The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

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SEPT 2022 Issue

Elissa Bassist’s Hysterical

Elissa Bassist
(Hachette Books, 2022)

Women, if you’re not already angry at this world, you will be after reading Elissa Bassist’s debut memoir, Hysterical—and for good reason. 

The book highlights the treatment of women over the years (spoiler: it’s not good) and how they are viewed in society (also not great) while guiding us through her personal experiences as a woman, writer, and human being. 

Certainly (and unfortunately) there’s nothing Bassist tells us here that we don’t already know. Women of all ages have experienced some form of a derogatory comment from a male coworker (all while making less money of course), having a male student interrupt them while speaking in class, being called “crazy” or “psycho,” well, hell, even “hysterical” when having an opinion. Bassist tells it like it is, honing in on the facts we already know (and some we might not) and exploring them in real time as she tries to make sense of the life happening around her.

This book is not a nagging rant by any means. Bassist is much too good for that. She takes us on this wild and uncomfortable ride with ease thanks to her incredible wit and humor to help us not to scream at the top of our lungs—which Bassist would probably be ok with or encourage. After all, it’s the silence that hurts women, as she explains in this painfully true memoir. It’s the silence of being too fearful to use our voice that hurts us the most.

Her writing reads like a wise older sister, insightful and to the point, brutal when need be, but there to catch you when you’re ready to fall. I read this book in a couple of days, swiftly and hungrily. Anytime I got the urge to stop because I felt too angry to keep reading about this frustrating world, I kept going. It felt like she was talking to me, telling me this story about her, about me, about all women out there, and I had to listen.

We take a journey through Bassist’s life when she is trying to understand this continuous physical pain that seems to move around in her body, while constantly getting rejected by the medical professionals, telling her she’s fine. While dealing with this unknown diagnosis, we also see her trying to keep peace with an inappropriate editor, struggle with a boyfriend who has her crying during painful sex, and make an effort with her absent father.

It’s hard not to relate to Bassist. Her trauma with her previous ex-boyfriends and bosses reminded me of my own experiences: the ex who called me “crazy” for seeking therapy after my father died, and the male boss who told me I wasn’t as dumb as I looked. Women are constantly ridiculed over their looks and what we say or don’t say, and yet are still expected to get back up after each swing. With every traumatic event Bassist endures in her own life, including the trauma of her sexually violent ex-boyfriend, she counterbalances it with a statistic just as alarming: “Every seventy-three seconds an American is sexually assaulted, the majority of whom are women and under eighteen.” She knows how to send a gut punch and she knows how to do it well.

After countless doctor appointments with anyone from an OCD expert to a psychiatrist, Bassist was able to understand that her physical pain had a lot to do with not only the trauma she’s been through over the years but the silence she has kept through it all. This realization allowed Bassist to understand just how important it is to have a voice and to use it proudly even when there is fear. It’s something we all need to remember.

“My silence had given me nothing, shown me nothing, introduced me to no one, and taken me nowhere … it wasn’t ever my voice that would obliterate me. It was my silence.”


Carissa Chesanek

Carissa Chesanek is a writer in New York City with an MFA from The New School. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

All Issues