I just finished reading Joan Acocella’s 1999 book, Creating Hysteria, in which she argues that the outbreak of Multiple Personality Disorder of the 1980s and 1990s was essentially created by therapists.
(Yes, this is the same Joan Acocella who is The New Yorker’s dance critic, she apparently also has a psych writing background. While there are a great many bad jokes I could make about multiple personalities dancing, she didn’t make them so I won’t.)
The book gave me a lot to think about, but here’s a small part of the book that I’m thinking about now:
Every culture, she writes, has its own "idiom of distress" –that is, its very own manifestation of social stresses, resulting in a condition which is rarely found in other societies. In south and east Asia, for example, there’s a disorder called Koro, in which "a man imagines, with terrible dread, that his penis is being retracted into his body." There is a female version too –where women imagine that their breasts and vaginas are being sucked up into their bodies, and apparently there are other variations. (Here’s a link to an academic book that covers this condition, and another web page from the University of California at San Diego, with case study .)
In the late 18th and 19th century Europe, a much less ballsy time, shall we say, it was sleepwalking.
Acocella says that in the United States, our "idiom of distress" is anorexia. (This is not denying that the physical aspects of anorexia are real, but that the mental component of the disease, which is its root cause, is socially determined.) Getting back to her subject, she also said that in the past two decades, our IOD was Multiple Personality Disorder, which struck mostly white, middle-class women, at a time when white, middle-class women were re-evaluating their roles.
I’m still sorting out what I think about her argument, but I am so happy to learn about these "idioms of distress". I’ve been researching a psychosomatic condition called imaginary pregnancy, in which a woman’s desire to become pregnant leads to her experiencing outwardly noticeable physical symptoms of pregnancy. For more than a year, I’ve been struggling to find a way to verbalize the idea I’ve had about this –that the condition of imaginary pregnancy is about more than just a few woman’s oddly protruding stomachs, but about what this disorder says about the way we see motherhood, the quest for motherhood, and infertile women. In other words, imaginary pregnancy is an idiom of distress.
Not only do I get to replace a paragraph with seven words, but now that I know how to properly frame the issue with the right jargon, it’s obvious that I have much more to learn about these idioms of distress for my imaginary pregnancy project. Fascinating research is in my future!