A graphic novel about Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and his research on the diagnosis of hysteria is an accessible and interesting read, says Fiona Leckerman
I’m not here to sell Freud, but hysteria is still a very relevant issue today,” says Canadian-born author Richard Appignanesi – and he should know. He’s just spent the past three years immersing himself in research about the famous Austrian-Jewish father of psychoanalysis. And, alongside illustrator Oscar Zarate, the pair recently published their new graphic novel, Hysteria.
The result is a compelling and chronological look at Sigmund Freud’s case studies of women (and the occasional man) who were diagnosed with hysteria, a condition thought to be responsible for a wide array of symptoms, including fainting, nervousness, sexual desire, shortness of breath and insomnia.
Some of those case studies included Augustine, who experienced convulsions, seizures and delirium. Freud reasoned that a sexual assault as a young girl was the cause of her condition.
Meanwhile, Geneviève was a woman who, in a fit of hysteria, cut off her own nipple and believed her dead lover visited her, while Anna O was a wealthy 21-year-old who experienced impaired vision, paralysis and anorexia. Using hypnosis, Freud traced her case of hysteria to the emotional trauma she experienced nursing her sick father.
Appignanesi describes how the very word ‘hysteria’ is linked to the histrionics of women and in writing this book, he wanted to be as faithful as he could to Freud and his discoveries.
After all, Freud’s involvement in these cases opened the door to the science of psychoanalysis.
While observing these hysterical women, Freud realised the hands-off approach, combined with the dismissal of drugs and the talking cure, allowed the patient to confront their own demons.
He adds: “It’s the patient that has to cure themselves, finally admitting they are responsible for their own life and that they have a choice.”
Appignanesi is no stranger to the complexities of translating Freud’s ideas into graphic form, having previously written The Wolf Man, a graphic novel of one of the innovative doctor’s most famous case studies.
Over three years, Appignanesi immersed himself in research at the British Library, while Zarate decided he would illustrate the pictures with a black-and-white wash “to give the drawings the right sense, like the dreamlike pre-colour photographs of the 19th century”.
Of Freud himself, Appignanesi has formed the view that “he is revered by some and hated by others”.
He adds: “You have to remember the age in which he was born. It was difficult for him to live as a Jew in Austria with the Nazis knocking at his door. Had things been different, Freud could have become a neuroscientist. He was always fascinated with trying to solve puzzles.”
Hysteria essentially tells a story of discovery and shows how the original methods for treating mental illness, including the use of opiates, were redundant.
Imagining Freud’s elderly self reflecting on his younger days, the book subsequently takes an interesting turn when he sees the ghost of Princess Diana from the future.
Appignanesi says this reflects “the serious ongoing debate about mental health”. He explains: “Princess Diana had all the classic symptoms of hysteria and as the term ‘hysteria’ has been dismissed, the same problems remain.
“There are girls as young as 13 who have issues with body image. We live in a society where beauty is prized over brains and the weight resting on young women is worse than ever. I don’t know whether it’s OK to contrast these things, but it’s good to start the conversation.”
Hysteria is a surprisingly consuming read and the graphic element allows the reader to easily access the themes and ideas, which in turn delivers understanding. Freud, no doubt would certainly approve.
• Hysteria by Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate is published by SelfMadeHero, priced £14.99. Available now
Left: The book jacket of Hysteria, a graphic novel about Sigmund Freud, above, by Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate