City of Incurable Women
In a fusion of fact and fiction, nineteenth-century women institutionalized as hysterics reveal what history ignored
“City of Incurable Women is a brilliant exploration of the type of female bodily and psychic pain once commonly diagnosed as hysteria—and the curiously hysterical response to it commonly exhibited by medical men. It is a novel of powerful originality, riveting historical interest, and haunting lyrical beauty.” —Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend and What Are You Going Through
“Where are the hysterics, those magnificent women of former times?” wrote Jacques Lacan. Long history’s ghosts, marginalized and dispossessed due to their gender and class, they are reimagined by Maud Casey as complex, flesh-and-blood people with stories to tell. These linked, evocative prose portraits, accompanied by period photographs and medical documents both authentic and invented, poignantly restore the humanity to the nineteenth-century female psychiatric patients confined in Paris’s Salpêtrière hospital and reduced to specimens for study by the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his male colleagues.
Casey's enlightening latest (after The Man Who Walked Away) imagines the lives of female "hysterics" confined at the Salp tri re, a 19th-century psychiatric hospital in Paris. The work, unshackled from traditional elements such as plot, characters, or earned endings, alternately reads like a prose poem, a fever dream, and a compendium of primary sources. Casey wanders among the thoughts and histories of a chambermaid, a foundling, and a seamstress, juxtaposing their motives, thoughts, and dreams with accounts of their rapes by previous employers and sexual exploitation by their doctors who "disguise it as science," as well as the dehumanizing doctors' case notes, which mention tattooing the patients with the name of the hospital. The first-person plural narration, meanwhile, blurs the women's identities ("None of us wanted to fall, but then we were falling"). Illuminating illustrations and references to the real people who inspired the story add texture to a distressing account of a dark history, and Casey's rich imaginative leaps make for tantalizing and affecting portraits. It defies convention and revels in searing, gorgeous language. In fact, this is worth reading twice.