Once, after publishing a piece online about workshopping sexual violence, Elissa Bassist was mocked, vilified, and told to “burn in a dumpster fire.”
In Hysterical, her debut memoir, she asks: “What moves a stranger to request the death of a woman who went public with her pain?”
With wit, thorough research, hundreds of examples, and personal stories that showcase a Jewish sense of humor and history, she shows that her experience is not an exception but the norm. Connecting the dots between rape culture, objectification, and a society that doesn’t listen to voices that aren’t male, Bassist depicts her ordeals as symptomatic. She depicts a world in which women are not believed, and vilifying those who speak out against gendered abuse is socially permissible.
Even sacred Jewish text backs this up. For example, the Mishnah, the first major edited record of the Oral Torah “indexes nine curses that G-d gifted women, including not being ‘believed as a witness,” Bassist writes.
Feeling that there was “no time or place where I could express my opinion or experience and still feel safe and sane,” Bassist chose to remain silent. “I’d become the ideal woman:” she writes, “not a perfect woman, but a silent woman.”
While reading Hysterical made me tremble with fury, it also brought me comfort as I began to understand that what was wrong with me had less to do with me and more to do with the microaggressions of patriarchy. “Because patriarchy is our mother tongue and pre-existing condition,” Bassist writes, women learn to fawn, frame our self-worth through the male gaze, overly apologize, and bite our tongues. When women do speak up, our voices come across as bitchy or, at worst, hysterical.
Eventually, for Bassist, mysterious health issues arose: “My silence made me sick,” Bassist continues, “and not to sound hysterical, but I almost died– from silence, from illness … from preferring to die rather than aggravate anyone or be a ‘crazy psycho bitch.’”
While silence can afford a sense of external safety, Bassist realized that it can also cause greater harm. After a female acupuncturist proposed that her maladies might be attributed to “caged fury,” she would go on to discover that silence was the source of her pain. Bassist offers studies showing that approximately 70 percent of patients with medically unexplainable symptoms are women. Additionally, women are at a greater risk of misdiagnosis, improper treatment, complications in medical situations, mental illness, and attempted suicide.
Eventually, Bassist would find that healing could only occur through reclaiming her voice. Bassist cites further studies in which illnesses decreased and women with breast cancer doubled their survival rate when given the opportunity to write and talk about their pain.
This is why we must continue to speak up, Bassist writes, even at the risk of being unlikeable and being perceived as unreasonable. “Risk refusal,” she writes. “Risk trouble. Risk acknowledgment… Risk it, or risk living a half-a-person life.” This is Bassist’s mission, to rally women to find their voice, trust it, use it, and listen to it, for their lives’ sake.
Having also been labeled a “hypochondriac” by teachers and experienced unexplainable health issues, it was impossible to read Bassist’s memoir without feeling both enraged and vindicated. Like Bassist, my eyes failed me during a particularly traumatic time (hello, remote learning with neurodiverse children), and to this day optometrists and doctors don’t know why I developed cataracts at age forty-three. Bassist couches the rage that she channels with a hefty dose of wit and humor. And after demonstrating how the world doesn’t listen to women, Bassist offers brilliant, hilarious, and fascinating footnotes full of research and anecdotal evidence to drive home her thesis, just in case we don’t believe her.
Hysterical is for every woman, especially those who have experienced trauma or chronic health issues. Reading it will make every woman want to go out and buy this book for every woman they love, then go write their own story.