It's all in the mind, bud

We're living in an age of hysteria, says an American academic - and she's got the hate mail to prove it
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Elaine Showalter, a distinguished English professor at Princeton University, New Jersey, has caused a storm in America, arguing that Gulf war and chronic fatigue syndromes are all in the mind. So are four other manifestations of what she provocatively describes as Nineties "hysteria": recovered memory loss, satanic ritual abuse, multiple personality disorder and alien abduction.

These syndromes are bound together, so she says, by the virtually identical process by which they are acquired: "People learn about the diseases from the media. They unconsciously develop the symptoms, and when they learn that their condition has a name, they make a career on it."

The hate mail has been pouring in. Sufferers from chronic fatigue, also known as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) and yuppie flu, have written her long letters, often ferocious in their energy, describing her as a fascist, a Nazi revisionist and a "maggot". An alien abductee has been leaving her voice-mail messages vividly describing the occasion when, aged six, he was transported on to an alien spaceship.

On a recent TV talk show in Seattle she was tormented for an hour by a studio audience of 200 frenzied Gulf war veterans in uniform and their wives, who wore red, white and blue. An armed guard escorted her out of the building. At a book signing two weeks ago in Washington she had to make a run for her car after a man emerged from an enraged crowd of chronic fatigue patients to suggest that she ran the risk of assassination.

She describes herself as a "sceptical Freudian", and her readiness to embrace seemingly sexist psychological interpretations has been alarming: "I've been a liberal and feminist all my life. I've been a target for the right, and now my leftie friends don't know what to think."

Her book is called Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. In it Ms Showalter argues that America is in the grips of a "psychological plague", "a panic" of "epidemic proportions". "In the 1990s the United States has become the hot zone of psychogenic diseases, new and mutating forms of hysteria amplified by modern communications and fin de siecle anxiety."

Hysteria, an unconscious affliction that produces the appearance of disease, is more contagious than ever in the Nineties, "circulated through self-help books, articles in newspapers and magazines, TV talk shows and series, films, the Internet". The decisive role of the mass media, Ms Showalter says, is to endow the symptoms with social legitimacy, to make them respectable. As the mass media expands its reach, so paranoias and conspiracy theories made in America "disperse globally to infect other countries and cultures".

None has proved more beguiling than chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), an epidemic that has affected Britons as much as it has Americans and has acquired such currency that it has begun to show up, as Ms Showalter notes, on TV sitcoms such as The Golden Girls. "Dorothy develops mysterious symptoms; unsympathetic doctors recommend hypnosis or a cruise, but a virologist named Dr Chang reassures her that she 'really is sick and not merely depressed'. Dorothy is relieved to discover that she has 'something real'."

Evidence that the real-life Dr Changs are selling their patients a bill of goods is demonstrated, in Ms Showalter's view, by a Harvard study which showed that 80 per cent of those who said they suffered from chronic fatigue were women, and another study that showed 90 per cent of sufferers were white. America's belligerent CFS lobby is so painfully aware of this deficiency in the logic of the condition that it has gone to extraordinary lengths to twist the scientific evidence, according to Ms Showalter. "I discovered after I finished the book that the CFS people were literally recruiting new victims, chiefly among adolescent males. They phone up parents and ask them, 'Is your 16-year-old son sleeping a lot?'. The answer inevitably being yes, for 16-year-old boys do sleep an inordinate amount, they then feel able to add to their tally of male CFS victims."

Imaginary illnesses, she says, have struck with as much intensity in other parts of the world but - with the exception of CFS - not to the same degree. Of the 45,000 British troops who took part in the Gulf war some 1,200 have reported ailments - from diarrhoea to memory loss, sexual malfunction to cancer - that they ascribe to Gulf war syndrome. In the United States, more than 80,000 out of 697,000 who served in the Gulf say they have been struck by the desert fever.

