Ilma: Meanings of Hysteria and the Beginnings of Hungarian Psychiatry.

Lafferton, Emese (1999). Ilma: Meanings of Hysteria and the Beginnings of Hungarian Psychiatry. MPhil thesis The Open University.



The dissertation reconstructs the life of Ilma Szekulics, an intelligent middle-class woman raised in a convent, who rebelled against the confines imposed on her by her sex, her family and society, and who employed deviant forms of social behaviour to survive. A petty thief, a forger, and a cross-dresser, she became the number one patient of top psychiatrists in Austro-Hungary in the 1880s, diagnosed as suffering from hystero-epilepsy and 'contrary sexual feelings'. Her story helps understand and fit the figure of the hysterical woman both into the context of late-nineteenth-century psychiatric knowledge, and into general thinking on female nature and body, sexuality, lesbianism, and cross-dressing.
Ilma's well-documented case (her autobiographical writings, studies by her Hungarian doctors, a 130-page long book by Krafft-Ebing, and articles in the daily press) allows an approach to hysteria and hypnosis "from inside" that is, through the actual encounters between doctor and patient. Questions of their co-operation as well as their personal strategies, desires, and aspirations occupy centre stage. From such an approach, hysteria and hypnosis emerges as a "process" exposed to ongoing negotiation, rather than as a final set of characteristics.
Focus on the patient and the inner dynamics of the doctor-patient encounters opens the way for a subversive reading of the power relations in the medical setting. Medical knowledge, its institutional framework and practice embodied and reinforced the power relations between man and woman, doctor and patient. At the same time, an awareness of social constraints and possibilities, if cleverly exploited, could open up some space for manoeuvring and negotiations. Ilma’s case shows how social constraints and private interests combine into various forms of self-fashioning.

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