112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Innocent, Guilty or Legally Insane? Exploring the Criminal Responsibility of Hysterics in the Age of Hypnotism

Emilie Garrigou-Kempton, University of Southern California

In the nineteenth century, the practice of hypnotism is at the center of debates about criminal responsibility: are hypnotized individuals - and particularly hysterical women, the hypnotized subject par excellence - responsible for crimes committed under hypnosis? Yet, this question betrays a pervasive anxiety about women as untamable social threats.



In the years leading up to Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, hypnotism, a newly developed technique that had shown promising therapeutic results on a wide range of pathologies, not least of them hysteria – emerged as a privileged way to explore the mysteries of the mind/body relation. Yet, the very nature of hypnotism was being debated: was everyone hypnotizable, and therefore was hypnotism a universally valid therapy, as believed by physicians of the Nancy School? Or was the very capacity to be hypnotized an evidence of a patient’s neurosis, as believed by Charcot and the Salpêtrière School, according to whom only hysterics were truly susceptible to hypnotism.

As hypnotism opens up uncharted territory, stories of “hypnotic crimes” fascinate the public and crystallize the debate between the two schools. The question of the criminal responsibility of the hypnotized patient, illustrated by the Bompard affair – a 1889 murder in which the accused used hypnotism as a criminal defense – opposed proponents of the Nancy School, who believed that hypnotized patients could be manipulated to accomplish crime by proxy, to Charcot who maintained that a hypnotized person maintained enough will power to resist criminal suggestions.  However, this focus on crime betrays some of the time’s anxieties. In particular, through a close reading of the Nancy and Salpêtrière schools’s publications, I will show how, at a time of epistemological instability, these two conflicting theories shaped the new understanding of the mind/body relation and contributed to the emergence of the modern self, while portraying women – the hypnotized subject par excellence – as alienated and unreliable, thereby identifying them as a social threat.