In her new memoir, "Hysterical," writer Elissa Bassist shares her "journey to reclaim her authentic voice in a culture that doesn't listen to women."
Growing up, Bassist learned a woman's voice should be quiet, polite, not too dramatic, not too emotional and never "hysterical." Because of this, she learned to repress her feelings and in turn, her voice.
For two years, Bassist detailed experiencing unexplained physical pain and grappling with society dismissing it -- an experience women have faced throughout history. It wasn't until she realized some of her physical pain may be tied to her emotional stress and bottled rage that she was able to turn inward and heal her inner voice.
Bassist, a humor writer, weaves her personal story with relatable commentary and real criticism about how cultural expectations stifle women's voices and how she learned how to unmute and listen to herself without regret.
Get started with an excerpt below and get a copy of the book here.
Hysterical: A Memoir
In her new memoir, "Hysterical," writer Elissa Bassist shares her "journey to reclaim her authentic voice in a culture that doesn't listen to women." Bassist weaves her personal story with commentary and criticism about how cultural expectations stifle women's voices and how she learned how to unmute her voice and listen to herself without regret.
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At twelve years old I knew exactly who to be, and when America Online in the ’90s asked me to create a screen name, noting that a "creative screen name is your tool for carving out a unique identity," I typed "VictSectAngl" (or some abbreviation of "Victoria’s Secret Angel" until I secured a screen name that wasn’t taken—legions of us wanted to abbreviate ourselves this way).
The sound of the modem dialing up and connecting had activated my first menstrual cycle, and staring at the TV-size computer screen I saw real estate—to build a second life and inhabit another, better, sexier self, to collude with power dynamics and fulfill a fantasy self that was someone else’s fantasy. I created two more screen names: KandiAppls and FemBot00, just counterfeiting myself in the mercenary process of choreographing an online presence and curating myself for love.
For the profiles I invented and edited and upgraded myself—asking myself Which side of myself should I project, exaggerate, or hide, and will AOL respond, and to what exactly?—until I was born again. It was my version of a sport. "VictSectAngl" was spiffed up and accessorized: "she" was precocious yet mature, innocent and enlightened, independent but not lonely, strong plus soft, pure though flexible, never pushy or b**chy or bossy. "She" was layer upon layer of persona plopped onto a Build-a-Bear identity, someone who, at times, resembled me only in number of legs. I’d be wearing an acne mask, tweezing the hairs on my leg that I missed shaving, and typing like a woman who was not need to wear or do those things. The better, hotter, sexier me lived online, neighboring the betters of every other girl. (I’d even wished that I could auditioned other women to play me better than I could play myself.) I’m sorry, but should I have to put together my own self out of what I had to work with? Out of nothing?
Later, in high school, I’d set my alarm for 4:20 a.m., three hours before the 7:20 a.m. bell to make-over myself into a sexy, perfect sixteen-year-old. My routine:
shower and shave my body so I’d be slick as a seal
shampoo, blow-dry, straighten, then curl my long, brown hair, and spray it until it congealed
apply clown makeup
stick in contacts incompatible with my dry eyes
squeeze into a different outfit with different high heels every single day.
(Now, in my thirties, I put on mascara before a self-defense class, which I think is full-blown patriarchy?)
All of this was in an act of worship and propitiation to male desire, to love myself in male terms, for the male gaze. Which, at its core, objectifies. An objectified woman is a sight to be seen and not heard, a cross between flesh and a free sample, unable to hurt or heal and not worth anyone’s empathy or vote or news story. Once objectified, the object can’t speak for herself because others do that for her. And because an object is a thing, not a person, she’s easier to touch, easier to harm, easier to forget. Objectification makes a woman less than human without any special effects.
State-sponsored objectification of girls and women is so common that girls and women self-objectify—perceive ourselves as bodies only, nothing if not desirable and desired. The American Psychological Association calls self-objectification a "national epidemic," a disease tied to depression and lower cognitive functioning in girls, and to rock-bottom self-esteem, body-image psychosis, starvation, surgery, 10 and self-harm—a radical thinning of self and suicide of spirit that makes us critical of how we look and of our every action, word, and thought.
"If [women] spent a tenth of the time thinking about [the world’s problems] that they do thinking about their weight, I mean, I think we’d solve all the world’s problems in a matter of months," says Susan Molinari, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2011 documentary, "Miss Representation."
Why hadn’t that mindset died in me? The mindset where a woman’s first thought about herself or another woman is weight and appearance and Do I like what she’s wearing? What’s my opinion about it? The mindset where the first words out of a woman’s mouth to another woman is—nine times out of ten—about how she looks. What else might we talk about? Revolution?
The internet keeps the mindset alive by making self-objectification more convenient than ever. Now I can compare my face and weight to the attractive faces and weights of my friends and of my exes’ new "friends" with limber-sounding names. These women? I’ll think about the limber ones. These women you love and not me? (I decide my exes love/will marry other people by being photographed with them.) These women who can pull off shorts? These women who are created of the same matter as the universe and as I am, the same light, and are also special, each one, but who are ruining my goddamn life by living theirs?
(Thank G-d my puberty predated Instagram, before publicizing one’s image became monetizable and we started reducing ourselves to filtered selfies and captions in the shallowest version of "show, don’t tell." Pre-puberty I wouldn’t have known that the "undesirable woman," along with the "crazy psycho," is an invaluable economic fiction that asks everything of a woman and nothing of the men who look at, rate, and make money off her.)
"What is self-hatred?" the face-obsessed fourteenth Dalai Lama inquired when he was asked how he contends with "self-hatred."
Any American woman could’ve whipped out blueprints, PowerPoints, and dioramas. I hated myself and other women as much as the world hated us, because when hatred is environmental, anyone can catch it, then perpetuate it, until women are misogynistic masochists with toxic masculinity. The patriarchy almost doesn’t even need men. (I SAID ALMOST.)
From the book HYSTERICAL by Elissa Bassist. Copyright © 2022 by Elissa Bassist. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, NY, USA. All rights reserved.