This is How the History of Hysteria Affects Trauma Survivors


It’s not uncommon for a trauma survivor to be told they are lying or making things up for attention. In 2017, trauma survivors are told to “get over it”, they are making a big deal out of nothing, being blamed for their own assault based on what they were wearing, what they were drinking, where they were. Victims of trauma are often left to stand alone in silence, because no one else with use their voice to speak for them. Where did this lack of support come from? Why are the stories – the realities- of the victims so easily dismissed?

The history of trauma, as Doctor Judith Herman discusses in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, holds the answer to these questions. As I read the chapter on A Forgotten History, I began to realize how deeply embedded victim-blaming and shaming is in our society and how it affects trauma survivors today.

Personally, I was both fascinated and horrified at the idea that the study of trauma and it’s relation to childhood sexual trauma dates back to the 1880’s. Sigmund Freud’s (in collaboration with Joseph Breuer) curiosity to continue Jean-Martin Charcot’s study on hysteria unlocked a world of knowledge. The mystery behind hysteria was linked to childhood sexual trauma – and not only had they uncovered the source of the symptoms of hysteria, but the concept of the “talking cure” was developed. Finally, trauma survivors were being heard and treated. This should have been a shining moment in trauma history. Instead this is where I believe the tone was set for trauma survivors. Not that they had an answer to their ailments – but in less than a year, Freud decided the stories from his patients were too horrific to be reality. Instead, he created psychoanalysis and concluded: “I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only fantasies which my patients had made up.” (Herman 14). Freud turned his back on his patients and instead suggested that their traumatic realities were nothing more than a fantasy, stemmed from internal desires.

The idea that Freud had insinuated – that women craved these experiences and that the trauma was actually a seduction on their own behalf – has, in my opinion, laid the foundation of victim-blaming and their long silence against their abusers. It mirrors society’s attitude today on survivors of abuse. Every time I read a story written by a trauma survivor, who has built up the courage to stand up against her abuser and use her voice to help others, there are always comments about whether or not she was using drugs or alcohol, what clothes she was wearing, whether or not she engaged in risky behaviors prior to the assault. And then there is always the comment that “they were asking for it” or that they are “attention seekers” playing the victim role instead of just getting over it. Children’s allegations are often dismissed, the parents claiming the child is making it up because they are “acting out.”

In reading the history of hysteria, it opened my eyes to how the concept of victim blaming and denial is not a modern idea. It has been around almost as long as the discovery of trauma itself. The trauma of victims has been swept under the rug by society and it is time to speak up. It’s time to break the view of victim blaming set forth by the findings of hysteria and to break the silence of trauma survivors today.

*Originally published, February 2017

Melissa Flickinger
Latest posts by Melissa Flickinger (see all)

Published by Melissa Flickinger

Author assistant, book nerd, paraeducator, mental health advocate and coffee lover.

2 thoughts on “This is How the History of Hysteria Affects Trauma Survivors”

  1. One of the most difficult and horrifying things discussed in some of my psychology classes was concerning Freud. He turned his back on his patients, not just because he couldn’t believe the prevalence of sexual assault against women/young girls/children, but also because he enjoyed his lavish lifestyle and could not be bothered to question and call out the ones paying the bills for their indefensible behavior and actions….it’s truly a disturbing historical note, especially in regard to what was lost in the ability to prevent CSA for years to come because of Freud’s choice.

    Thank you for this! Excellent post and, unfortunately, far too relevant these days.

    1. C. Streetlights says:

      Thank you for visiting, and you’re absolutely right. When Melissa and I chatted about this topic before she posted, I became so angry because of all the wasted years that could have been spent in improving effective trauma therapy — at an earlier time! To think of how much time has been lost, and not only that, but how much more rape culture and victim shaming has been entrenched because of this.

Comments are closed.