Loathsome Women: The Witches Among Us by Leopold Stein, M.D. and Martha Alexander

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book Title: Loathsome Women: The Witches Among Us

Author: Leopold Stein, M.D. and Martha Alexander

Why I Consider This Book Odd: The title made me think this was an odd book, and a reading completely bore this out. Some time ago, I saw this book mentioned in an online discussion about weird books. I didn’t write down the description but in my notes, I later saw the title and had to order a copy.

Type of Work: non-fiction, psychiatry

Availability: This book is out of print, but copies can be found at various book seller sites, like Amazon. Click here to buy a copy: Loathsome Women: the Witches Among Us Because it is out of print, there is no official listing. That link takes you to just one of the clusters of the book, as sellers created their own listing for the book instead of searching to see if the book was already listed. So shop around for the best deal.

Comments: Okay, let’s get this out of the way: I don’t dismiss Jung or psychoanalysis. But for the love of sanity, you will not find a more bizarre approach to psychoanalysis than you will in Dr. Stein. Add to that bizarre approach his misogyny and his overt and cringing fear in the face of four mentally ill women, and you’ve got yourself one odd, or dare I say very odd, book. It is hard to restrain vitriol in the face of such a monster, but I managed it. I did not, however, restrain my snark.

When this book arrived in the mail, I scanned the book and a little of the content and wondered if it was really an odd book after all. In small doses, in Loathsome Women it seemed like Dr. Stein was approaching his patients’ manifestation of problems using Jungian archetypes to relate to the patients. It didn’t hit me when I just scanned the book that Dr. Stein evidently believed that his patients were real witches and that he was possibly the most misogynistic writer I’ve read in years.

But he did. And he was. Read the rest under the jump.

Dr. Stein had four patients, Sybil, Judith, Daphne and Dora, with only superficial similarities. In dealing with them, he felt repulsed by them and at times frightened. (And my god, this man was easily frightened. He shivered with every “sly smile” these women gave him.) He came up with the theory that these women were honest to god witches and not just emotionally disturbed women he needed to treat and not be repulsed by them in such a way that he was frightened by their disorders and disgusted by the women.

At first, I kept clinging to the hope that Dr. Stein was using language in such a way that maybe I was reading too much into it. I kept hoping that he didn’t think these women were real witches. But the text is too specific for it to be anything other than the delusions of a Viennese-trained psychiatrist who should really have known better. And I really wish I could track these women down, if they are still living, and see if they were really cured of their problems. I found the conclusion of this book to be self-serving, to say the least. I can’t help but suspect that not only were they not cured, that perhaps there was at least one suicide among them. But the overarching weirdness in this book is this: Since the man clearly thought the women were witches, it makes one wonder how basic psychoanalysis could cure the supernatural.

But don’t take my word for it. Some proponents of psychoanalysis may think I am reading the text wrong, that Dr. Stein was dealing with archetypes but to this reader, his words give lie to any attempt to whitewash his misogyny as well as his paranoid delusions of the true natures of these four women.

Judge for yourself:

“I had no way of knowing, however, that there was a far more sinister side to their personalities than was initially revealed. These women led me on many dark and devious paths before my associations with them ended, and the same forces that threatened them came to threaten me.”

The same forces that threatened them came to threaten me? This passage shows clearly Dr. Stein’s bizarre mind. How exactly could their problems come to threaten him, a well-trained psychiatrist? Surely by that point he had encountered toxic personalities before and was not constantly frightened by them or felt their neuroses could affect him. This passage shows that he felt that the supernatural forces in these women and not their Jungian subconscious for the mythic witch. An archetype cannot hurt you.

Referring to his patient Sybil:”I saw again the fury in her eyes turn to naked fear, and their focus shift from me to some point beyond me, and then, when she did meet my eyes, I saw also the strange, sly smile that had caused my flesh to creep.

I knew now why this was: When Sybil lay on the floor she was trying the power of the witch; and she would have indeed destroyed not only herself, but also me.”

Again with the reaction to the sly smiles… He must emphasize the effect those sly smiles had on him at least a dozen times throughout the book. Ask yourself what sort of psychiatrist feels undone by smiles and thinks a mentally ill but charming woman trying to get his attention, sexually or not, by lounging on the floor could have destroyed him? The answer I think is a man who truly feels he is dealing with supernatural forces.

