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Emerging Research Paper

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So I’m going to paste what I turned in to Dr. Dyke for our first history and gender writing assignment. In this paper I introduce the topic of “nervous breakdown’s” during the early twentieth century with a reference to a character from popular literature. The idea for the second paper is introducing  a nervous breakdown equivalent that is associated with masculinity (probably shell-shock or PTSD) using another relevant popular novel, movie, or song.  For the final paper I will probably combine the two into something comprehensive, although I have to make sure it isn’t going to be too cluttered. I would genuinely appreciate feedback.

Thanks. And please excuse any grammatical or spelling errors, I’m not sure that this is the copy I turned in.

Mommy Needs Some Quiet Time: Gender and the Nervous Breakdown

Popular culture during the first half of the twentieth century was overflowing with references to female personalities suffering from the debilitating effects of a “nervous breakdown.” The idea that a woman would be disposed to a breakdown as a by-product of her naturally weak character was accepted to such a degree that Truman Capote’s character Bonnie Clutter in his renowned novel In Cold Blood is casually mentioned to have spent years in bed due to a “nervous” and “timid” disposition with hardly a hint of irony or concern from the author (Capote 7).  Since the idea of the “nervous breakdown” as a diagnosable psychological condition largely disappeared from popular discourse during the second half of the twentieth century (Stearns), the question of what a “nervous breakdown” is and how gender affected its diagnosis is one worthy of investigation. This paper will explore research on the history of the “nervous breakdown” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and demonstrate the role that negative attitudes regarding women and gender played in the diagnosis and treatment of their discontent.

Prior to the adoption of the more recognizable and considerably less medical sounding “nervous breakdown,” the American physician George Beard coined the term “neurasthenia” in 1869 to encapsulate a broad range of symptoms that in contemporary American culture would perhaps be associated with depression. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, Bill Bynum describes neurasthenia in the late  nineteenth century as “diagnosis à la mode… it explained so much, in so many patients… then ran into problems mostly because it explained too much, too easily” (Bynum “Neurasthenia”). Neurasthenia was believed to be the result of “a patient’s nervous system operating at less than an optimal setting… [i]ts primary cluster of symptoms [being], tiredness, weakness, [and] dyspepsia” (“Neurasthenia”). Neurasthenia wasn’t originally gender specific and the causes of the illness were generally considered to be physiological rather than psychological. The connection between neurasthenia and the infamous “nervous breakdown” is evident when one considers the factors that were generally attributed to the development of each malady. Historian Peter Stearns writes in the Journal of Social History that Beard blamed the development of neurasthenia on the physical hardships that accompanied life in the ever industrializing northeastern United States of the late nineteenth century (Stearns “Nervous Breakdown in 20th-Century American Culture”). Similarly, when the term “nervous breakdown” was introduced by Albert Adams in 1901, “Adams replicated much of Beard’s thinking about neurasthenia, using his new breakdown term essentially interchangeably” (“Nervous Breakdown”). With the development of the idea that stress to the nervous system will lead to a breakdown characterized by symptoms now associated with depressive disorders, gender specific explanations for the onset of a “nervous breakdown” began to enter the public discourse.

In his article, Bearns describes the two most popular and glaringly contradictory explanations from the early twentieth century for why men and women each respectively succumb to a breakdown. As described previously, Beard and other professionals attributed the development of neurasthenia or the “nervous breakdown” in men to external factors associated with the increasing pace of life in the modern industrialized world. But for woman the factors that contributed to the development of “nervous” conditions were internal factors that gradually wore down the “naturally” weak sex. Stearns describes the explanation often attributed for a women’s nervous breakdown as the “idleness scenario.” In complete contrast to the explanation given for men, psychologists often insisted that the “nervous housewife suffered from ‘bad training, liability to worry, wounded pride, failure, desire for sympathy, boredom, unhappiness, pessimism of outlook, over-aesthetic tastes… fear of death, sex problems and difficulties and doubt’” (“Nervous Breakdown”). Besides the absurdly broad nature of these explanations, there is a clear bias towards focusing on nearly every negative cultural stereotype about women in early twentieth century America. While men were the victims of outside pressures beyond their control, women were literally the victims of their gender and their “petty discontent.” It would be misleading to suggest that there was not extensive debate and disagreement in the psychological and sociological communities regarding these various explanations for nervous disorders and assumptions regarding gender, however, the explanation that focused on the frailty of women is the explanation that seems to have caught on in popular culture for the majority of the twentieth century. Truman Capote’s narrator from In Cold Blood seems so dismissive of Bonnie Clutter because of the prominent and paternalistic view of his generation that women were essentially victims of themselves, an annoyance, and weak.

What is the best way to deal with an annoying weakling? Medical Researcher Diana Martin’s article from The American Journal of Psychology titled “The Rest Cure Revisited” describes a common treatment for women suffering from nervous disorders consisting of “three core elements: isolation, rest, and feeding, with electro-therapy and massage added to counteract muscle atrophy”(Martin, “The Rest Cure Revisited”). Martin further mentions that treatments often involved extended and uninterrupted periods of bed rest during which women were not allowed access to family or friends. It would not be difficult for one to draw the conclusion that the “rest cure” was designed more as a tool to get an unhappy wife out of her husband’s “affairs” than to provide her with a relief from any sort of nervous disorder, real or imagined. Martin articulates her feelings regarding the “rest cure” in perhaps a more pointed way when she notes that “the implicit prejudices inherent in the rest cure are clear. The patient was to be infantilized and confined for her own good, and the cost… could be devastating” (The Rest Cure). In the case of the “rest cure,” women became victims not only of the personal situations they found themselves in, but victims also of a patriarchal medical establishment that equated their gender with illness.

Perhaps Truman Capote is not to blame for his implicit attitude towards his character Bonnie Clutter. Unfortunately, he missed the tragedy that was greater than the horrific murder on which his novel centered. The tragedy of generations of women who were told that they were essentially flawed, and that their very gender was a danger to their well-being.


Written by gerardhf

March 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. An interesting correlation is that popular culture viewed (and still does to a great extent) manhood as being different than anatomical maleness but femaleness as innate. It only makes sense that a man’s breakdown would be from an external factor and a woman’s from an internal one.

    Good paper and I hope you’ll share the next one as well. As a total aside…I’m quite sure I know a few people whose “nervous system is operating at less than an optimal setting.” Very funny.


    March 24, 2011 at 11:30 pm

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