While scanning the bookshelf in my house looking for a particular volume, I happened to come across a copy of one of the most well-known Agatha Christie novels Ten Little Indians that is a detective story without a detective, consisting of a somewhat contrived plot in which ten people are invited to an isolated island by a mysterious host and then get killed off one by one in a manner that reflects the children’s poem from which the book’s title is taken.
I had read the book a long time ago at an age when I was an avid fan of detective stories and read almost all Christie’s books, and decided to read it again. In one passage, as the idea that they have all been brought to the island to be killed and that there is no escape sinks is, one woman starts getting hysterical.
She began laughing wildly again. Dr. Armstrong strode forward. He raised his hand and struck her a flat blow across the cheek. She gasped, hiccupped – and swallowed. She stood motionless a minute, then she said, “Thank you … I’m all right now.” Her voice was once more calm and controlled-the voice of the efficient games mistress.
This is a familiar scene that one finds in books of a certain bygone era but rarely these days. In reading that passage now, it seems absurd on several levels. One is the idea that women get hysterical quite easily. I am not talking about the uncontrollable sobbing that accompanies a great loss and is quite natural. I am talking about women who lose control and act and speak wildly when confronted with a situation that is strange or unexpected or fearful. I have never seen anyone, man or woman, behave that way. Does it actually happen?
The other problem is the supposed remedy, a hard slap across the face. In fiction, it works like magic. The woman is cured of her hysterics immediately and often even thanks the slapper, with variations on “Thanks! I needed that.”
This slapping of hysterical women often occurs in films produced even in the late 20th century and was parodied in the film Airplane!.
Some people still believe in the efficacy of slapping to cure what they see as hysterics. Recently, Mel Gibson admitted that he had slapped the mother of his child while she was holding the baby because he felt that she was behaving hysterically.
In the unlikely event that one is in the presence of someone who is hysterical, is it a good idea to slap the person? Brian Palmer gives his answer.
Absolutely not. Most psychiatrists avoid the word hysteria, because it’s loaded with sexist baggage from the 19th century. (More on that below.) It’s also poorly defined, since what a layperson might describe as hysterical behavior can have any number of causes. Otherwise healthy persons may behave erratically in stressful situations, but a panic attack may also signal the beginning of a conversion disorder—when psychological stress causes physical symptoms such as loss of coordination, hallucinations, or imperviousness to pain. (These symptoms usually dissipate in a few weeks.) In rare cases, hysteria can indicate a serious underlying disorder like psychosis. No matter what the cause of a given episode, however, a slap won’t improve matters. On the contrary, it will likely only amplify the sufferer’s chaotic mental state, confirm his or her feelings of fear or paranoia, and possibly provoke counter-aggression.
This hysteria-followed-by-slapping may well be one of those ideas that have taken root in the imagination of people and as a result is assumed to be quite common when it is not. It likely originated and was accepted at a time when it was assumed that women were emotionally fragile people who could fall to pieces under the slightest pressure and required some sort of shock treatment to bring them back to normalcy.
Another symptom of that supposed fragility are the women in Victorian-era novels who faint quite easily out of shock or surprise or alarm or fear, requiring the easy availability of smelling salts to help them come around to consciousness. I have never seen anyone faint for such a reason and that idea seems to have thankfully disappeared. One rarely sees vials of smelling salts anywhere these days.