Ms Showalter lived in England for two years in the Seventies. Since 1978 she has spent three months each summer doing research at London's Wellcome Institute into the history of medicine. By her own definition she is Anglo-American, and she believes that the reason why Gulf war syndrome has not taken such a hold in Britain is that the culture is more sceptical, rational and ironic than in America.

Since she completed her book last year, however, the number of complaints from British Gulf veterans has grown dramatically. "Now British politicians are beginning to cash in on it," she said in an interview at her office in Princeton.

Advocates in both countries argue that military establishments are engaged in sinister cover-ups. But there, Ms Showalter says, the similarities end. Indeed, she believes the fact that the causes attributed to Gulf war syndrome are different reinforces her argument that it has no identifiable physical origin. "In Britain they're saying that the Ministry of Defence used experimental drugs without the consent of the soldiers; in the US they're saying the soldiers were exposed to nerve gas after an explosion at an Iraqi chemical plant. Well, that explosion took place - but British soldiers were nowhere near it."

Efforts by the bureaucracy in Washington DC to reassure Gulf war veterans seem to have "created a candy store for conspiracy buffs," she says. Ms Showalter adds that nothing whets the appetite of journalists more than the whiff of a government cover-up. It has been reported, for example, that camels and goats have mysteriously died in the desert; that mass burials of contaminated Iraqis were hushed up by allied commanders; that the Pentagon is concealing the deaths of 2,000 Gulf war veterans.

Ms Showalter sneers at such items as manifest tomfoolery. Not that she lacks sympathy for sufferers like Troy Allbuck, a Gulf war veteran, and his wife, Kelli, a couple from Illinois who have endured all manner of afflictions, from migraines to bleeding gums. According to Mrs Allbuck, her husband returned from the war with toxic semen that "causes sores - blisters which actually open and bleed".

What saddens Ms Showalter is her conviction that the Allbucks and thousands like them would stand a better chance of obtaining cures if they could accept that their symptoms would be treated more effectively by psychotherapy than by endless inconclusive medical tests which encourage paranoia while obfuscating science.

"The suffering of Gulf war syndrome is real by any measure, and the symptoms caused by war neurosis are just as painful and incapacitating as those caused by chemicals, parasites or smoke," she writes.

The problem derives mainly from the widespread assumption in American society that psychological illness is imaginary, an expression of malingering or moral weakness. Unwilling to accept the blow to their self-esteem, victims seek to dignify their condition by bestowing upon it a fictitious medical label.

No target is safe from Ms Showalter, who has often been singled out by the academic right as a strident proponent of radical feminism. Yet she does not shrink from citing statistics which show that, in keeping with the findings of Freud, the majority of those who have succumbed to the hysterical epidemic are women. More than 90 per cent of those who say they have recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are women; nine out of ten patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorder are women; accusations of satanic ritual abuse come primarily from women; and of the tens of thousands of Americans who say they have been abducted by aliens, three-quarters are women.

Freud would have been delighted to discover that these four syndromes invariably share sexual manifestations. The "common abduction scenario matrix", as described in Hystories citing a professor at Philadelphia's illustrious Temple University, involves the abductee being taken to an examination room aboard a space ship where Small Beings with black, lidless eyes carry out a minute investigation of the earthling's body. If, as is usually the case, the victim is female, the Small Beings submit her to intense, and rarely unpleasurable, gynaecological probing.

Ms Showalter's readiness to embrace seemingly sexist psychological interpretations is evidence of her refusal to be pigeon-holed - "a very American tendency", like the politically correct impulse "not to question a patient's narrative, not to threaten people's self-esteem".

The hysterical epidemics of the Nineties have gone on too long and do ever more damage, Ms Showalter says, by distracting society from its real crises, by undermining a respect for the truth and by helping support an atmosphere of conspiracy and suspicion. At a more profound level what is at stake, she believes, is human dignity. The epidemics will end only when people confront their feelings of guilt, shame and helplessness in a sincere spirit, without looking "to invisible enemies, devils and alien invaders for the answers".