Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

A history of Fear. Professor Joanna Bourke in interview

When researching for An intimate History of Killing, Bourke found a huge amount of candid material in diaries and letters from men and women involved in the First World War. How much good source primary material, though, is there when dealing with such a complex emotion, an emotion that culturally many people refuse to admit having? How do you find honest accounts when, for example, generations of British men have been taught to keep the stiff upper lip in relation to emotions? “The notion of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ is nonsense, – dismisses Bourke. – They are an emotional people, but show it in different ways, perhaps. The problem with sources was too much, not too little. Emotion is everywhere. Fear is constantly discussed: in letters, diaries, official reports, newspapers, plays, novels, films, Parliamentary papers, memoirs, even statistical compilations (as in the Mass Observation archive in Sussex). The mass of material forced me to identify some of the ‘big fears’ for each period, rather than try to look at every fear (an impossible task). Of course, it does mean that some fears are left out – fear of dentists, for instance – but, in the end, it does mean that readers can trace changes over time in the construction of what makes us afraid, and why.”

Defining Fear

To research the cultural history of an emotion, such as fear, is in many ways a more complex task than that of analysing specific historical events. To begin with, can we be sure that what is termed ‘fear’ by a person in one historical period coincides with what his/her predecessors meant? What is the difference between fear and rage – they often share similar characteristics (think of the trembling hands of someone who is fearful or consumed with rage). These are questions that Bourke is well aware of, and confronts head on: “It is significant what people claimed to ‘fear’ in one period compared with another – and that is what the book does. It is not helpful (in my view) to categorically define what ‘fear’ is at the outset. Evolutionary psychologists like doing this, of course, because they attempt to point to an underlying, essentialist, biological ‘thing’ that is fear. I have never subscribed to this view, and have published an article setting out my response to the essentialist/constructivist dichotomy [see the journal History Workshop, 2003).”

“It is a difficult question, – continues Bourke, – distinguishing between fear and other emotions is uncertain. How does fear differ from dread, consternation, or surprise? Anger, disgust, hatred, and horror all contain elements of fear. Jealousy might be understood as fear of losing one’s partner; guilt might be fear of God’s punishment; shame might be fear of humiliation. It would render a history of fear indomitable if all negative emotional states are classified as ‘really’ being fear states. So, my solution was simply to say that whenever someone in the past used a ‘fear-word’ (ie. frightened, fearful, anxious, terrified etc), they were talking about fear. The important questions were: ‘how was the word ‘fear’ used in cultural contexts?’ and ‘what were the social norms in the expression of fear?'”

One Man’s fear

Fear is a human emotion, but culturally, as one would expect looking through history its definition and acceptance by society has differed depending upon the gender of the person experiencing it. “Gender stereotyping relating to fear (and all emotions), – Bourke points out, – is still firmly in place. One of the discoveries I made in the course of writing the book was that men and women tended to respond in very different ways to the question: ‘tell me about what makes you fearful?’ or ‘what scares you?’. Men were much more liable to respond along the lines ‘I am afraid of” (ie. I am afraid of flying, spiders, death). In contrast, women were much more like to respond along the lines ‘I am afraid for‘(I am afraid for my children, husband, the poor in Africa).”

The way the genders traditionally deal with fear has been different, and illuminating. While researching the physical effects of fear, Bourke found a fascinating study from the Second World War, Psychiatric Casualties in a Women’s Service, that ran counter to traditional stereotypes that suggest men handle fear better: “The women in the Air Force during the Second World War were less liable to suffer from hysterical conversion disorder precisely because they were much more emotionally expressive. Because they showed their fears more openly and talked about them, they had less need to ‘mask’ fear through physical symptoms. As the researcher put it in 1945: ‘the socially acknowledged and permitted emotionalism of women allows for a more direct expression of adaptive and emotional difficulties, and that this renders prolonged and inconvenient physical symptoms superfluous. Men, on the other hand, submit to a sterner social and emotional code. They have, therefore, a greater need to preserve their self-esteem by the development of a more complex disguise or escape mechanism.'”

One particular fear, predominantly experienced by women, will be the subject of Bourke’s next book, a history of rape. ” One section of the Fear book looks at fear of crime and, in particular, the fears most women possess of rape. I was immensely heartened by the resilience of so many rape victims, and the creative ways they employed to ensure that the perpetrator did not ‘win’. I was also struck by the relative absence of serious academic research on rape and rapists. We still know so little about these ‘dangerous Others’. Our ignorance is born of fear. The whole issue of sexual aggression is characterised by a deep anxiety about speaking honestly about the complexities of our own and other peoples’ sexuality. This is not merely ‘political correctness’, but a very valid horror about excusing perpetrators for their abhorrent and traumatising acts.”


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