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Opening Pandora’s Box: The Forgotten History of Sexual Trauma (Part I)

This is the first installment in a 5-part series on the history of rape, sexual abuse, and trauma as a social and political issue:

Part 1-Opening Pandora’s Box: The Age of Hysteria
Part 2-Never Hers Alone: Black Women, Rape & Resistance
Part 3-Shell Shock: A Soldiers Declaration
Part 4-Uprising: The Personal is Political
Part 5-Backlash: The Political is Personal

In my last diary in this series, I explained why the history is relevant, and what we hope to achieve by revisiting it:

In Trauma & Recovery, Judith Herman wrote a story that changed my life almost as much as Rosa’s did. Only this story was not about an individual, but a forgotten history. And this forgotten history is what ultimately changed my perspective on an issue that I had always simply viewed as a personal tragedy-I began to see the abuse I suffered beyond my own individual experience, and for the first time through the prism of oppression and social control. One passage in particular stood out for me:

“The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. The study of psychological trauma has an underground history. Like traumatized people, we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past. Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future”

This series is my attempt to do just that.


Part 1: Opening Pandora’s Box-The Age of Hysteria

The hysteric, whose body is transformed into a theater for forgotten scenes, relives the past, bearing witness to a lost childhood that survives in suffering.

- Anna Hurse, “Augustine (Big Hysteria)”


Her name was not really Augustine. Augustine was the name given to her by Jean-Martin Charcot, the pioneering French Neuroscientist who would one day make her famous. Her real name is unknown-as is most of the story of her life before her mother abandoned her on the steps of the Salpetriere-a hospital that warehoused the most wretched among the Parisian Proletariat class. What is know is that when she arrived she was 15 years old, poor, brutally raped by her mother’s employer, and hysterical.

Augustine became one of over 5,000 hysterical female patients warehoused in the Salpetriere, and seemed destined to become just another charity case of the mental wards. Instead, she captured the interest of Charcot, and went on to become his most famous patient, the living embodiment of the mysterious affliction known as “Hysteria”.


Hysteria was an affliction seen primarily in women, and encompassed a variety of symptoms which seemed to have no underlying medical cause. In 1859, it was claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria- a number that doesn’t seem too outlandish when you consider that the diagnostic criteria. The symptoms of hysteria ranged from faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”. As one historian put it, hysteria was “a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in the opposite sex.” It was the catch-all diagnosis of Victorian-era women.

“Hysteria” as a plague on civilization has long been recognized. Historical volumes are filled with examples of women gone mad. Before the advent of science and medicine, their afflictions were seen as the result of supernatural-These women were thought to be infected with dark evil forces or possessed by demons. As the Catholic Church grew in power and influence, hysterical women became a useful scapegoat- their bizarre and troublesome antics were easily explained. They were witches.

As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explained in their book “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers”, the labeling of women who did not conform to gender norms as witches served a dual purpose-it not only explained their actions in a way that fit with church doctrine, it redeemed men of the crimes they committed against them-especially rape:

The Church associated women with sex, and all pleasure in sex was condemned, because it could only come from the devil. Witches were supposed to have gotten pleasure from copulation with the devil (despite the icy-cold organ he was reputed to possess) and they in turn infected men. Lust in either man or wife, then, was blamed on the female. On the other hand, witches were accused of making men impotent and of causing their penises to disappear.

In the eyes of the Church, all the witches’ power was ultimately derived from her sexuality. Her career began with sexual intercourse with the devil. Each witch was confirmed at a general meeting (the witches’ Sabbath) at which the devil presided, often in the form of a goat, and had intercourse with the neophytes. In return for her powers, the witch promised to serve him faithfully. (In the imagination of the Church even evil could only be thought of as ultimately male-directed!) As the Malleus makes clear, the devil almost always acts through the female, just as he did in Eden:

All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable…Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort with devils…it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft…And blessed be the Highest Who has so far preserved the male sex from so great a crime...

PhotobucketDuring the Inquisition, hundreds of thousands of European women who were tortured and burnt at the stake as witches. It is recorded that the assembled fire watchers sang hymns to drown out the young girls screams of agony. (No word on what particular hymns were deemed suitable for the occasion of watching human combustion, perhaps some version of As a Fire is Meant for Burning?) Some historians estimate that up to a million people were executed during the inquisition- Women and female children made up 85% of the executed. Many of them were in fact victims of rape and sexual abuse, who were blamed for infecting their abusers with their infectious demonic influence- in effect causing themselves to be raped-and punished accordingly.

