Hark! I Hear Whispers Of ‘Hysteria’ Again*

As it is required by the Handbook of LadyBusiness, I do have a mandatory LadyFriend who helps me pick out books and bags, nods in agreement after I’m done talking and sometimes talks; and even then only talks about me. Fine, I embellished a little. The truth is, often we agree so intensely on so many subjects, it seems like we’re speaking a language only the two of us understand. It’s an equally flattering and jarring experience to see yourself reflected in someone else, to such an extent. So a few weeks ago, I was down with what are commonly known as VulvaBlues, where once a month a monster looms over you and everything you say comes out lined with fire. In the middle of one such rant, I lost it and started crying, hysterically. She managed to calm me down after a while and we left it at that. Later that week, she confessed she had these fits of emotions too from raging fury to a suicidal calm, from feeling euphoric to wanting to be left alone, all in the span of a few hours. She thought she was the only one with these “mood swings”. Over the next few days as I discussed the same topic of ‘Female Hysteria’ with my professors, friends and some ex-students of mine, one thing became clear. We’re all ‘hysterical’. Just like the time in Victorian England, a woman would be silenced and put in the attic — Who can ever forget Bertha? — under the notion of being ‘hysterical’, seems like we are also labelling ourselves ‘abnormal’; for this ‘fury’, ‘rage’ and ‘anger’ that we feel can’t be normal, can it? Especially when we know just where the problem lies. Or that was the assumption, anyway.

All these women I speak of are either feminist, Marxist, (closeted) atheists,  political activists or involved in some or the other form of an anti-establishment philosophy; in addition to occupying traditional patriarchal spaces of being wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and so many other categories that are too complicated to ever pin down. I don’t mean to insinuate that somehow these women I speak of are ‘different’ — and by extension inherently superior (Ick!) — or that women who don’t fit any of the above labels have never witnessed the same ‘fury’, but rather that I identify strongly with these women, I could discuss at length and even seek permission to personalise and localise this collective ‘Cultural Hysteria’ that we feel. As it turns out, despite being so politically active, most of us lead ruptured lives, where what we are in our Personal Skins is so radically different from what we perform to be in our Family or Public Skins, revealing the TrueSelf only in a few safe spaces, having the Public Performative Identity gulp down huge chunks of our Private Skin. And to say from this fracture between the Public and the Private comes the ‘fury’ and ‘hysteria’ would be to easily and anthropologically further fissure our fragmented lives. Also being ‘culturally hysterical’ myself, such simple unraveling is a tad hard to achieve People of The Olde Interwebes.

This ‘cultural hysteria’ I speak of is a common experience that manifests itself in the simplest and in daily tasks. Some detest the idea of having to ritually bow down to patriarchal authority of their fathers, husbands or brothers; some feel oppressed by the system that requires them to be ‘good mothers’, some are simply frustrated for not being allowed to voice themselves, some face direct and systematic sexism each day (LadyFriend, I’m winking at you!), some are just freaking pissed off for being a part of such a model that encourages and ensures women’s silence. In brief, we’re those Pesky Angry Ladies you were warned off, ready to snap your head off the moment you cross a line. Or not. In fact, one of the biggest problems that face us everyday is this deep stated inaction and not the other way around. I can state my views firmly on the Olde Interwebes, but at family dinners and other social events, I am silent. Rather, I’m required to be silent; like any smart Oriental woman who knows what will happen when this silence isn’t granted, I comply, often against my will. Like many others, the fury seethes and dances right under my skin, the words almost tumble out of my mouth and then I remember where I am and then the tongue is heavy and curled inwards again. Another Pesky Angry Lady told off her superior and she lost her job, one cannot reconcile the idea that she is supposed to be an obedient daughter-in-law for people who think daughter-in-law is the NewAge code for Happy Servant! And SpineLess worker! What is interesting here is how our ‘hysteria’ turns inwards and comes to bite us. Similar to Lee Maracle’s beautiful poem ‘Hate’, we are too “Blinded by the niceties and polite liberality/ we can’t see our enemy/so, we’ll just have to kill each other”. This sentiment of having our hysteria paralyze and disable¹ us isn’t new. The very fact we’ve internalised it isn’t exactly a revelation. What really struck me here is the way this ‘cultural hysteria’ manifests itself; like the Madwoman In The Attic, if we’re not careful this ‘hysteria’ comes out and spews venom before we can stop. One artist I know says she waits till she is ‘furious’ enough to paint; crying and painting at the same time and yet can’t seem to decipher how those rips and tears come up on the canvas. Sometimes I write a post or a poem and when I re-read it I can’t almost believe that it’s my writing that is so dark and jagged, out to wound instead of heal. After these outbursts of ‘hysteria’ comes the deep sense of helplessness, we cry and then reclaim our senses. Stop. Rinse. Repeat more times than humanely imaginable. My LadyFriend confessed she is ‘going completely nuts’ every other day; and then she said something that still chills my bones. She said, “At least, this is the one constant companion I know I have” and again she mirrored what I felt, said something I didn’t want to put it in words. We exist on the hinge, choked to claustrophobia with ‘hysteria’, yet comfortable — where comfortable is the new learnt helplessness — being this numb.

