“HYsteria is not a pathological phenomenon, and can, in all respects, be considered as a supreme means of expression.”
Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, 1895
Perhaps she would not be so happy, though, with the lengths to which some feminists go in justifying their claim.
In Hysteria Beyond Freud, Elaine Showalter tells us that ‘In her hysterical seizures, Anna became unable to speak her native German, and instead spoke either Yiddish, which she called “the woman’s German,” or a jumble of English, Italian and French.’ While it is true that Bertha’s aphasic disturbances resulted in her being unable to speak German, resorting instead to English, Italian and French, nowhere in the case reports does Breuer mention her speaking Yiddish.
Showalter uses this claim about Bertha’s Yiddish to bolster up a feminist theory about ‘the repression of women’s language or its impossibility within patriarchal discourse’. She quotes psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell who calls hysteria ‘"the daughter's disease," a syndrome of physical and linguistic protest against the social and symbolic laws of the Father’. Then, in an egregious example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc thinking, she states that in the case of Bertha Pappenheim ‘the connections between hysteria and feminism seemed particularly clear because after her analysis with Breuer in 1882, she went on to become a feminist’.
In Hysteria, Psychoanalysis, And Feminism: The Case Of Anna 0, Dianne Hunter expresses similar views. Although she makes no mention of Yiddish she still puts a feminist gloss on Bertha’s linguistic difficulties. Bertha, she says, refused to speak German because to do so would mean that she accepted ‘integration into a cultural identity [she] wished to reject’ and concludes that her hysteria was a ‘discourse of femininity addressed to patriarchal thought’. Hunter also reads a psychological significance into Bertha’ agrammatism, in particular the fact that she ceased for a while to conjugate verbs, using only infinitives or past participles which, she points out do not specify a person. She seems not to be aware that this is typical of people suffering from Broca’s agrammatic aphasia, often found in people suffering from strokes or other damage in the left cerebral hemisphere. The condition is characterised by, among other things, an inability to inflect verbs or to use subject pronouns.
Hunter goes on to analyse Breuer’s own use of language: ‘Breuer refers to the pauses in Pap-penheim's speech by the French term absence.’ Not quite. Breuer was not referring to her aphasic symptoms when he used this term, but rather to the petit mal seizures which she experienced (although he did not recognise them as such). For Hunter, however, Breuer’s use of this term ‘suggests that for Breuer as well as for Pappenheim, the abnormal states of consciousness represented foreign parts of the self. Parts of Anna O were alien to signification in her native tongue.’
As for Bertha’s Yiddish, given that this would have been one of the languages with which she, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, must have been familiar, it’s perhaps of significance that she didn’t resort to it in her aphasia. But the explanation is more likely to lie in neural disturbances in the speech centres of her brain than in any kind of gender frustration.