© Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
By Georgette Veerhuis
It was around 10AM on Friday 19 January 2018 when Dolores suddenly rushed downstairs. ‘The Netherlands has gone mad!’ she yelled as she ran out of the house. ‘I’ll tell you all about it when I come back!’ The front door slammed shut.
When Dolores returned, she immediately went upstairs and began making phone calls. When I went upstairs I found Dolores in her new study. Her laptop screen displayed a white page with blue details and an image of a smiling white man in a white coat. It was the website of the ophthalmology department of the hospital.
Dolores began to explain what had happened earlier. She’d wanted to make an appointment at the hospital but they informed her that she needed a referral from her doctor. She therefore rushed out of the house so that she would make it just in time to her doctor’s practice.
I listened to her as she opened the referral letter. I saw her eyes sliding over the paper. Suddenly they widened. Dolores shoved the piece of paper in my hands and her eyes now searing with rage said loudly: ‘This has absolutely nothing to do with my eyes!’
I looked at the referral letter. It presented a short medical history. The mention of two types of health complaints had made Dolores particularly upset: one regarding her mental health and one regarding her vaginal health. In Dolores’ opinion, the ophthalmologist wouldn’t need this type of information. She moreover thought it was outrageous that the doctor would so carelessly make this information public. Then Dolores stated that it was ridiculous that she had to go to the doctor to begin with: ‘He knows nothing about the situation with my eyes!’
Rising quickly from her chair, Dolores announced: ‘You know what? I’m just going to cross out these parts with a black marker!’
She swiftly went through her new office space to find said marker. Once she had found one, she pressed the tip against the piece of paper and, in a few decisive moves, drew a couple of thick black lines over the text.
Wouldn’t it be easy to label Dolores’ behaviour as hysteric? After all, didn’t her medical history mention her mental health? Or can we learn something about the complex negotiation over (a gendered history of) medical power, and over the agency of medical files moulding our bodies, behaviours and selves?
What emerges in this fragment is the unwavering authority of medicine to establish truths – or fears that it will – particularly truths about the gendered self and madness. These fears are not unsound. They harken back to the construction of the hysteric woman and the medical supervision she ‘by necessity’ warranted. The hysteric woman is a historical figure for female mental illness who reflected the restrictive gendered dynamics in Victorian societies, especially for white (upper) middle class women. Her body articulated as weak, leaky and sexually dangerous, she threatened moral order and social stability. One of the ways male doctors forced her to conform to what they considered proper bourgeois women’s behaviours was by the category of insanity. Historian Elaine Showalter, in her book Victorian women and insanity even writes: ‘The traditional beliefs that women were more emotionally volatile, more nervous, and more ruled by their reproductive and sexual economy than men inspired Victorian psychiatric theories of femininity as a kind of mental illness in itself.’
In general, madness is so potent in its regulatory effects because it draws from the idea that mental illness tells a permanent truth of the self, and of the faulty mind where the self is located. This is the product of a horrid history of a moralistic scientific practice, which from the end of the nineteenth century began to map the mind in terms of criminal and sexual deviance, while soaking it in racial, class and gender bias. As psychology rose in power, the mind crystallised as a mere physiological structure. And as a result, mental disorders are articulated as ‘rooted’ or ‘wired’ in the brain – unchangeable and static.
In its own way, Dolores’ medical history also attests to a sense of permanence: even though the diagnosis of Dolores’ mental health was made over ten years ago (and she wasn’t told at the time), it has come back to ‘haunt’ Dolores. It presents itself as a durable evaluation of her self. This shows how documents ‘flow about’ our everyday lives and shape our selves – i.e. force us to respond to and negotiate these documents – even years after their original production. And so medical records become powerful narrative resources to assemble and represent our identities.
I believe that Dolores in that moment understood that her medical history generated this robust ‘truth’ about her – not only through the sticky category of mental illness but also the persistent presence of medical files – and why she resolutely acted against it. It was to prevent her self from being storied in this particularly oppressive way, to resist this narrative being impressed upon her being. Most notably, we can observe how a gendered history of medicalised madness produces effects today, where stigmatisation and (medical) control incites fear and resistance in Dolores. In short, we see how such a history shapes and becomes lived in everyday experience.
This is an edited piece from Georgette’s master thesis ‘The biopolitics of alternative belonging’, which discusses the ways in which particular histories of western medicine shape contemporary subjectivities, as well as a Dutch white middle class woman’s attempt to negotiate these power structures and to fashion an alternative self through alternative medicine and contemporary spirituality.
Georgette Veerhuis has recently graduated from her Erasmus Mundus master in Women’s and Gender Studies at CEU and Hull University. Before that she did her bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology at the VU.