Book Review

Even as a five-year-old, Elissa Bassist hated the sound of her own voice. She memorized the lyrics to each song in the 1989 Disney classic The Little Mermaid—about a teenage fish-princess who signs away her best-in-the-world voice for long legs to pursue a boy—especially the banger “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” in which the octopus sing-splains how human men aren’t impressed by conversation and avoid it whenever possible. She internalized the message that men have a voice, women have a body.

Bassist decided early on to rely on her body to do the talking. In college she also used a “sexy baby voice” that she describes as horny yet nonconfrontational, which signaled that the sexy baby woman needs protection. She writes hysterically, “Vocally and weight-wise, infancy is apparently a woman’s sexiest time.”

Between 2016 and 2018, adult Bassist saw over twenty medical professionals for headaches, stomachaches, herniated discs, and various other mysterious ailments that an acupuncturist said stemmed—at least in part—from repressed rage over the unjust and immoral patriarchal structures that keep women like her mute (unless, of course, they’re talking about men and how much they love them).

As is often the case with angry women, or women who feel anything at all, throughout her life Bassist was labeled hysterical/irrational/psycho/bitchy for expressing herself. Among the many beneficiaries of Bassist finding her voice—students in her humor writing classes, writers and readers of her “Funny Women” column in The Rumpus, readers of her widely published cultural and personal criticism—will be readers of Hysterical, a profound testament to the powers of redemption and reinvention. She writes:

. . . The mark of a truly successful dominant social structure is that it should program the people who are subjugated by it to enforce its very construction. That we are the ones who are starving ourselves and policing each other and punishing each other and reinforcing the idea that this male attention is precious. That we should want it, that we should crave the subjugation of the male gaze, and we should actually fight over it! . . . in a perfect world, there would be screaming festivals and days off to scream; screaming would be a genre.

Bassist explores the ways she collaborated in her own mistreatment and she interrogates the line between wanting to please boys and men—by being pure, speaking softer, moaning louder—in order to belong, and wanting to voice her own desires, even if they are unpopular with the patriarchy.

Reading about the compromises she made led me to relive many of my own humiliating choices. Thanks to the hard-earned multifaceted perspective of Bassist’s lens, that experience became cathartic. I realized how many of my “mistakes” had in fact been legitimate responses to the injustice surrounding me; this life-affirming discovery led me to feel less alone, less foolish. It is often exhaustion, the desire to please and to avoid arguments, that leads women to say yes when their hearts say no.

When a university psychologist asked twenty-year-old-Bassist, “What brings you here today?” she writes that she wished she’d said “A system of society and government in which men hold the power and women don’t, and also the internet.”

The child of divorce who grew up with two families, Bassist calls TV her fifth parent. In her “Must-See Dead-Girl TV” chapter, she points out that while we don’t report actual violence against women on the news, the majority of shows and films present violence against women as entertainment. When someone suggested to her that perhaps her screen devotion was contributing to her mental health issues and that things might improve for her if she stopped binging rape, Bassist responded, “What else is on?”

As Bassist’s elder I feel guilty about the mess that my generation has left hers, culturally and environmentally speaking. They must fight battles I thought we’d won. Instead, women’s voices today are as silenced as they’ve ever been, as evidenced by the recent rejection of Roe. So much for the “Trump Effect” we’d hoped for; if his venomous rhetoric didn’t rally people to fight back, what will?

I vote for a Bassist Effect. Having taken her humor writing class, I know her to be as supportive, generous, and brilliant in person as the persona she’s developed for this memoir. When she shares her hard-earned voice, out pours wry wisdom, acceptance, and candid observations. For the low cover price of this memoir, you can revel in her magic and might come away as I did with a touch more compassion for yourself and those around you.

About the Reviewer

Anne McGrath received a 2022 Pushcart Prize Special Mention, was noted in the 2020 Best American Essays, and she was the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has work published in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Ruminate, Entropy, Columbia Journal, The Writer's Chronicle, and other journals. Her visual essays have been featured in The Indianapolis Review, Ilanot Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Thrush. She can be found on Instagram @TheAnneMcGrath.