WASHINGTON - Elaine Showalter is pursued by tired people.
She began to suspect she had a serious problem after an appearance on a Washington television station. A doctor she had debated on an interview show caught her on the way out, told her she hoped her life would be ruined, her career wrecked, then added: "We're going to rip you to shreds."
The physician had come on the show to argue the medical validity of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome -- which is to say, that it has a biological cause. One of the points of Showalter's new book, "Hystories," is that it doesn't, that it is a form of hysteria.
It was the first signal to Showalter that chronically fatigued people, the perpetually tired, can get alarmingly energetic when someone disagrees with them on the nature of their illness.
Since that incident, in mid-April, Showalter has been threatened more than once. Her book signings have been disrupted in Washington and New York.
It started even before she went on tour, with epithets on the Internet.
"They called me a Nazi. They suggested a conspiracy. Some were very obscene. One [message] had a lot of language about blood transfusions. They hoped I would get sick and they would give me a transfusion" -- presumably so she would contract the illness herself.
Showalter is a large woman, an active feminist, an intellectual duelist. She is also a professor of English and American literature at Princeton University. She has additional expertise in the history of psychiatry.
But now, in the lobby of an Embassy Row hotel, she is subdued. Under her page boy haircut, her brow is knit; she tries to choose her words carefully. Threats can have that effect.
Showalter never expected her book, "Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media," to spark such anger and passion. Books from academic publishers -- Columbia University Press in this case -- usually don't.
Maybe Showalter should have foreseen that she'd touch a nerve. Certainly the book's thesis appears designed to offend large numbers of people. It argues that hysteria, a disorder long thought to have gone the way of Sigmund Freud, is alive and flourishing, and spreading its chaos across the country and beyond.
"As we approach our own millennium, the epidemics of hysterical disorders, imaginary illnesses, and hypnotically induced pseudo-memories that have flooded the media seem to be reaching a high-water mark.
"These hystories [her invented word for these phenomena] are merging with the more generalized paranoias, religious revivals, and conspiracy theories that have always characterized American life, and the apocalyptic anxieties that always accompany the end of a century. Now they are dispersing globally to infect other countries and cultures," Showalter writes in "Hystories."
Showalter has done scholarship on hysteria, on subjects such as the Salem witch hunts in Massachusetts and the incidence of shell shock among combat soldiers in World War I. She has written two books on the subject before this one: "The Female Malady," about the treatment of women in psychiatry, and "Hysteria Beyond Freud," about writings on hysteria other than Freud's voluminous output.
With this background, it became obvious to Showalter "that the kind of hysterical epidemics people talked about in the 19th or 18th centuries are happening now."
These epidemics are numerous. One of them is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Others are known familiarly as the Recovered Memory, Multiple Personality and Gulf War syndromes. She also includes among modern hysterics those who claim to have been abducted by aliens and people who say they have been exposed to Satanic rituals.
Modern hysteric epidemics have some similarities with those in history, and a few differences. In the past they were localized, and short-lived. Today they last a long time and spread across wider territories. Some become international: Multiple Personality Disorder, which started in North America, is now all over the world; Gulf War Syndrome, which originated here, is manifest in England.
Among the elements necessary to virtually all contemporary epidemics, in addition to the sufferers themselves, are sympathetic physicians. Showalter writes: "[Dr.] Paul Cheney specifies personal experience as the difference between the physician who 'believes' in CFS as an organic illness and those who see it as a psychological syndrome."
This desire to "believe" despite a lack of definitive evidence of a biological cause for the disease, says Showalter, reflects "an unwillingness to accept a psychological disorder as 'real.' "
There are many physicians of this ilk, Showalter insists.
Another important element these days is media. "This was not a big factor in earlier times," she says. "The people in Andover [Mass.] didn't learn about the witch hunt in Salem until it was all over."