It should be noted that in addition to women and female children, male victims of molestation were also targets of the inquisition:


Nearly all of almost 500 cases of sodomy between persons concerned the relationship between an older man and an adolescent, often by coercion; with only a few cases where the couple were consenting homosexual adults. About 100 of the total involved allegations of child abuse. Adolescents were generally punished more leniently than adults, but only when they were very young (under 12 years) or when the case clearly concerned rape, did they have a chance to avoid punishment altogether

A Womb of her Own

It was not until the advent of modern medicine that an alternative theory for hysteria was formulated. Medical doctors in ancient Greek concurred with the churches view that the bizarre behavior of hysterics must have something to do with “female problems”. But it was the Greek Philosopher Plato who ultimately came up with the theory of the “wandering womb” as the underlying cause of hysteria

Plato described the uterus as a living being unto itself-a kind of wild animal inhabiting a woman’s body, on an endless quest to make itself pregnant. If the uterus was “neglected” by the over-stimulation other less important female organs (i.e. the brain) it would detach itself from the pelvic cavity and go on a meandering journey throughout the body, wreaking all kinds of havoc along it’s way. Eventually, it’s journey would end in the brain where it would sit and greedily sponge all of the bloodflow. By blocking the circulation, the brain would then atrophy- which in turn resulted in the strange neurological symptoms of hysteria- the fainting spells, the convulsions, and the trance-like alterations of consciousness. Every ailment afflicting women could therefore be attributed to a single underlying cause- a displaced uterus.

The treatment of choice for the meandering uterus was a slight improvement over the previous methods of torture and incineration- the cure for hysteria, so said the male physician, was to induce “Hysterical Paroxism” (a.k.a. orgasm) It was thought that this would somehow bring the wandering womb back into its intended cavity, where it would stay until it began to get restless again, and the procedure would have to be repeated.

PhotobucketThe procedure in question was something called “pelvic massage”, which is basically a fancy way of saying playing around with women’s privies. “Pelvic Massage” was performed in homes by (exclusively male) physicians, sometimes for hours at a time with the goal of achieving “Hysterical Paroxism”. The problem with this particular procedure was it was tedious and physically taxing (imagine the hand cramps!). Worse yet- quell suprise!-it often did not work. So, in 1883, to relieve overtaxed physicians of their manual duties, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, a Brit, invented the first AC powered “perceteur”, and from there a new and lucrative cottage industry was born:

From “Love Machines” by Cynthia King

During the last two decades of the 19th century, more than 50 kinds of vibrators were invented. Some combined vibration with music, while others threw ultraviolet rays. The technology really took off in the late 1880s, after the development of AC power.

As AC motors got smaller and more efficient, home vibrators began to shrink, too. But right from the beginning, doctors had tried to warn women away from small-scale versions. To make sure women understood the difference between mere trinkets and medical tools, doctors’ models continued to look reassuringly professional – i.e., large, Photobucketexpensive, and hard to operate. The Chattanooga, which was mounted like a Tommy gun on wheels so that it could be dragged along the body. Selling for $200, it was so heavy that it had to be freighted, according to the Vibrator Instrument Company catalogue. Another popular item was the Carpenter, which hung from the ceiling and looked exactly like an impact wrench.

PhotobucketThe vibrator market soared from the 1880′s until the 1920′s, until it was discovered that some women were using them for non-medical purposes and they disappeared from middle class life. But while the market for treating hysterical women was lucrative for both physicians and the electric companies alike, none of the treatments they peddled seemed to work. Even after experiencing orgasm, women continued to exhibit the peculiar symptoms. Their failure to respond to the prescribed treatment resulted in them being scorned and shunned by the medical community. They were dismissed as malingerers and hypochondriacs who had too much time on their hands and were simply looking for attention. The treatment of hysteria was relegated to quacks and faith healers, and the study of these women was seen as below the dignity of the medical profession. It remained this way until Jean-Martin Charcot brought it out of obscurity and into the mainstream.

