first an inert, plastic mass of flesh and bones . . . the cataleptic subject allows herself to be molded at the will of her operator. She becomes a soft wax figure on which the most fantastic emotions can be imprinted, she is an automaton capable of being animated.
—Dr. Foveau de Courmelles, L’hypnotisme, 1890
The color of the era of soul science is red. The red of murder. The doctors want us to kill them, endlessly, in a million different ways for a million different reasons. Here is a pistol, here is a vial of poison, here is a bludgeon. Pull the trigger, offer the vial, swing the bludgeon. Here is a man who has disgraced you; here, a man who has caused a falling out with your family; here, a man who has abandoned you and left you all alone, more alone than you have ever been or ever will be, they say, then gather around us groups of men. Who are they? Doctors, journalists, photographers. Murder, poison, bludgeon? No problem. Our murders are famous. Before we pull the trigger, offer the vial, raise the bludgeon, whichever man they point to asks for a kiss. Just one kiss. They like a little cat and mouse. The man thinks he is the cat, but he is wrong. After the murder, men who play the role of magistrates are called in to deliver imaginary justice. They wake us from our trances, whispering to one another, What actresses! As successful with comedy as with tragedy on the dull stage of reality. We understand the competition, but what is the prize?
When they hypnotize us, ammonia becomes rosewater, charcoal becomes chocolate, a top hat becomes a baby to be cradled. We drink, we eat, we rock our long-lost babies from the before. Their questions never have to do with the before. What before? What is the question? We are never sure, only that they have one and they have an answer too. To be hypnotizable is proof of the invisible lesions on our brains and so, proof of our hysteria.
In the before, when we were daughters of all sorts of people, who themselves were the sons and daughters of all sorts of people, people who had crawled through doors—broken doors, doors they broke down, and so on and what not—there was no proof of anything.
In the before, sometimes our parents sent us off to be domestics. They hoped for us, their children, that we might be the faithful not the fallen kind. The faithful kind put away savings for a dowry, made a good prospect for a shopkeeper or an artisan, received a pension. If we were no prospect for a shopkeeper or an artisan, maybe we would make another kind of good prospect, a grisette, provide company for a student come to the city from the provinces. They never hoped, at least not out loud, that we would make our way to the Lorette quarter of Notre Dame and become a lorette, someone’s pleasure in return for this or that gift, usually a meal or money. Our parents hoped for the dowry, the shopkeeper or the artisan, the pension, but what is hope if not desire and trust? Who can afford that? Hope was a luxury our parents afforded themselves, a luxury they could not afford, and still. They hoped so that we might begin with hope. We hoped to be faithful, not fallen. Who sets out to be fallen? None of us wanted to fall, but then we were falling.
Our parents knew that no matter our age, no matter whether we were faithful or fallen or faithfully fallen, we would be counted as minors, treated legally as such, and when we died, no matter who counted us or how, our bodies would be unclaimed, our graves unmarked, occasionally watery. Our mothers who did laundry by the Seine, and we who worked alongside our mothers, had seen bodies like ours floating by. Femme isolée meant both a prostitute and an independent seamstress. The confusion deliberate; there was no confusion. We would never be free, especially if we were free.
In the just before, sometimes a Monsieur B. or a Monsieur G. or a Monsieur L., Messieurs A.–Z., requested us in their homes for our young, strong girl bodies. A gaggle, a charm, a flock, a plump, a wedge, a team, a pride, a gulp, a tittering, a tribe of young, strong girl bodies slipping through those doors. A city of girls, a city of doors. We were dragged, shoved, pushed through bedroom doors into the beds we made with the sheets we washed in the homes of Monsieur B. or G. or L., Messieurs A.–Z. Dragged, shoved, pushed by the man of the house, whose wife hated us more than he did, especially if there was an unwanted pregnancy. Who wants an unwanted pregnancy? Back out through the doors we went—dragged, pushed, shoved.
In the just before, we lay on beds for hours as if nailed to the cross; or we had sex with Jesus; or we were paralyzed from the waist down; or we bounced off walls in our mania until the factory owners or the nuns or our mothers and fathers were obliged to tie us up; or, when we could not find a razor or scissors to make ourselves bleed, we used our teeth; or we touched ourselves in public and laughed because it felt good and because it was outrageous. There were so many ways we didn’t make sense.
Sometimes when the doctors hypnotize us, they don’t want us to kill them endlessly. Sometimes they want other things. Sometimes they want what Messieurs A.–Z. wanted but disguise it as science. Kiss the bust of a famous dead doctor, kiss the hospital priest, kiss the wax model of one of the women just like you. Undress and take a bath in this bucket that is a bathtub. Again, we understand the competition, but what is the prize? Sometimes it is an ill-lit corner of the before, suddenly alight. Sometimes we are the hypnotized girl down the middle of whose body they draw a precise median line, a border, her body two nations, each with its own doctor playing the role of its husband caressing, careful to caress his side of the border, his nation. A mariage à trois, they call it, and she tries and tries to send herself into the before and then there she is—a cuckoo’s call, the first sound in the spring when she woke up, before the church bells, before her father died and her mother sent her to the city to be a seamstress. Everyone is alive, cuckoo, cuckoo. She is quite modest, but look, look how she receives this with pleasure, a third doctor observing the caressing husbands says, and the bird cuckoos, and the river rushes fierce as rain, and it is morning, the day just beginning, and she is just beginning, the bird calling her down to the river’s edge, where she dips her hand in the shocking cold water, and the light wanders over her, wanders over the water, but when a set of hands wander across the line, she slaps the face to whom the hand belongs.
