Book Review: Hysterical by Elissa Bassist

by Melinda Gordon Blum

Elissa Bassist’s memoir opens like a medical mystery and segues into a searing indictment of the personal costs—to the soul, body, mind, and spirit—of the malady that is living as a woman within a patriarchy. It turns out there is no real mystery and Bassist is no patient zero; this is an ancient story, an inside-the-house case in which the clues have surrounded us all along. By starting from the vantage point of her own strangled voice and moving outwards, Bassist powerfully locates, contextualizes, and makes personal the impact of misogyny on the female body.

The inflection point was the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election—an upset (literally and figuratively) that had many Americans reeling. Bassist is unwell. She sees doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist, seeking the origins of and treatment for an ever-evolving constellation of debilitating symptoms, including chronic headaches, a sore throat, blurry vision, stomach pain, hair and weight loss, a herniated disk, and more. “The diagnosis I’d receive over and over, second to no diagnosis, was Nothing Is Wrong with You,” she writes. “I had what millions of American women had: pain that didn’t make sense to doctors, a body that didn’t make sense to science, a psyche that didn’t make sense to mankind in general.”

Bassist is interested in the toxic inequities, baked into the medical establishment’s view of female health, that undermine women’s effective treatment and recovery. She understands that if her pain is minimized by medical professionals, then it’s likely minimized for most women; if it’s routinely misdiagnosed or dismissed as being purely psychological in origin, the roots of the problem run much wider and deeper than pinpointing her own specific malaise. Bassist’s condition provides the book with a through-line and its opening sense of urgency, but it’s clear early on that the complete answer exists outside the realm of lab tests, scans, and biopsies. If the slow drip of societal expectations can cause disease, if the way women are expected to behave, to be, is in itself poisonous, then where lies the cure?

A vicious cycle blames women for their own illnesses while simultaneously attempting to strip them of believability, and it’s no easy task to write one’s way out of this predicament. “Is there any productive way to speak without seeming unhinged?” Bassist asks, rhetorically. Her voice feels pressurized; indeed, it’s been locked inside her body and building steam her entire life. The material sings—singes, really—under her treatment, which employs a sharp, ironic voice, a deadpan that barely conceals a well-earned and simmering rage. “Being called a crazy psycho bitch or any variant kept me quiet while keeping me crazy,” she writes, adding, “It also kept me in pain, which kept me powerless.”

“Crazy psycho bitch,” in Bassist’s sharp rendering, is a term we come to see as a de facto description of any woman who is “difficult” or “too much.” “It doesn’t take much to be ‘too much,’” Bassist argues (by arguing at all, she risks becoming entrapped by her own point). All a woman must do, essentially, is refuse to remain invisible, to display the range of human emotion and expression perpetually available to men without indictment. “Historically . . . women who spoke or laughed or wept in public, women who couldn’t keep their words or feelings to themselves, were mocked as sick and/or mad.” Speaking, at all, is a problem if you’re a female. Bassist skillfully interweaves her personal origin story with statistics that scaffold it and reveal how it was built, including explorations of societal attitudes around the sound of women’s voices, the lack of gender parity in speaking roles on TV and in film, and studies that indicate, in groups, men speak and interrupt more often and listen less.

Maybe Bassist is onto a new genre—less coming-of-age memoir, more coming-of-rage. If coming of age writings document a narrator’s journey toward newly evolved, astute ideas and growth, coming of rage stories are gender-specific reparations, restoring to women the right to an emotion—anger—they’ve been denigrated for or denied.  Bassist’s book joins a growing number of works, including Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Gina Frangello’s Burn Your House Down, in pointing out that anger is not merely a way to blow off steam, but an indispensable pillar of women’s autonomy and agency. (Audre Lorde’s 1981 address, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” is one clear foremother for these newer books, contextualizing women’s anger as an argument for activism.) Enforced agreeability and complacency keep women in their place; anger is both a means to disrupt a harmful status quo and a tool women can wield to designate their true needs. Bassist demonstrates, personally and then on a larger scale, how the demonization of female anger is bad for women’s health. “Being socialized,” she writes, “is almost like being gaslit into mental illness.” Inaccurate ideas of female pleasure and desire are so pervasive, so baked into our media, “no one knows what women want,” she says, “not even women.” Against this stacked deck, women are expected to smile and play along, and are castigated at the first sign, in body or mind, that something isn’t working for them. It’s maddening—and enraging, too.

In “Must-See Dead-Girl TV,” Bassist wonders about the cumulative impact of popular entertainment that is overwhelmingly violent and misogynistic: “What happens when women’s subjugation and suffering are what we like to binge?” In other words, how do women break out of victimhood if so many of their media models are victims? For most American women, identifying with and attaching themselves to this messaging is an automatic and subconscious process; Bassist acknowledges she has not been spared. Connecting this to a later chapter on trauma, she argues that women who consume popular media “experience perma-trauma compounded with perennial retraumatization.” In other words, women develop a codependent, enmeshed relationship with media that harm and convince them, through repetition, that they lack the agency to opt out of these closed systems. For Bassist, this trauma looked like silence, and the recovery involved finding her voice.

At the book’s conclusion, Bassist circles back to the question of her medical condition. There is no tidy resolution; instead, readers looking to see reflections of themselves in one woman’s honest, untidy journey may find redemption. Bassist begins to get better, but pointedly she never gives her disease or diagnosis a precise name, nor does she confine her recovery to one specific methodology. If society’s illness makes women sick, then the healing process, by necessity, won’t be linear or finite. Bassist’s path to well-being is a process of letting go rather than gaining. Medication and specific therapeutic modalities bring improvement, but getting better is also a series of rejection of ideas. Her vision clears when she becomes comfortable with her own authority. She reconsiders who gets to define “wrong”; she reaffirms the essential lovability of the female voice; she accepts that although she may always grapple with fear, she can resist the notion that fear’s centrality forces women to deprioritize all else. “My silence had given me nothing, shown me nothing, introduced me to no one, and was taking me nowhere,” she writes. Silence was, literally, an unspoken agreement she wasn’t cognizant of making. Writing a book about it, within this context, is both radical and transgressive, and the ultimate repair. In Hysterical, it is Bassist’s voice that serves her.

Melinda Gordon Blum is a current MFA candidate in UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low-residency program and is the former managing editor of The Coachella Review. Find her on Instagram @mgordonblum and on Twitter @MelindaGBlum.