The Term “Hysteria” Came from Patients With Repressed Memories of Child Sexual Abuse and Trauma

“No patient is eager to discover that she [or he] was violated by people she loved and trusted. In fact, patients tend to cling to their doubts long past the point where most impartial observers would be convinced.” ~~Harvard Mental Health Newsletter

The term “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word for the uterus. “Hysteria” was used for hundreds of years as a term for a mental disorder in women. In the late 19th Century, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot began the first systematic research into this disorder.

Charcot’s work inspired Sigmund Freud of Vienna and Pierre Janet of France. Janet and Freud discovered through their research that “hysteria was the result of unbearable emotional reactions to traumatic events, most often from incest or other sexual trauma.”

Janet proposed that people with hysteria were unable to integrate their traumatic memories, and those memories were set apart from normal memory processes. Through the years, mental health practitioners found that the only way to relieve the patient from their suffering, was to help them integrate the memories and the emotions into consciousness.

Dr. Jennifer Freud’s “betrayal trauma theory” is that the victim’s amnesia for childhood abuse happens for survival, in the face of terrible suffering –and not because of the suffering itself.

In a number of ways, recovered memories are not like continuous memories. Most first appear in the form of a flashback, a bodily sensation, a sensory impression or memory, an intense effective response -such as a panic attack- or even a dream. These sorts of memories can be “remembered” in the body and senses. They might be described as snapshots, often without context or sequential ordering, but are vivid in some details and laden with intense emotion. Memories often come up while hearing something on television, or watching a television show or film. Something might “click” in the mind, accompanying a terrible feeling of panic or extreme emotion. The person may not even know why they are reacting to the image or dialogue.

In many cases, memories are often originally triggered by some external event in the environment, a personal experience, or an event.

Linda Stoler found forgetting more likely in women whose abuse was a family secret, likely happening to other related children, but who could not get any adult to believe them or to intervene.

Repression is also more likely found in victims whose abuser/s developed and displayed a public persona as an exceptionally “good” person, and in victims who were told, or otherwise made to believe that the sexual abuse was their fault, their idea, and were groomed for self-blame.


Source: Recovered Memories, Linda Stoler, Kat Quina, University of Rhode Island. Anne P. DePrince, Jennifer J. Freyd, University of Oregon. Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Volume Two
Harvard Mental Health Newsletter, April 1993
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6 Responses to The Term “Hysteria” Came from Patients With Repressed Memories of Child Sexual Abuse and Trauma

  1. melissa says:

    Great article, Alethea….There is much value in doing healing work.

  2. KevinF says:

    Great article, Alethea. Part of the last sentence jumped right off the screen at me – “groomed for self blame”. Being brought up in a family run on religion and hypocrisy in a time and place when Catholic priests could pretty much abuse whoever they wanted, I (and many children like me) were indeed groomed for self blame and for ‘self’ shame and for ‘self’ guilt as well as, of course, groomed for sexual assault and molesting. No authority figure (especially someone of religion) could ever do anything wrong, so if anything bad did happen, it must have always been the child’s fault.

    Yes, indeed. Identifying and outing the molesting and the sexual assault and physical assault that we experienced is great. But the self blame and self shame and guilt are all present just underneath those like a layer of grease and muck stuck on to the skin. And we need something like turpentine and chemical compound to diligently and carefully rub it all off. It can take quite a while to get it all as they often did a real ‘job’ on us. Not sure what’s equivalent to chemical compound for us, but thanks for the reminder that getting rid of all the manipulation ‘muck’, that was dumped on us with the abuse, is very essential.

    • Alethea says:

      Hi Kevin, when I do my therapy, i often envision stepping out of my old skin and shedding it…burning it with all the guilt and shame, and embarrassment. I am then renewed in a new skin and body.
      Love and peace,

  3. Little Nel says:

    Hi HTH

    I just read your example and it made me chuckle. (There was a time when I would have recoiled in fear). Not because I’m laughing at you, but because of how cunning our abusers are when it comes to covering up their criminal behavior.

    I heard things like “you’ll ruin his legacy” and “she wasn’t his real daughter.” The child “caused it all.”

    Blaming the victim was “normal” in my family.

  4. Hi Althea,
    I just wanted to thank you for this posted article. It is written so clearly and eloquently that I as a survivor feel profoundly validated, with my own experience represented so accurately. Tears and thank you.
    I have hope today because people have cared enough to put the very soul of themselves out there- so that I and others have an oppotunity to heal.
    An example from one of my abusers,
    ” You’ll ruin my reputation, if
    you tell ”

    • Alethea says:

      Thank you HTH for taking the time to comment. Validation is so very important during the healing years.

      Peace to you.

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