And you thought she wasn’t paying attention, the slapped doctor says. She removes her blouse, leaving her corset. Let them wander that cage; let her get back to the water, but then one set of hands unlaces the corset. When she wakes up in an armchair, her corset is gone. The bird too.
Smell the ammonia rosewater, eat the charcoal chocolate. Rock your baby, the doctors say. Tenderly we rock our long-lost babies; when we wake up, they are top hats.
The walls, and even the ceilings, were decorated with anatomy drawings, paintings, etchings, and photographs depicting patients alone or in groups, naked or dressed, seated, lying down, or standing. Sometimes the images depicted one or two legs, a hand, a torso, or another body part.
—Joseph Delboeuf, “Une visite à la Salpêtrière,” 1886
The color of the era of soul science is red, the red of the desire to look and the desire to measure. The distance between the desire to look and the desire to measure? Immeasurable. The photography annex of the hospital in Paris is grand: the glass-walled studio, the dark and light laboratories, platforms, beds, screens, backdrops in all colors, headrests for those of us who cannot sit still, gallows from which to suspend those of us unable to walk or those of us who can’t be trusted to hold ourselves upright. At the end of the day, the gallows folded up tidily along the wall of the studio.
How to get the best proof? With the wet collodion plates, the trick is to avoid the darkening, we have heard the photographers say, mostly to themselves, underneath their tents. Their calibrations, endless. They, we, are always waiting for the light. Everyone, at the mercy of the light or the lack of it. Only after the photographer has situated the plate, framed the shot, adjusted the lens and the distance, adjusted us, focused and focused and focused once more, does he squeeze the bulb. And then, more waiting. The pictures appear slowly, chasing the movement of the illness on our bodies, capturing it, making it still.
In the room Duchenne, the room Bouvier, the room Requin, the room Leguin, the room Rayer, the Passage Lepic, the room Cruvellier, and the
room Pruss, they take photographs of our bodies on platforms like a stage set. There were photographs taken when we first arrived (here, someone) and the ones taken after (here, what she became). It is the photographs of the doctor’s best girls making shapes that spell hysteria (arc en cercle, ecstasy, or some other passionate attitude) that hang in the hospital corridors, in the passageways that lead to the photography annex, to the school where we learn grammar, history, geography, and sums, to the gymnasium where we learn to bend and not to break, to the library where those of us who are able to read borrow books; in the amphitheater where those best girls make the shapes; in the offices of the doctors who teach the best girls how to make the shapes. When we first arrived, we did not know how to write the illness with the jumble of our bodies. We, the unbest girls, never learn.
We only imagine the photographs taken when we first arrived, because those photographs do not hang on the walls. A fist punching out of a frayed cuff, a thumb extended, wrinkles underlining the knuckle; a hand resting on a cloth-draped cone; a set of legs dangling from a table, one foot bent at a peculiar angle; a body in profile, its arm twisted behind its back, the spine’s knobby staircase, upon which rests the hand of a doctor. Around his wrist, a watch frozen in its ticking.
We have heard the photographers say the best girls know how long it takes for the photographer to capture them on the plate, to make a likeness of their illness from the magic of light; the best girls, they say, know how long to hold a pose. One of the best girls, we have heard, had 1,293 attacks this year. Convulsions, fogged vision, knots, throbbing ovaries, a globe in the throat. It is no ordinary pain, the doctors say. The best girls are extraordinary. The photographs ensure it. Her attacks, they say, are always imminent. We, too, are always imminent. We are always on the verge. The difference is the best girls are fluent in the language of their pain.
The photographic plates are heavy. They make a sound when the photographer changes them. Clunk clunk, we are the girl standing on the platform, naked in her boots. She is no longer in the world, but where is she? The photographer is underneath his tent while she waits to become a ghost. Standing there in her boots, her back to the camera, the wind of her mind blows past. Untethered from time, the breath rushes through her, and then a tiredness like she imagined death to be. Sometimes there are auras, luminous streaks of light on the plate. Those are her too. Years later, someone will hold her in their hands, a version of her she will never see. Even her secrets belong to them. Still, after she is gone, she will be there still.
We can cut them, prick them, and burn them, and they feel nothing. Even better, these completely numb spots are so poorly irrigated that when we would [cut] them, there is not one drop of blood. The hysterics are very proud of their immunity and amuse themselves by passing long needles through their arms and legs.