“I will make her pain visible to you”

When Charcot first met the girl he would rename Augustine in the Salpetrieire, she was in a terrible state. Confined to her bed she would alternately scream out in pain and then collapse into gales of laughter. Her body would become contorted in grotesque ways that resembled an epileptic fit.

In the process of treating her, Charcot discovered that his young patient was very susceptible to hypnosis, and if put into a trance would obey almost any command. She thus became a very useful object for his public lectures.

The Salpetriere was part hospital, part performance amphitheater. Charcot’s groundbreaking studies of hysteria took place in public lectures that were often attended by, in the words of one historian, “a multi-colored audience, drawn from all of Paris: authors, doctors, leading actors and actresses, fashionable demimondaines, all full of morbid curiosity.” His demonstrations were both a medical and a cultural phenomenon. A transcript from one of his lectures provides a bit of insight into what a typical lecture was like:

Photobucket CHARCOT: Let us press again on the hysterogenic point. (A male intern touches the patient in the ovarian region.) Here we go again. Occasionally subjects even bite their tongues, but this would be rare. Look at the arched back, which is so well described in textbooks.

PATIENT: Mother, I am frightened.

CHARCOT: Note the emotional outburst. If we let things go unabated we will soon return to the epileptoid behavior. . . .

(The patient cries again: Oh! Mother!)

CHARCOT: Again, note these screams. You could say it is a lot of noise over nothing.

Beyond being made into a public spectacle in the lecture hall, Augustine was forced to pose for photographs-in which she recreated her hysterical fits for the camera, usually while wearing very little clothing. These photographs were published along with those of two of Charcot’s other famous hysterics, in which was as much a medical text as it was a kind of Victorian-era soft pornography.


The images of Augustine transcended medicine and became a cultural phenomenon. She presented a fascinating dichotomy-between vulnerability and danger, the beautiful and the grotesque. In one shot she could be seen in the throes of ecstacy, and in the next her face and body would be contorted in rage and seeming agony. She was the living embodiment of everything that men found mysterious about women- distilled into a form that allowed them to observe her at a safe distance.

As time went on, Augustine became increasingly distressed by this objectification and began to resent being treated like a performing seal. In fact her condition only worsened under Charcot’s treatments-but this almost seemed beside the point. She was an object for inquiry and scientific discovery- her plight was not one that men of science like Charcot viewed with any empathy. The same was not true for 2 of Charcot’s contemporaries- Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud.

Freud & the Aetiology of Hysteria

Freud and Janet-engaged in an intense professional rivalry at the time-were determined to get to the bottom of Hysteria, seeing it as an opportunity to elevate both their burgeoning field and their own professional statures. They both picked up where Charcot left off, and began their own parallel investigations, determined to uncover the underlying cause of hysteria. But in order to do this, they realized that simply observing hysterical women under hypnosis was not enough-they actually had to talk to them. So for the ensuing decade, these distinguished men of science did something quite unprecedented-they actually listened to women.

What these listening sessions ultimately resulted in a groundbreaking conclusion-one that both Freud and Janet arrived at independently, but with startling similarities. Hysteria was in fact a condition caused by psychological trauma.

Both Freud (along with his research partner Josef Brauer) and Janet determined that many of the strange symptoms-in particular those that mimicked a neurological disorder such as fainting spells and alterations in consciousness-were in fact an emotional reaction to deeply distressing events. Freud called this phenomenon “double consciousness”, Janet named it “dissociation”. The bodily symptoms of hysteria-such as stomach ailments and insomnia-were physical manifestations of traumatic events that had been banished from conscious memory.

It was Freud, along with Brauer, who followed this thread of inquiry the furthest, and ultimately his research led to an exploration of his patients sexual histories. Charcot and his contemporaries had been dismissive to the idea of sexuality as an underlying cause of hysteria, and Freud himself was initially resistant to the idea that sexual experiences played any role. He would later write: “When I began to analyze.. . The expectation of a sexual neurosis being the basis of hysteria was fairly remote from my mind. I had come fresh from the school of Charcot, and I regarded the linking of hysteria with the topic of sexuality as a sort of insult, just as the women patients themselves do.” But Freud, fueled by his intense curiosity and desire to uncover the truth, eventually overcame his defensiveness. In repeated sessions with his female patients, some of them going on for hours at a time, he probed not their vaginas but the depths of their memories, and listened to what they had to say.

