Review: Hysteria

Brought into the open


By Richard Appignanesi (words) and Oscar Zarate (illustrations)
Self Made Hero, £14.99

In Hysteria - the latest in the Graphic Freud series based on Freud's case studies - Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate explore the foundation of psychoanalysis. Told from the point of view of the dying Freud exiled in London, the narrative has his older self speaking to his younger self, recalling his early career in medicine, his neurological research, and the forming of his therapeutic practice in his native Vienna.

It highlights how Freud's catalytic training with Jean-Martin Charcot at La Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and the investigation of hysteria spurred the development of psychoanalysis.

When Freud began working with Charcot, hysteria - from "Hustera", Greek for uterus - was thought to be peculiar to women. Doctors were baffled by its inexplicable symptoms.Many rejected it as female pretence.

Examining case histories, including some from Freud's landmark Studies in Hysteria, Appignanesi traces how Freud advanced the cathartic method, maintaining that patients' trauma and repressed, unacceptable ideas manifested themselves as symptoms of physical pain. They symbolised painful inner conflicts that could not discharge themselves normally.

As Deborah Levy states in the foreword: "Hysteria is the language of the protesting body… Psychoanalysis was born when (Freud) discovered that it was possible to interpret rather than medicate symptoms that had no biological or neurological cause."

Zarate's art is moving, with evocative homages to Toulouse-Lautrec and Honoré Daumier. While Hysteria openly portrays the darkness beneath the characters' conscious minds, some of the forces that shaped Freud and his era aren't fully probed. Freud states, as he is forced to leave Vienna, "I am surrounded by mass hysteria". The book reflects how the world changed for him from the grotesqueness of the Paris madhouse to civilised Vienna but only briefly considers the Nazi madness that engulfed Austria.

In the final sequence, a "witness" from the future, Princess Diana, reveals to Freud that, like the women in his case studies, she suffered from anorexia and depression. Together, they observe contemporary sufferers of these conditions and others, now called functional disorders of unknown cause; and list the medications they have been prescribed.

The dismayed Freud says that his aim was to get rid of dependence on drugs and other physical interventions. The depiction of Freud foreseeing the present is intriguing but sketchy. Still, Hysteria richly demonstrates how Freud helped patients by uncovering their buried conflicts and suggests how his legacy continues to be pertinent.

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