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Hysteria, Autism, and the Durability of Sheer Nonsense

Posted Dec 01 2011 12:00am

Nonsense_logo_messy By Dan Olmsted

Events have conspired this year to bring attention to psychiatry as it relates to autism and other disorders that we believe share environmental roots. The focus is not at all flattering.

There’s the American Psychiatric Association’s re-jiggering of the upcoming DSM-V so that the parameters of autistic disorder will change, fuzzing the real increase and making its environmental nature harder to discern. Then there’s French psychiatrists banning a documentary called The Wall, which portrays them (accurately) as clinging to the discredited parent-blaming paradigm.

There’s the book Anatomy of an Addiction by Howard Markel, which portrays Sigmund Freud as – how shall we put it -- coked out of his freaking mind while cooking up some of his big ideas. And there’s a well-received new film, A Dangerous Method, which describes how Freud and Jung dealt – poorly -- with a prominent case of “hysteria.”

The miserable performance of psychiatry on these fronts is not news to us. In our book The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, Mark Blaxill and I put forward a new theory about Freud’s first “hysteria” cases in the late 1800s. We argue that many if not most of those dozen or so case studies – which included both men and women – were actually organic illnesses triggered by toxins, and in particular by mercury exposure from medicine and manufacturing.

We won’t recapitulate that theory here (see our chapter, “The Age of Hysteria”) except to say that Freud himself noted that most of the severe patients he saw were tending fathers with long histories of syphilis – treated with mercury – or were otherwise employed in nursing – where mercury dressings and treatments were then standard. Our examination of his key case histories, from “Dora” to “Anna O.,” documented the close connection. In the case of Dora, Freud treated her father for syphilis before seeing her as a patient a few years later – having triggered, we believe, the very mental problems that he then treated as psychiatric! Nice work if you can get it.

It’s a simple and stark idea, and we seem to be the first to propose it. If we’re right, it’s consequential, calling into question the theories derived from such a fundamental mistake. And it supports our argument for a much longer and deeper history of mercury poisoning in humans than mainstream medicine has understood or is willing to acknowledge (the thesis of our book).

Take A Dangerous Method, which its producers describe thusly: “On the eve of World War I, Zurich and Vienna are the setting for a dark tale of sexual and intellectual discovery. Drawn from true-life events, A Dangerous Method explores the turbulent relationships between fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung, his mentor Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, the beautiful but disturbed young woman who comes between them.” The outcome forever changes “the face of modern thought.”

The latter is no doubt true. Freud and his apostles and apostates did indeed shape modern intellectual history. It was not just what went on in the 50-minute hour, but how we think about sexuality, the role of childhood and art and culture, and the relations between men and women. Which makes it worth examining what exactly was the matter with Sabina. According to one review on

“Keira Knightley … plays Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who would go on to become a renowned psychoanalyst herself, but when we first see her, she’s a hysterical creature being carted off to a hospital, kicking and screaming, in a horse-drawn carriage. Michael Fassbender’s Jung is the doctor in charge of treating her, and she’s in the midst of a fit when he first sits her down: Her neck is drawn long and tight, her eyes pop, her jaw juts out so far it looks as if it might detach from her face.”

This description shows that classical hysteria went way beyond the “vapors” and fainting spells that we now tend to think of when we summon images of hysteria in Victorian-era women. These “fits” (seizures) are a consistent feature of hysteria, in both men and women, and they point not to an abusive or seductive Papa but to an environmental trigger.

In our book, we note how Freud’s mentor Charcot describes a gilder who works with mercury and has a “fit” while getting off a carriage. Charcot believes that there’s no problem working with mercury (barring an “accident”) and attributes his problems to family issues. But everyone now understands that working with mercury and other dangerous metals is hazardous per se, and that seizures are a well-known feature of mercury toxicity (as are so many of the other physical and mental features of “hysteria” – concentric narrowing of the visual field, peripheral neuropathy, gut problems, depression and suicidal thinking).

What, then, of Sabrina’s background? Let’s see, her father was a businessman and her mother, … well, her mother was a dentist.

A dentist! Is there a more mercury-centric occupation one could imagine for a woman in the late 1800s? Facts cluster around a good hypothesis, as they say, and here again you don’t have to go through contortions to find a link to mercury in the early reports of hysteria.

Yet mainstream media and medicine remain resolutely baffled when it comes to such environmental or – even more sensitive – iatrogenic or doctor-induced disorders. “Hysteria: Is the Medical Condition Medical, Physical, or Made-Up?” asked an article in The Daily Beast last month timed to the movie release.

“Today, the condition remains a mystery,” writes Casey Schwartz. “It has a new name—conversion disorder—and it accounts for 1 to 3 percent of all diagnoses in hospitals, making it more common than either multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia. Yet it is still poorly understood, and often misdiagnosed.”

Schwartz writes about Jon Stone, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh. “One of his patients, a former nurse [!], developed an extreme conversion disorder in which her muscles involuntarily contracted into abnormal positions. ‘Her left leg is literally upside down,’ Stone says, so that ‘her toe is pressing into her buttock. She’s now been in bed for 25 years.’”

Why, you’d have to be a French psychiatrist to believe that’s a mental illness!

If only this were just a movie, and not an influential way of thinking that persists to this very day with such malignant consequences. For as we write in our book, Freud’s misdiagnosis of mercury poisoning as “hysteria” has echoed down through the history of autism.

In the 1940s, Leo Kanner overlooked the links to new organic mercury compounds in the family background of his first patients and instead succumbed to the Freudian idea of parental coldness as a factor.

In the 1950s and 60s, Bruno Bettelheim heaped “homicidal mothers” insanity on top of that. And the futile focus on genes has only confused the issue further.

Said one of the doctors we quote in our book, aghast that every generation seems to forget the toxic effects of mercury: “One can go forward and still go in circles.”


Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, published in paperback this fall by Thomas Dunne books.

Posted by Age of Autism at December 12, 2011 at 5:46 AM in Dan Olmsted Permalink

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