What he heard was horrific. His female patients spoke of lives filled with trauma. Physical abuse and rape were a common occurrence in their lives. Following the thread of memory back, he discovered that for the majority of these women, their traumatic experiences began in childhood, often at the hands of their own fathers and other male relatives. He published his findings in a monumental case study titled The Aetiology of Hysteria, in which he drew this startling conclusion:

Photobucket“I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psycho-analysis in spite of the intervening decades. I believe that this is an important finding, the discovery of a
caput Nili in neuropathology.”

At the time of publication, Freud believed that “The Aetiology of Hysteria” would become his crowning professional achievement. Instead, it almost ended his career.


The reaction to the publication of “The Aetiology of Hysteria” was swift and punitive. Freud’s case study was summarily rejected and ignored by his colleagues, and for the first time he found himself ostracized by the medical community that had always treated him like a deity. He was accused of implanting these traumatic stories into his patients minds, and scorned for discrediting the field of psychiatry with his obscure patients and sensational theories. The sexual abuse of children was understood to be an extremely rare occurrence- Freud was suggesting that it was endemic and widespread. Not only that, but his patients were not the misbegotten trollops of the Salpetrieiere, they were daughters of a privileged class. Acknowledging that incest was endemic among these patients meant accepting that some of the most elite and powerful members of the society were sexual deviants who preyed on their own children. Freud himself was troubled by this prospect, and began to backtrack from his initial theory almost immediately. Faced with the professional backlash and the conflict between his theory and his deeply held patriarchal values, he began to question the validity of his patients stories as well as his own conclusions. Within a year of publishing “The Aetiology of Hysteria” he fully repudiated his findings.

Freud’s reversal marked the end of the heroic age of hysteria. The reasons for this extended beyond him alone- The hysteria inquiries had stemmed from a long-running battle between the church and the scientific community. Men of science saw distinguishing hysteria as a problem with psychological origins, as opposed to demonic possession and witchcraft, as a victory of the secular world as well as human dignity. They saw themselves as benevolent rescuers, uplifting women from their degraded condition. But they were also fiercely patriarchal and had no desire to see a social condition of equality between sexes. The study of hysteria had forced these men to speak to women far more than they intended, and ended up revealing far more than they ever wished to know about their private lives. To acknowledge widespread sexual abuse of women and children would validate something that the nascent but militant feminist movement was already beginning to talk about- that the oppression of women and children was a widespread social ill that needed to be addressed. For the medical community, which was already in the midst of a fight to keep women from entering their profession-such an admission would have broad social implications that would ultimately hurt their own position as leaders of a patriarchal society.

There was one component of Freud’s work did end up surviving his scandalous venture into the world of hysteria. Along with Janet, he discovered that the symptoms of hysteria could be alleviated when traumatic memories were recovered and put into words. This became the basis for modern psychotherapy, a pioneering treatment that became the cornerstone of his psychoanalytical theory. But although he continued to explore the sexual lives of his female patients throughout his career, he no longer accepted their stories of abuse and exploitation. He came up with a new theory-that his female patients imagined and desired the abusive sexual encounters they spoke of, and that their psychological distress was in fact a symptom of these unmet needs. Within the climate of anti-feminist backlash, his paternalistic theories thrived and became the basis for modern psychiatry.

As for Charcot, his study of hysteria propelled him to fame, and brought him considerable wealth. Eventually, however, he faced his own form of backlash-primarily from the growing militant feminist movement, who chastised him for, as one feminist author described it, his “vivisection of women under the guise of studying a disease”. Charcot abandoned his studies of hysteria and moved on to new and ground breaking research in neuropathology before he died of a sudden heart attack in 1893. Subsequently, his various theories of hysteria were attacked by his followers and eventually abandoned as well.

His famous patient Augustine, on the other hand, suffered years of confinement and medical torture and repeated escape attempts. Finally, in her twenties, she devised a way to escape without being noticed- she dressed up as a man. With her long brown hair stuffed under a hat, her famous body shrouded in an oversized coat, she simply walked out of the doors of the Salpietre and disappeared into the shadows of the Paris night. Along with her went the discovery of widespread sexual abuse among children, where it remained hidden for almost a century.

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