In Marge’s case, both a traumatic event and a stifling environment were at work. And she knew it. Before she was even diagnosed, she had a feeling that—in order to get better—she had to tell her mother a secret that she’d harbored for 22 years.
Marge grew up an only child and Margaret was a single mother who worked three jobs. When Margaret was home, she was verbally and sometimes physically abusive, Marge said. But for the most part, Marge spent a lot of time alone.
Margaret started leaving Marge home alone when she was five years old. Le Roy was different back then, Marge said. Everyone watched everyone else’s kids; everyone knew and trusted each other. Kids played outside until the street lamps switched off, the signal to go home.
When Marge was 14 years old, her 19-year-old neighbor and friend said he had something to give her, a t-shirt, Marge thinks, and led her into his room. He forced himself on her, despite her pleas for him to stop. Marge called the rape “horrific,” and said that it caused her “extensive physical damage,” not only because it was forceful, but also because she was a virgin. She bled enough in the days that followed that she assumed she’d gotten her period for the first time. In fact, she didn't begin menstruating for two more years.
At the time of the rape, she only told one person, a friend, and swore him to secrecy. It was “never spoken about, never acknowledged,” Marge said. “From that point forward, I suppressed everything.”
Devinsky explained that conversion disorder can function as catalyst for a person to seek help. “Your subconscious mind is as smart as you are. Smarter in certain ways,” he said.
Marge is an example of that. She said that before her illness, “I used to just bury, bury, bury. And now I deal. I would never wish this on anybody, but I am somewhat glad it happened to me. It made me stop and take care of myself.”
Marge’s latent psychological stress might never have taken the form of severe tics and stutters if not for what was already happening in the town. Dozens of other girls were going through the same thing, and Marge was aware of that. Although she was two decades older, she was, in some ways, not so different from them. Perhaps the timing of the unresolved trauma of Marge’s rape froze some part of her unconscious mind at the same age as the other girls, so the processes of “mass hysteria” operated the same for Marge as they did for the others.
The question remains: How did she “catch” it?
MPI is not a new phenomenon. Devinsky hails the 1965 book Hysteria: The History of a Disease as the best historical road map of the illness. In it, author Ilza Veith, who holds a PhD in the history of medicine, writes that hysteria is traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians in 1900 B.C., who believed that it resulted from the “discontent” womb of a woman who didn't reproduce soon enough after puberty (hystera is Greek for “uterus”.) Various outbreaks can be traced through history; there were probably 50 outbreaks in medieval European nunneries during the latter Middles Ages alone, Bartholomew says, when theories of witchcraft were prevalent. The Salem Witch Trials resulted from a well-known example of MPI. Notable outbreaks since then include a 1962 incident at an all-girls boarding school in Kashasha, Tanzania, where there was a “laughing epidemic,” and a 1965 incident in Blackburn, England at another girls school, where 85 girls were sent to the hospital with dizziness and convulsions, with no medical or environmental culprits found. More recently, in the winter of 2012, there was an outbreak of MPI that affected more than 1,000 students and five teachers across 15 different schools in Sri Lanka, where people complained that they were having vertigo and uncontrollable coughing.