Discussing Judith when she got upset and starting pacing in the office: “I had been in similar situations before, and I was sure that as long as I remained aware of what was going on my patient was unlikely to strike me. Yet I was suddenly assailed by a fear so strong that for a moment, I was literally frozen by horror.

Involuntarily words ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan,’ passed through my mind, and I wondered at once why I had used them. True, they had served their purpose, for my moment of panic passed.”

So, Dr. Stein had been in situations with mentally disturbed patients before, situations that mirrored Judith’s admittedly upsetting behavior, but it was only Judith who elicited this religious response. Of course, Jungians may say that subconscious recognition of the witch mythos in Judith triggered his own subconscious response to use a religious response commonly used to ward off evil. But his first response to Judith was to invoke the religious to avoid evil. That seems the more likely interpretation for this passage.

“I remembered the meeting between Sybil and and Judith; ‘bitch’ and ‘hag’ they had named each other. Could it be that my fancy about witches was not so fanciful after all, and that these two had recognized each other as kindred souls?”

He outright admits here that he actively is considering that these women are actual witches. Also, for a man trained in psychology, his interpretation of this insulting verbal exchange, is an odd one. These were two mentally unbalanced women with little in common meeting and they took an immediate dislike to each other, as shown by their obvious kneejerk reaction to the other. There was nothing kindred between them aside for their willingness to immediately dislike another person.

Referring to Dora, an agoraphobe whose entire family died too young, including her husband, after she has made a haunting reference to the butcher shop marble by touching marble in Dr. Stein’s office and proclaiming it warm: “Despite the heat, I shivered. At that moment Dora seemed to me to be a most loathsome woman. I was repelled and completely bewildered, as I had been with the other three women. What was going on?”

What was going on was an extremely mentally ill woman had become a vegetarian after so many people close to her had died, and held a horrific, though strangely touching, issue with butcher shops. She’d just had a panic attack before she touched the marble. Most of us would have looked at her with pity but this Dr. Stein responded to her with revulsion and again shivered in the face of the odd behavior these women exhibited. Such a fragile mind seems very likely to believe these women menacing him must in fact be witches.

But then it gets very interesting. Dr. Stein begins to outline the traits that prove these women, not just acting on the subconscious impact by archetypes, are in fact, witches. This comes after an examination of witches in mythology, as well as the horrible witch trials, that he admits were excessive and built on a house of torture, false accusations and false confessions. But then again, those women were not real witches in Dr. Stein’s way of thinking, were they? He had pity for them he could not spare for his patients.

“In studying the sad history of witchcraft, I became convinced that the idea of the witch represented a long and profound psychological tradition – a tradition by no means dead. I was also convinced that my suspicions about my patients were right.

Okay, for minute you think maybe Dr. Stein is not a complete whackaloon. Then he blows it. He says that the archetypes confirm his suspicions about his patients. He draws a line between the archetypes and his suspicions. From here it’s all downhill into the realm of the utterly odd. Here is where he begins to lay out his case that the four women are witches.

“I considered the list of conventional signs by which a witch was supposed to be recognized. How did they fit my four patients.

“”It was believed that the mating of a witch and her incubus produced a mouse or a misshapen child. This made me think that an early miscarriage might be described as ‘a mouse. Sybil had had six miscarriages, some brought on by herself…

Dora had had a serious abortion of a malformed child at six months, and half-crazy with terror, had induced a surgeon, who feared she would commit suicide if she became pregnant again, to sterilize her.

“Judith was psychically sterile as a result, she believed, of using contraceptives. And Daphne was either sterile or habitually miscarried.”

This is just bizarre. Almost verging on insane. And I note that he didn’t have any information about Daphne’s reproductive history yet lumped her into his analysis on this point anyway.

“Witches were supposed to be incapable of weeping tears, because of their ‘evil ‘ eyes. These four women patients had, at one time or another, all had fits of sobbing, yet they had shed no tears.”

Sometimes the mentally ill have different ways of expressing deep feeling. No surprise there, aside from Dr. Stein’s bizarre interpretation.

“I also remembered that none of my patients like looking up. Sybil ascribed this to her dislike of an overhead light, or any form of glare, which she said made her feel dizzy. Dora would never meet my eyes, but spent her time studying the carpet. Daphne would glance up at me only occasionally when she was being flirtatious. Judith wore glasses and suffered, she said, from constant eye trouble.

