One thing I’m really enjoying about Fits, Trances, & Visions is that Taves goes to great lengths to make sure her reader understands that an experience–like let’s say hearing a voice–means very different things in different paradigms. In a psychiatry paradigm, it may be a sign of mental illness. In one religious paradigm, it may be a sign of an embarrassing lack of control. In another, a sign of God and in another, a sign of the Devil. In a Spiritualist paradigm, it may be a sign of a visiting spirit. Anthropologists may read it as the start of a shamanic episode.
She’s also very clear that which meaning we privilege for an experience has as much to do with our own sets of biases than it does with the meaning of the experience itself. So, say, for instance, I tell you I hear a voice threatening to tear my body apart (for the record: I do not). Based on you being the blog-reading sort you are and knowing that I’m a white woman in the middle of the United States, you might begin to seek a scientific understanding–am I experiencing some kind of schizophrenic episode? Am I being poisoned by some strange gas leak?
But if I tell you I went to the Amazon and met a tribe’s spiritual leader and he heard a voice threatening to tear his body apart, we’d be much more likely to assume he was having some kind of spiritual episode.
And that that kind of sorting is a bias of sorts–these are the people to whom we’d ascribe a psychiatric reason, those are the people who could have a religious reason. And that our own privileging of the scientific explanation, looking to understand what’s going on scientifically, means we look back at history with a distorted lens (I think this is always true, but it’s important for anyone who likes to look back at history to know her own biases are shaping how she understands what she’s reading.). You choose one way of seeing things without realizing that you’ve made that choice and you don’t realize the other ways you’ve inadvertently discounted.
So, this morning I was curious about whatever happened to Lurancy Vennum and it turns out that she got married, had some kids, and eventually died in LA in the 50s.
This blew my mind. I mean, it shouldn’t. A lot of folks of her generation and the one right after it went west. But I understand her so firmly as a 19th century phenomenon that learning she died in LA in the 50s was like learning that, after being the Watseka Wonder, she went to the future.
Which, in a way, I guess she did.