I first read the description of The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters on Bad Bird Reads, a review blog by Jennifer Bielman. I was fascinated. This YA historical fantasy deals with the use of hypnosis, which was called mesmerism in the 19th century, when this book took place. The hypnotist was hired to change the beliefs of the teen suffragist protagonist by her anti-suffragist father. What a plot line! Although I didn't win the blog's giveaway, I did manage to get hold of a library copy recently.
I know enough about hypnosis to understand that deeply held beliefs are unaffected by it. Hypnosis can't force you to act against your conscience. Please read The Myths of Hypnosis by hypnotherapist Barrie St. John. The 18 year old hypnotist in this novel, whose stage name was Henri Reverie, didn't succeed in changing Olivia's feminist principles. Instead, according to the description of the book, he awakened a power in her to see the true nature of people she encounters. This is a very cool power and it goes well beyond the limitations of hypnosis. Judging from the cover alone, I had no doubt that something paranormal was going on in The Cure For Dreaming. Hypnosis can cause people to do improbable things, but not impossible ones. Violating the law of gravity by floating in mid-air is not the result of hypnosis. It's magic.
So Henri Reverie was practicing an art that he may have thought was hypnosis, but was of a far more ancient origin. Since Olivia did indeed acquire that power, I didn't think that Henri Reverie was fraudulent. He seemed completely sincere and well-intentioned. Unfortunately, it never occurs to him that bringing about brain alterations in other human beings might not be ethical. This does eventually occur to Olivia, but she sees it as a feminist issue. Henri Reverie was a man who was taking control of women which was exactly what Olivia was fighting against. He considered himself a supporter of women's suffrage, but he was interfering with women's independence. This is very starkly shown in a climactic scene. Henri comes to regret his actions, but only because Olivia finds them regrettable.
Henri Reverie was working in a context where men thought they were helping women by denying them intellectual stimulation. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was subjected to to this "therapy", wrote about it in The Yellow Wallpaper which is mentioned in The Cure For Dreaming. Gilman was attacking the practices of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. The Wikipedia article on him to which I linked mentioned that Virginia Woolf was also victimized by Weir Mitchell's approach which was known as the "rest cure". The theory was that women's minds are too weak to deal with intellectual stimulation. I am convinced that Virginia Woolf's powerful mind was broken by being denied the sustenance it needed, and that this was what drove her to suicide--not any inherent mental weakness. Her loving husband never seemed to notice that Virginia Woolf's condition worsened when she was subjected to the "rest cure". Olivia feared that her father was headed in the direction of subjecting her to the "rest cure" as well. It was the favored method of dealing with intelligent and rebellious women during that era.
Yet in the real world, hypnosis also became a tool to alter the minds of women who were causing trouble for their families. The very first instance of psychoanalysis involved using hypnosis to attempt to cure a woman whose more bizarre symptoms probably arose from severe internal conflict between the attitudes of her conventional family and her own desire for independence. This was the famous case of Anna O. documented in Studies in Hysteria. Her actual name was Bertha Pappenheim and she wasn't cured by hypnosis or by psychoanalytic theories. Her symptoms slowly diminished once she lived on her own, and began working as an advocate for trafficked women. I reviewed a novel about Pappenheim on Book Babe here. Like Henri Reverie, Pappenheim's therapist Josef Breuer, truly believed that he was helping her. I think that the real experience of Bertha Pappenheim and the fictional experience of Olivia Mead both show that well-intentioned men can help women in constricting family environments most by supporting their choices.
I wanted to like this book more because of the women's suffrage theme, but I think that it would have been better if Henri Reverie had been more introspective, and thought about the implications of his actions. I also wished that Olivia could have learned to accept her magic powers.