Another book I've read recently takes great intellectual pains to provide thorough explanations for what seem to me, as an X-Files devotee, to be fascinatingly inexplicable trends and concerns in North American society: alien abduction, chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, multiple personality disorder and recovered memory. During a heated CBC Radio discussion about one of these trends—chronic fatigue syndrome, and whether it is a "real" or psychogenic illness—both callers and panelists were emotional and argumentative, straining the usually fair, thoughtful CBC Radio studio atmosphere. In typical Canadian fashion, no conclusion was drawn. Nor was any mention made of Elaine Showalter's book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (Columbia University Press), which when published in hardcover last year added much fuel to the general debate.
Hystories has certainly become controversial in other circles: in the preface to the new paperback edition of this book about media, conspiracy theories, and beliefs about hysteria through the ages, Showalter writes that she herself has become "the subject of conspiracy theories," attacked as a fascist, bombarded with hate mail and threatened with assassination. Her book is inflammatory, offering a measured, intelligent, articulate analysis of the causes and effects of "hysterical epidemics": the very assuredness of her tone is sure to infuriate anyone believing him or herself to be a victim of any of the "hysterical epidemics" she analyzes.
For anyone interested in these "epidemics," or for anyone who watches the X-Files, this book provides a thoroughly fascinating and well-researched study of these illnesses in a cultural context that spans centuries.