—Paul Regnard, “L’anesthésie hystérique,” 1877
Some of us were once devoted to the Sacred Heart. Jesus, not surprisingly, is a jealous lover. Give me your heart, he said, placing it in his own chest; from that ardent oven, he removed a heart-shaped flame and placed it in the heart-shaped space where our hearts used to be, and then we only blazed for him. In the before, sometimes we were the girl who passed a knotty apple tree every day on her way to work on the farm where she didn’t feel the whipping nettles the farmer used when she didn’t do her work. That’s not true. She felt it. She wanted to feel it.
The color of the era of soul science is the red of our blood and the blood of Christ, which, unlike our own blood, we have not seen. Still, we believe in the blood of Christ, or maybe we used to before we, the unbest girls, lived in the blurry dark of the in-between, neither this nor that. The color of the era of soul science is the red of fury. In the before, sometimes there were days the factory foreman asked the owner for a raise for us, then pocketed the difference. There were days there was soup for lunch no dog would eat and we walked back through the doors of the dormitory to sleep on the sack of wood shavings that was our mattress in the attic and we wished the roof tiles so close above our heads would crush the hunger and us along with it.
Sometimes we were the girl who lived on the edge. Thriving or dying, lost or found, appearing or disappearing? The edge does not ask these questions; it is these questions and they are the color red. Maybe the red began long before she was wanted or unwanted, faithful or fallen, counted or unclaimed. The fury, freezing cold at first, not hot as she would have imagined, came from the earth itself, up through her feet. Everything, her fault. The spilled milk, the stolen currants, the torn linens, the smashed plates. Pull the bones out of herself, smash it all, press the tiny shards of glass hard into her skin until they were lost as she was, for weeks, for years, forever. Beat everyone—Madame, Monsieur, the doctors, herself—senseless with her thigh bone. Bone against bone. Was she real then? How about now?
The fury began before she was old enough to give it a name. When she arrived at the hospital, dragged through the door into the red era of soul science, her fury was called hysteria, as if it had nothing to do with her at all, and she became we. We became the disease that said we want to steal, to falsely accuse, to set things on fire. Fine, let it burn.
Bodies, We Are in Them
Or maybe, in the before, we lived by the coast and swam in the sounding sea.
We swam in the sea and there were rocks underfoot and birds overhead. These bodies, we were in them, and they were in the sea. There were days, seconds, when the difference between these bodies and the sea went away. The light on the water and the wave and the next wave always coming. When we staggered up out of the waves, the sand sucked at our ankles, sucking us down. The water didn’t want to leave us. Its salt clings to us still.
Sometimes a door swings open, and an I breaks free, an I who remembers walking in the night from the factory to the dormitory where she once lived, an I so small before the moon while in the forest the trees grow bigger. The moon grows too. I am small but I make enormous soul-sized shadows on the road. Her loneliness, her shadow. Here in the blurry dark, I take shape. I return—my loneliness, my shadow. Then I am gone, same as those from the before who may or may not still be living in the world of regular days—mother, father, sister, brother, Delphine, Bardella, Louise, Sarina. They appear in our dreams, rise up, and how are they not here with us in the smell of damp stone and near bodies? We wake up, and of course they are not here, but we are.
The cypress trees reached toward the sun, branches bending and dividing, as joyous as we were at being in the water, at becoming light flashing on its surface. No, even then, we knew it was not joy the trees felt. It was something better. To be a tree was to be without the burden of feelings, even joy, which gives way eventually, we would learn soon enough, to nostalgia. To be a tree, to lean in the direction of the sun! Not in order to forget, but because that is simply what you are meant to do. In the winter, the world shrunk to a cold dot of light, the stripped tree branches carved lines into the sky as full of yearning as when they leaned into the summer sun, but not yearning at all. We will never understand. Whatever season, nature goes about its business even when we aren’t looking; its magnificence doesn’t need us to look.
Giant blue agaves grow by the sea, their spines sharp and cutting. A line sliced across our arm when we brushed past on the way down to the water, like the doctors’ knives spelling the name of the disease on our bodies, but the agave wasn’t trying to spell anything. The sea washed the blood away, its salt healed the wound, but the scar is there still. Some days it reminds us of the agave’s enormous flower shooting up to bloom exactly once, its desiccated skeleton haunting the earth for months and then crumbling. Some days the scar reminds us every beginning contains its end.
My loneliness, my shadow, and I swim in the sea on an ordinary day, salt on my skin, the sunlight ricocheting off the water, a rock underfoot, a bird overhead. My body, I am in it, and it is in the sea. The light on the water, the light on the water, the light on the water. The wave and the wave and the next wave always coming. I trace the rough design of the bark of the cypress tree going about its business; it maps the vast geography of the rest of my life. I will go there and there and there. I try to be light I try to be water I try to be bird but I am a body here where there are no ordinary days, here where, most days, there are no days at all.
The before, the just before, and the centuries of just befores. A door swings open. We were saints. We were witches. We were burned at the stake. We are on fire still.