Historical Expertise

Myth vs. History

In a recent NY Times opinion piece Hallie Lieberman laments the persistence, prevalence, and perniciousness of a particular historical myth, i.e., the story of the invention of the vibrator as told in The Technology of Orgasm. The standard story is, according to Lieberman:

A mutton-chopped, bow-tie-clad doctor stands in an operating theater, where the silhouette of a woman, legs in stirrups sits before him. He — serious, medical, scholarly — applies the vibrator to her genitals, bringing her to “hysterical paroxysm,” thereby curing her of her “hysteria.”

She has written a long book that glancingly confronts this version of the story. Together with another historian, Eric Schatzberg, she wrote a “scholarly article” that confronts directly and in detail this myth. And yet, she remarks, “The myth soldiers on.”

I am not interested in the particular myth that bothers Lieberman (and Schatzberg). Any veracity that myth might or might not hold is their bugbear, not mine — my bugbear, the flat earth, is much less sexy.[1] I am interested, however, in the relative strengths of myth and history.[2] Lieberman (and Schatzberg) have claimed that the myth of the vibrator has no basis in fact, that the author of the myth misread and fabricated quotations or, now and then, wrongly interpreted her quotations. They marshal a number of examples to make their case. And yet, as Lieberman laments, nobody seems to care enough to give up the myth.[3] Whatever traction the myth enjoys, beyond serving as a comedic set piece, certainly stems from its appeal to certain fantasies (not necessarily sexual or salacious fantasies) people have about the present and how that present is better than the past. And the most fantasy-fulfilling of such story arcs is the progress narrative. Lieberman’s object of derision reinforces, as she notes, a linear and progressive story about sex. As historians and philosophers of science have repeatedly over the last century or so shown, no litany of facts, no laundry list of erroneous interpretations has ever been or ever will be persuasive. Facts are never enough.

Lieberman hopes her opinion piece will finally dislodge the myth: “This is my attempt to kill it off once and for all.” I suspect her hopes will go unfulfilled. An article in The Atlantic appeared over a year ago that made much the same point, both attacking the myth and promoting Lieberman and Schatzberg’s article, yet seems to have done little to change people’s minds. I am no more sanguine about the success of Lieberman’s most recent essay.

In the contest between myth and history, myths seem to have the upper hand. It’s not that myths are unmoored from facts and therefore free to make things up as needed (though many myths certainly do make stuff up or ignore inconvenient information). It is, rather, myths resonate on an emotional and personal level. Myths are first and foremost meaningful stories in search of corroborating details. Rather than try to debunk a myth, perhaps a more effective way forward is to offer an equally meaningful but more historically defensible story.

  1. In the interest of transparency: I have read The Technology of Orgasm, the book Lieberman identifies as the source of this myth (a fellow graduate student and I read it in our youthful effort to seem edgy and disruptive both to other graduate students and to our mentors). I have read the article Lieberman and Schatzberg wrote attacking that book (because it seemed to promise both historiographic and professional critiques). I have not read Lieberman’s book (because it’s not my field, and I no longer feel the need to be “edgy and disruptive”). I found the book to be short, amusing, suggestive if not persuasive, and generative. I found the article to be detailed and methodical, and in various ways persuasive.  ↩
  2. I am also interested how and why historians come to call certain stories “myths” (and a host of other derogatory terms), how and why they come to construct certain opponents, how and why they justify spending time and energy combatting those myths and those opponents. But those concerns deserve their own post. For the record, Lieberman offers the following justification for combatting this myth: “It’s a fantasy that contributes to the ways we still misunderstand female sexuality and that perpetuates harmful stereotypes that continue to resonate in our laws and attitudes.”  ↩
  3. I wonder if Lieberman and Schatzberg distracted readers from their point when they turned their article into a critique of peer review and the humanities.  ↩