Wednesday, March 21, 2007


It sometimes takes me a while to get round to reading stuff – in this case it took me 15 years!! But I couldn’t just put it back on the shelf without a mention…

The psychologist WHR Rivers, in Pat Barker’s novel about the patients Rivers treats during World War I, explains what are the most likely triggers for ‘shell-shock’ during war and conflict:

“…It was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neurosis and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace” (p222).

How refreshing it is to read something that not only treats so-called 'female neuroses' and ‘hysteria’ with a seriousness and thought that is frequently missing in literature, science and psychology, but also reveals how supposedly ‘gendered’ psychological conditions are not gendered at all. According to this analysis, biological or mental difference has nothing to do with hysteria, neurosis, breakdown and depression, and everything to do with lifestyle, environmental and circumstantial conditions, and opportunities for self-expression – afforded to anyone, regardless of sex. What this also implies – and is crucial in my opinion – is the way in which the problems associated with, in this case, ‘shell-shock’, affected women in such a wide spread way – since ‘female hysteria’ is such an historically well-recognised phenomena. Could it possibly be that, outside of war, a woman’s life was (is?) significantly more traumatic than a man’s?

It’s interesting that one of the two main works Barker cites in her Author’s Note is The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter: an important text for feminism. What I think comes across loud and clear in Regeneration, is something feminism has been struggling to get out into wider consciousness for a long time: the ways in which Patriarchal conventions, expectations, attitudes, and behavioural practices are damaging to men. Feminism is not a women’s only zone – it’s neither selfish nor sexist – feminism wants a better world – a healthier society – for everybody. War is abusive: to the bodies it enlists for its services, and to the bodies it commits its atrocities against (and the difference between these is far from clear). I’ve had enough of paranoia and prejudice against feminism: feminism hates Patriarchy; it hates war; it does not hate men!

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