“Someone who is not able to look another person in the eyes us commonly thought to be hiding a guilty secret, or is afraid that his evil intentions will be recognized in the expression of his eyes…”

Words fail me. Almost. These women could not have been telling the truth, in Dr. Stein’s mind. Sybil had come into analysis because she was a severe insomniac. When one has not slept well in months, light is hard to take, and I share this from personal experience. Dora was an orphan who had lost her husband, and as a result was an agoraphobe. Of course she couldn’t be looking away from him because life had beaten her down to the point that her natural response was to look at the floor. And perish the thought that Judith used those eye glasses for anything other than hiding behind and that she really did have eye problems.

But wait, odd book fans. Here’s a dose of his bizarre theories with an extra helping of either ignorance of women’s health or complete misogyny – and there’s no reason it cannot be both.

“I was particularly interested in the association of strong odors with the witch. Three of these women suffered from a foul vaginal discharge at one time or another…

“Vaginal discharge may be due to a variety of causes. Psychically, it is often due to aggression toward the male. Trivial occurances, such as a fierce argument, may trigger it off. So can aversion to the husband, as in the case of Sybil and her first husband; disappointment in women who, like Dora, have romantic ideas about love and marriage; or guilty feelings about pre-marital or extramarital amours, including recent adolescent infatuations and unconscious incestuous feelings…

Yep, you read it here first. Vaginal discharge can be caused by fierce arguments, romantic feelings about marriage and unconscious incestuous feelings. What were we thinking all those years, buying Monistat when we had yeast infections? We should have just gotten some psychoanalysis.

Now we wander into the realm of the woman hater, and bear in mind, these are just snippets – the book is crawling with Dr. Stein’s misogyny.

“…I recalled that she had told me that she had lost a lot of hair when she had rheumatic fever. Of course it could have grown again, but no doubt she had been afraid of the possible loss of her power over men and had not been able to wait and condemned herself to wearing false hair. Suddenly she seemed the most pathetic sight I had ever seen.”

Yeah, there’s nothing more pathetic than a woman in a wig. Stone her, stone her!

“No longer the poised, self-controlled woman, she stood there with words pouring out of her, making strange, swinging, apelike gestures with her long arms as she told me of her brother’s perfidity.”

My god, if he’s going to complain about an angry woman, he should at least use the right animal. Us angry women are like cats, got it?

“I was struck by what she had done to this [married] lover of hers. He had once seemed a kind, honorable man who remained loyal to an indifferent wife for the sake of his kids. Daphne had set out to ensnare him from the beginning. Now the man was a slave to her charms, reduced in stature by his need for her.”

Wow. I wish I did know this powerful enchantress. I could use a lesson on how to make men a slave to my charms. I could just smile coyly and my grocery bill would be cut in half, so enraptured would be the cashier at HEB. And yeah, neat how the married schmo gets off scot-free. It’s all that Daphne, vicious little minx she is.

And there is more. So much more that I am making myself stop.

Drink in the cover of the book, and the back, which sports a pic of the doc himself. What a catch he must have been to the woman lucky enough to ensnare him.

4 thoughts on “Loathsome Women: The Witches Among Us by Leopold Stein, M.D. and Martha Alexander

    1. It might have saved him some time and prevented him from writing this execrable book, that’s for sure.

  1. Late comment, but: thanks for putting up with this monstrosity enough to write this post. In the wake of a major depressive episode (admittedly far from resolved at the moment, but getting there), I’ve been pulling together a lot of thoughts on how stigma about mental illness often neatly overlaps with misogyny, including in actual mental health professionals (see: outdated concepts of “hysteria” in the past and 95% of the literature out there on borderline personality disorder in the present day, along with countless awful stereotypes in the media). This book sounds like something that could be very useful if I ever decide to write about these thoughts in more detail.

    1. No such thing as late comments on this blog, Tziy, and thanks for taking the time to leave one!

      I have struggled with cyclical depression my entire life. I know I have had mental health professionals shoe horn me into a “traditional” female mental health narrative, which means I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar and with Borderline Personality Disorder, conditions applied mostly to women and lots of them who are not suffering from the condition. It’s a passive, non-malicious misogyny, but it still is misogyny when a person who has deep depression and a flat affect is declared hysterical and in need of lots of meds to control her out of control emotions. It took many years and lots of reading for me to understand the horrible diagnoses I have received.

      So if I can be put into those boxes while being no more than an anxious and occasionally deeply depressed woman, it’s easy to see how a narrative of female mental illness dogs the profession to this day.

      I almost hate the idea that anyone would read this book but from the perspective you intend to interrogate it if you do, I bet you’d find a lot to work with.

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