Lizzie Procter lives! Young women and hysteria

Generally, I’m not in the business of debunking inane articles by folks who seemingly keep their notoriety alive by pissing off feminists. It’s a rather tedious and thankless job, especially given that there are more important and interesting feminist issues to tackle. But somehow I feel compelled to suspend my usual position on inanity to take up Caitlin Flanagan’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.

Flanagan addresses the phenomenon of mass hysteria amongst teenage girls, and deduces from it that adolescence is a difficult time for young women. Groundbreaking stuff, indeed. Alas, there’s more. She determines through an astute research regimen of googling and pondering followed more pondering and googling that what hysterical young women really need is protection from the big scary world, because they will inevitably succumb to hormonally-induced and socio-culturally predicated bouts of “emotional extremes and high drama.”

“Most parents of adolescent girls will never have to contend with episodes of hysteria of the kind experienced by the cheerleaders. But anyone with a teenage daughter can attest that this is a time of emotional extremes and high drama, of girls who are one moment affectionate youngsters and the next screaming banshees. “What’s gotten into you?” the perplexed mother in “The Exorcist” wonders about her demonized daughter; it’s a question that the mothers of non-possessed girls often ask during the teenage years.

What girls need during this time is a stable and supportive space in which to work out all of this drama. In many respects a teenage girl’s home is more important to her than at any time since she was a small child. She also needs emotional support and protection from the most corrosive cultural forces that seek to exploit her when she is least able to resist. Most of all she needs some privacy to work to make a way for herself as a strong and confident young woman. The emotional swings of normal female adolescence attest to its intensity, and they are also the reason girls need and deserve more protection during this time of their lives. As a neurologist treating the New York girls said: “These girls will get better. We have to give them time and space.”

What really has me irked about this is less the shoddy intellectual connection between this case of mass-hysteria in upstate New York and the human-condition of the teenage girl, and much more the cursory (if even that) dismissal of the power and awesomeness of teenage girls. Flanagan manages, in an impressive feat of rhetorical incoherence, to make girls’ hysteria both pathological and inevitable at once. Here’s why I think that her assessment of what happened in LeRoy, New York misses the/any mark:

She pathologizes adolescence in a particularly harmful way for young women. Adolesence is tough. In fact, it is tough for kids of all genders. Setting aside the logical fallacy, known in philosophical circles as “misleading vividness,” she uses the example of the recent case to portray young women, all of them it would seem, as potentially unstable. While I do not dispute that adolescence and puberty are transitional times, and that during these times young people need support, what I take issue with is the way that she extrapolates this particular case to be symptomatic (nerdy pun intended) of some vaguely sketched girl-culture. This is not only grotesquely patriarchal and paternalistic, but it denies agency to the many young people who bravely face the challenges of adolescence. It also brings me to my next point.

Flanagan’s “analysis” of hysteria is offensive in it’s oversimplification. It is offensive in the context of mental illness and in light of the very difficult work being done by disability rights advocates to create a world in which people who experience mental illness and disability are treated with dignity. Young women “screaming like banshees?” I mean, what are we talking about? Some hypersensationalized portrayal of female-gendered youth? Some notion of a mysterious psychotic episode? Is this hysteria commonplace or is it a mystery? There are real young people with mental illness disability and living with and through such experiences takes a tremendous amount of courage. Adding half-baked, paternalistic social analyses to the mix does nothing to support them and reduce the stigma that they face.

In fact, while we’re on the topic, let’s really talk about this thing. Neurologist Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, who has worked with the girls for the last three months, has recently diagnosed them with “conversion disorder” or mass hysteria, a condition that, while rare, does occur (and not just in women). Dr. David Reiss, MD, Interim Medical Director of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, also says that mass hysteria is something real. He explained that “conversion disorder” means that the symptoms have no physical causes, but they are indeed real. Conversion is related to somatization (physical symptoms caused or exaggerated by psychological problems). Dr. Reiss says the difference between conversion and somatization, is that with the latter there is generally a physiological basis for the symptoms, which are then exacerbated due to psychological factors. So, yes, this is a real thing. In which case, folks who experience it need medical attention and care and real understanding. Not merely, “a stable and supportive space in which to work out all of this drama.” (Please note here that Flanagan has awfully conveniently just written a book about the fact that young girls need this kind of space.)

There is a socio-cultural context in which female-bodied and female-identified people live and grow up. That context exists in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. If we’re going to address it, let’s really address it. Let’s talk about race and it’s relationship to sexualization. Let’s talk about the gender-gap in certain professions. Let’s talk about pop-culture and feminism. Let’s talk about homophobia and transphobia that are acutely felt for many, during adolescence. Let’s talk about poverty and access to education. Let’s have a genuine dialogue about girls, and young people of all genders and their ability to actualize their dreams. There are real problems young people face and there is the stunningmind-boggling grace with which so many respond (there are hundreds more issues and organizations, you get the idea).

Let’s talk about that.

Join the Conversation