Within this numbness, another thing we do piece and byte ourselves further — some overplay the Public Performative Identity, some of us blog to retain what was once there and (perhaps?) retrieve it, some chain smoke cigarettes though they hate them, some indulge in violent sex as a release. And after the chosen method of UnRaveling the Self, we conveniently slot ourselves as ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ fit of hysteria; as if they are two neat shelves where our Skins sit, as if we really have a choice which Skin will manifest itself. We blame the cavity between the Personal and the Private for this ‘fury’, understand when the Dudes we associate don’t get our ‘hysteria’ as they’re not the ones being robbed off agency and choice and then tell ourselves, “this too shall pass”. Little do we know, how completely it chars us inside. We say we know where this ‘hysteria’ stems from, it’s the freaking society that makes us so, and we all fervently hope for the Unicorn Revolution to come save us. At least, this LadyBrain does. But like everything else, it’s not simple to get the root of this fury. The best I can do is, say it’s like living the inside story while being an outsider to your own life. And somewhere caught in between, is the TrueSelf; amalgamated with the Madwoman In The Attic. Waiting to snarl and bite. Am I the only one who feels this way? Or this is just another ‘hysterical’ woman writing from her hysteria?

1. I don’t mean to trivialise disability but instead shed light on the real side-effects of this ‘hysteria’. Some women I mention have sunk into depression, been catatonic for days. Sometimes when I’m ‘hysterical’ I forget words and meanings and need sedatives before the tiny fit becomes a full-blown panic attack.

* I can’t write just about me, because in cases like this, the collectively felt ‘cultural hysteria’ is both at once a public and a private experience; to obliterate other’s voices would mean losing mine too.

Leave a comment


  1. blufacil

     /  October 13, 2010

    good blog, added to my favorites 🙂

  2. Cinnamon Girl

     /  October 14, 2010

    “After these outbursts of ‘hysteria’ comes the deep sense of helplessness, we cry and then reclaim our senses. Stop. Rinse. Repeat more times than humanely imaginable.”

    Yes. THIS.

    I feel this way… I go through this every day it seems. Most of the time, numbness, then suddenly, outburst. I did it again tonight, so finding this post was a balm for my soul.

    For me, at this moment, I’m starting to think differently about my ‘hysterical outbursts’ than I did. In a way I always saw them as a failing, a failure to keep control. But recently, I’ve found myself thinking its ok. It’s a radical thought… and it’s hard to explain.

    I guess I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the gap between public and private life. I became a radical feminist after dealing with abuse, and I saw parallels between tactics used in abusive relationships and tactics used to perpetrate institutional, structural and cultural sexisms. So that tens to influence my framework a lot.

    My context is different to yours… My family comes from a ‘women should be seen and not heard’ culture, but I guess I don’t… I was raised as a migrant in a new land. It’s far easier to keep my mouth shut.. but suddenly I’ve thought, hang on. They’ve been here a long time. I’ve been talking to them a long time. Nothing’s changed.. and because they won’t take responsibility for their actions, they’ve decided my responsibility is to suck up the rage and play nice. I don’t think I want to play nice anymore..

    You’ve made me think a lot about it more with this post, so thank you.

    • Thank you for reading. And I agree with you, playing ‘nice’ is something I want to leave behind as well.

      Your comment makes me feel less ‘hysterical’. Thank you.

  3. LadyFriend

     /  October 14, 2010

    I was fortunate to read this one just when i needed to vent out. Thanks a lot. Feels good to know that you are not the only one… 🙂


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