Welcome back to Kathryn Troy, an historian turned novelist who, last time she was here, gave us An Undead History. She has taught college courses on Horror Cinema and presented her research on the weird, unnatural, and horrific to academic conferences across the country Her nonfiction book, The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender and Ghosts in American Séances, 1848-1890, has just been released by SUNY Press. Her historical expertise in the supernatural and the Gothic informs her fiction at every turn. Her genres of choice include dark fantasy, romance, horror, and historical fiction. She lives in New York with her husband and two darling children. Connect with Kathryn Troy at Bathory’s Closet, Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and Amazon.
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MEDIUMS & HYSTERICS
On the way to writing The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender and Ghosts in American Séances, 1848-1890, I had to learn everything I could about the Spiritualist movement and its forerunners. One of the very obvious facts is that the label “medium” was overwhelmingly ascribed to females. That fact became more and more important in my research as I uncovered interactions between men and women, whites and nonwhites, and the living and the dead. Today I’d like to share some of the context behind the arguments I’ve made about Spiritualism as an integral site of national discourse about race, gender, and religious legitimacy in America.
Studies of hysteria and turn-of-the-century Spiritualism are connected through their depiction of women as highly visible figures, something they had not been in a society previously segregated by gender. The images of femininity propounded by these two movements stood in direct opposition to each other. Those who wished to delegitimize Spiritualist gains drew parallels between “the absolute identity of the symptoms,” one critic wrote, “in all characteristics, with those in our day asserted to be due to spiritual possession, and with those met within the various forms of hysteria.” Both mediums and hysterics have the potential to yield complete control to other parties, whether they are men of the medical community or entities from a spiritual realm.
Female sensitivity became increasingly visible in public demonstrations of mesmerism, which is acknowledged as one of the origins of neurological science so prominent in twentieth-century medicine. In this arena, women gained the ability to achieve a higher sense of being through their sensitivity by transcending consciousness, allowing them to perceive and understand previously unknown knowledge of the universe. This ability had practical uses, including physiological and mental healing, resulting in the praise of women for their contribution to social progress. “These sensitives and somnambulists,” eminent Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis declared, “will soon be sought and counted as the benefactors of their neighbors and countries.” As translators between the two worlds, women became increasingly involved with public speaking, removing themselves from the restrictions of the private sphere, and actively participating in the public sphere by calls for social reform.
The political power that women gained through Spiritualism did not go unnoticed. Those who wished to undermine women’s rights did so by undermining the legitimacy of Spiritualism, both as a religion and a science. Although Spiritualism was a highly popular religion in America, it confronted a considerable amount of criticism and ridicule, impacting the women who struggled for autonomy through participating in the movement.
Mediums were delegitimized by the depiction of them as insane or otherwise mentally inept, rather than as the superior mental beings they made themselves out to be. Women’s agency in Spiritualism was erased by the perceived need to institutionalize the delusional. Proponents of this argument provided parallels between the symptoms of the mentally ill and the behavior of the medium as evidence that such women should be the objects of scientific inquiry and cure, not agents of social reform. The possibility of insanity sapped women of any credibility they had as public speakers, confirming that their presence in the public sphere was an indicator of some abnormality and thus inappropriate. This interpretation of Spiritualist activity questioned the professed autonomy of women in a circumstance where women were easily influenced by forces outside themselves, namely the myriad spirit guides who were often labeled “controls.”
The typical patient of mesmerism, whose qualities, like those of the Spiritualist medium were both lauded and critiqued, came under fire again as a “precursor to the fin-de-siecle hysteric.” The figure of contest in both cases was female. Hysteria was described as having symptoms and qualities traditionally associated with females and was diagnosed specifically as afflicting female patients. Before the 17th century, hysteria was thought to have originated in the womb, categorizing it as an exclusively female disease. Sigmund Freud acknowledged sexuality, and thus sexual difference, as “one of the major components of hysteria.”
Ultimately, the women lost the battle for autonomy within the Spiritualist movement. It would take another angle, that of factory labor, to gain them political legitimacy (i.e., the right to vote). But along the way, they created a fascinating image of their world as striving for perfected sexual division, at the same time that it erased racial difference. By associating with spirit “controls” that were largely Indian, Spiritualists made the case that Indians were not a distinct racial class, or should not be, and began to redefine gender in a way that would erode the racial classifications that had been built for centuries.
Book Description: Katelyn knows her magic is risky, but Icaryan light is fading fast and she is desperate. Returning to Earth, she crosses paths with Luca, a vampire hybrid living on the outskirts of humanity. Passion sparks their weary hearts. The rogue hunter follows Katelyn into a world teeming with wonder and danger, forsaking his own quest to root out his father. But his father has not forgotten him. A Vision in Crimson is the first installment of a new epic fantasy blistering with romance and Gothicism.
One random commenter will win a Kindle copy of A Vision in Crimson.