Elissa Bassist, a writer known best for her poignant essays on rape culture and as an editor for The Rumpus’s Funny Women column, has taken a new direction in her debut memoir, Hysterical. A play on words, Hysterical follows the author’s search for a diagnosis of a mysterious illness that befalls her after the 2016 election. The memoir opens with a series of medical recommendations, advice, and potential diagnoses that amount to “Nothing Is Wrong with You.” Bassist discovers that she had “what millions of American women had: pain that didn’t make sense to doctors, a body that didn’t make sense to science, and a psyche that didn’t make sense to mankind in general,” an experience best summed up by her mother: “It’s a man’s world.” In her exhaustive quest to find relief from chronic pain that manifests in blurred vision, slipped discs, carpal tunnel, cluster headaches, weight loss, hair loss, and so forth, through a healthcare system designed by and for men, Bassist expertly takes apart the patriarchy by way of various misdiagnoses. The constant belittling suggestions and minimizing responses to her complaints are painfully compounded by her own participation in downplaying her pain so as not to seem problematic or, worse, “hysterical.”
By dissecting everything from being overmedicated because prescription dosages are based on a man’s body to the overwhelming disbelief in women’s pain in the medical field to the way we understand “women” in the context of “the language machine,” Bassist explores what it’s like to be a mystery woman in this very well-defined man’s world—or, rather, a white, heterosexual, cis woman in a heterosexual, cis man’s world. Bassist is careful to acknowledge her own privilege by including necessary underscores:
“The language machine is binary; ‘woman’ means ‘cis woman.’ The language machine is racist; ‘woman’ means ‘white woman,’ and ‘feminist’ means ‘white cis feminist,’ and ‘patriarchy’ means ‘patriarchy as experienced by a middle-class cis white feminist.”
She never loses sight of which perspective she is speaking from and perhaps largely to whom. But by paralleling her own experiences alongside the experiences of high-profile women such as Gabrielle Union (on being let go from America’s Got Talent after calling out a racist joke from Jay Leno) or Serena Williams (on being penalized at the 2018 US Open Final for “verbal abuse” that amounted to a disagreement with an umpire), Bassist comes to the conclusion that be it in the media, on the court, or in the doctor’s office, “when women speak, the facts are automatically in dispute, as is the speaker.”
Bassist, also an experienced teacher, examines other propagators of the patriarchal system, giving a lesson in the micro and the macro of misogyny by way of big tech, film and television, and social media. She dives deep into the war on women as manifested in everything from the ’90s sitcoms she was raised on, to her experience of having a boyfriend ghost her repeatedly over the years, to Twitter terrorism and Reddit cesspools cultivating radicalized incels. Bassist weaves well-researched facts, quotes, and anecdotes with a memoir that tracks her own coming of age as a late bloomer who finds herself in an emotionally abusive relationship at the dawn of the big tech movement. Gone are the days of classic breakups and moving on, even moving away to a new town to reinvent one’s self. With Bassist’s generation pioneering the way with the internet as torchlight, we carry our past romantic relationships with us like smudges we can never quite wipe clean from a new pair of high-tops or, as Bassist puts it, “techno-patriarchal-capitalism.”
She captures this cycle of relationship toxicity fueled by our ability to always “stay connected”:
“Because communication devices will keep perpetuating splits and ongoing practices of domination. And will continue to be open-ended and to consist of dead-ends and echo chambers. The attention economy will forever run on emotional reactions that outsize circumstances and will forever turn molehills into mountains and will forever appear to ease the hysteria it agitates.”
Bassist expertly braids some of her previously published essays into this hybrid memoir, including “Why I Didn’t Say No” from Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxanne Gay. One of the most compelling elements of Bassist’s memoir is her exploration of rape culture, how women are groomed to participate in their own violent suffering, and the problematic co-opting of the word consent. When a man’s greatest fear is to be humiliated by a woman and a woman’s greatest fear is to be murdered by a man, consent takes on a more nuanced notion:
“Consent, I’d believed, was an uncomplicated yes/no articulation and action, and I was guilty of consenting . . . I was guilty as well of ‘choice,’ one word containing many: faith, expectation, the chaos of the heart, inculcation, self-consciousness, surrender, and free will. I was guilty of choice on nights I told my boyfriend I didn’t want to have sex, but then he’d give me the silent treatment, and since I preferred not to be ignored or to fight (it wasn’t worth the fallout or the shame or the retribution), I’d say, ‘Never mind—I want to.’”
She dares to shine a light on the patriarchy’s most unacknowledged participants—misogynistic women suffering from toxic masculinity, a particular brand of woman she didn’t realize she had become. As both advocate and culprit, Bassist identifies as a feminist, someone who spent her college years in women’s and gender studies courses only to find herself both victim and player in an abusive relationship as a young adult and taking part in self-silencing for fear of saying the wrong thing. She explains that “when hatred is environmental, anyone can catch it.”
Bassist’s memoir is both a detailed diagnostic and a measured prescription for women, specifically American women and all those who have the capacity for pregnancy, at this particularly patriarchal juncture in a post-Roe time. At once self-examining and dismantling, Bassist’s unflinching wit and dry humor deliver a hybrid, almost mosaic, memoir that weaves personal essay, feminist criticism, research, and social commentary. Her memoir is reminiscent of Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation in the way she crafts a compelling argument that both sympathizes with and challenges women to question their own engagement with rape culture. Where Bassist differs in style is with her subversive humor that cleverly enters complicated areas of discussion such as the problem with consent and the millennial phenomenon of ghosting by way of text in the era of digital dating. This brings us to the through line of her memoir—not just a search for a medical diagnosis, but a search for her voice, her life.
Bassist’s memoir comes full circle when we learn about one of the people it is dedicated to and Bassist finally receives a diagnosis. Both are unexpected twists that echo the power of and grief in silencing women and the real-world consequences of such violence. To our benefit, Bassist overcomes her illness despite being a woman in a man’s world and reclaims a voice so desperately needed at this post-Roe time, an opportunity not afforded to others in her memoir. At one point she quotes Mary Beard in a way that particularly emphasizes the power of this work: “In antiquity, it is true . . . almost without exception, you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die.” And for those women who never get the chance, there is Elissa Bassist’s Hysterical.
By Elissa Bassist
Published September 13, 2022