Speaking to be heard


Over lunch this week a friend described an episode that ended up with her swearing at her boss, then feeling upset that she had lost control, had been “emotional”. The man, who had dismissed something she expressed concern about as “no big deal,” apparently walked away untouched by such self doubt, after all he had “rationality” on his side.

Her encounter brought up frustration I have felt reading Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady and her descriptions of how male psychiatrists had the power to define ‘rational’ ‘sane’ and ‘desirable’ behaviour while women were left (sometimes quite literally) choking for words as they attempted to rise up through the silencing and dismissal of their perspectives and desires.

Even when the mind doctors of the Victorian era did listen to women who were suffering symptoms of hysteria, they were “deaf” to the criticisms implicit in what the women told them about the torturous confinement that was imposed on women. Treatment was aimed at making women more compliant and accepting, able to deal with their lot.

The suffering of men during the First World War resulted in levels of mental breakdown that could not be ignored or denied and shifted thinking about the treatment of hysteria. Reviewing the treatment of the poet Siegfried Sassoon and literary work that emerged during and after the war, Showalter shows how shell shock and the various nervous complaints among soldiers aroused anxious concerns about masculinity.

Shell shock was the male counterpart of hysteria, a discourse of masculinity addressed to patriarchal thought; but it was scarcely possible for either male patients or male psychiatrists, themselves deeply implicated in patriarchal structures, to see its meanings. Women writers like [Virginia] Woolf and [Rebecca] West thus played an important role in explicating the significance of gender and power in therapeutic strategies, and in addressing the ethical and emotional questions raised by the treatment of shell shock.

The belief that manliness required men to be untroubled by war underlined the therapeutic approach of the eminent psychiatrist William Halse Rivers who described Sassoon’s pacifism as an “anti war complex”.

The ‘success’ of Rivers’ cure was that Sassoon was able to override his feelings, including the nightmares about war and return to the front. He had, writes Showalter, “reached the desired state of numbness”.

He stopped being introspective, he stopped worrying, he felt nothing, and in this condition he passed successfully through a second Medical Board…becoming once more “an officer and a gentleman”.

Was Sassoon’s pacificism really so “emotional,” so “futile” and “immature” asks Showalter.

Or was his cure really a regression from maturity and moral courage? Was the man who went back to the front demonstrably saner than the one who entered the hospital?

While the therapy offered during the First World War was based on a sense of domination, Showalter shows, interestingly, that Rivers was in fact greatly influenced by Sassoon’s position on war, had dreams that challenged the solidity of his own thinking, and did shift his position in later years.

My friend also told me she remembers what I said years ago about something I saw regarding her potential. Around 30 percent of her had felt inspired, the rest had felt resistant, uncertain that she was capable of achieving what I suggested, she remembered. But years after that small “tussle” she is beginning to see something of that potential emerging and unfolding.

Given how significant it can be when we speak from a place of what we see, what we believe to be true, it’s perhaps no wonder that what’s deemed “emotional” can be come down on so heavily. Dismissing someone’s point of view so emphatically isn’t necessarily rational, but it’s in the interests of the dominant narrative to try and present itself as such. But amid all the frustration, I’m inspired by the wayward effectiveness of words spoken from those other positions, other ways of seeing that work quietly away, like seeds pressed into earth. So while we may struggle to get the words out, we should maybe be more confident in them, and ourselves give more space to different ways of seeing and being.