Sarah Efron [Journalist]

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Arctic Hysteria
Up Here, July/August 2003

Robert E. Peary, the obsessive 19th century polar explorer, witnessed a bizarre and disturbing sight in the winter of 1898. His ship, the Windward, was in winter quarters at Cape D'Urville on Ellesmere Island. In the middle of one bitterly cold night, a member of his crew, an Inuit woman from Greenland named Inalu, got up, stripped off her clothes and walked the deck of the ship. Then, she jumped the rail onto the frozen snow and ice.

"It was some time before we missed her," Peary wrote in his journal, "and when she was finally discovered, it was at a distance of half-a-mile, where she was still pawing and shouting to the best of her abilities." Crew members captured Inalu and brought her back to the ship, where she recreated "every conceivable cry of local bird and mammal," Peary wrote.

In 1908, Harry Whitney, a wealthy sportsman who travelled to Etah, Greenland, with Peary, noted a similar phenomenon. One evening, a local woman named Tongwe rushed out of the igloo, tore off her clothing and threw herself into a snowdrift. Whitney and another man tried to bring her back in, but had trouble holding her. "A strong north wind was blowing, with a temperature eight degrees below zero and I thought she would surely be severely frozen before we could get her into the igloo again," Whitney wrote, "but in some miraculous manner, she escaped even the strongest frost bite."

Among the Inuit, such scenes of extreme behaviour, were called pibloktoq, a kind of sudden madness. To the turn-of-the-century Arctic explorers who witnessed and recorded the episodes — among them Peary's wife Josephine, who was the first to describe pibloktoq in a journal from her own 1892 Arctic expedition — the Inuit, women in particular, were vulnerable to something they called Arctic hysteria.

Their descriptions of wild and erratic behaviour among the people of a mysterious and exotic locale also fascinated the pioneers of the then-new field of psychoanalysis. A proliferation of papers speculated on the possible causes of Arctic hysteria —a cry for attention, the emotional effects of extreme cold and darkness, a lack of nutrients in the Inuit diet.

Pibloktoq retains a place in the psychiatry textbooks to this day, where it is described as a short attack that occurs among the Inuit, usually women. People will scream and tear off their clothes while imitating the cry of some animal or bird, possibly running wildly about the ice. Categorized with other so-called culture bound syndromes such as amok (the origin of the English phrase "to run amok"), which describes a sudden, violent rampage among the people of South East Asia and Malaysia.

But even though pibloktoq has a place in the historical record and official medical canons, a number of Arctic researchers and Arctic residents doubt its existence. The phenomena, they suggest, may be more rooted in the experience and behaviour of the early European explorers than the Inuit themselves.

One of the most thorough challenges to the concept of pibloktoq comes from Lyle Dick, a historian with Parks Canada based in Vancouver. Dick came across references to Arctic hysteria in 1988 while researching the history of Ellesmere Island during the creation of Ellesmere Island National Park. Like many academics before him, Dick was drawn to the subject. Dick began to investigate accounts of the malady. He traveled to Washington D.C. for a firsthand look at the journals of the Arctic explorers. He delved into ethnographic accounts of the Polar Eskimos (Inuhuit) and the orthography of their dialect. In the end, he concluded that Arctic hysteria might be a phantom phenomenon. "I found out that much of this literature was based on very little evidence. From what I could see, it just didn't all add up."

Dick published his findings first in a 1995 article the journal Arctic Anthropology and later in his 2001 book about Ellesmere Island called Muskox Land. He found that there was no such term as pibloktoq in the language of the Polar Inuit. European explorers wrote down terms phonetically, so it's not clear if the Inuit were using the word pivdlerortoq, ("a mad or delirious person"), or the related word pivdlerorneq, ("drum dance fits"), or the term pibloktuk ("something bad"). There are various other similar sounding words that could have given rise to the term.

Furthermore, Dick found that most of the writing and speculation about Arctic hysteria was based on only eight cases. And calling them cases is being generous, he says. Most examples are simply a short paragraph in the jottings of European or American adventurers. Dick managed to uncover further references to Arctic hysteria to increase the number of reported cases to 40, but most of these accounts were sketchy and incomplete.

As he studied the issue, Dick began to doubt that Arctic hysteria was a natural part of traditional Inuit culture at all. In fact, he proposed it was most likely an anxiety reaction caused largely by the explorers themselves.

"Peary was obsessed with reaching the North Pole and he forced his crew and assistants to take risks they would not normally do," Dick explains. "The Inuit crew members were separated from their family members. They were placed in dangerous and difficult conditions. There was always risk with hunting in an environment like the Arctic, but the Inuhuit generally took steps to minimize risks. Peary was engaging them to participate in this grand foray over the Arctic ice pack with the ever-present danger of leads opening up and people drowning, and there were many other dangers."

Dick points to the extreme power imbalance between the Inuhuit and the explorers that would have created stressful situations where people might be prone to sudden psychotic episodes. With the explorers and their seemingly limitless supplies of wood, metal and other materials, the Inuhuit were eager to maintain positive relationships. Dick also notes that while there were consensual sexual relationships between Inuhuit women and explorers, there is also evidence of sexual abuse. This, too, may have contributed to pressures that led to irrational behaviour or assaults resulting in post-traumatic dissociative events.

Dick likens the idea of pibloktoq to the popular 19th century notion of "female hysteria," thought to be endemic amongst American middle class women at the time. It was widely believed that women had a natural tendency to be hysterical, which was treated by administrating opium, bleeding, or blistering by applying caustic substances to the skin. It would be easy for Europeans and Americans to view a traditional Inuhuit activity, such as a trance state, which was part of a spiritual practice, and label it hysteria.

For Dick, the study of Arctic hysteria has more to do with the relationship between the Inuhuit and the southern explorers, than it has to do with any truths of pre-contact Inuit culture. "Maybe the study of pibloktoq will lead as much to understanding the cultures that are writing about it as it does the cultures that are being written about," he says.

Robert E. Peary may have been a legendary explorer. But he was driven more by lust for fame and fortune than by the pursuit of knowledge. As Pierre Burton writes in The Arctic Grail, Peary's obsession separated him from his family for much of his life, permanently crippled his feet due to frostbite and sent him on numerous life threatening missions across the polar ice cap.

Single-minded in his pursuit of reaching the North Pole, Peary was not a keen scientific observer. His observations were sometimes grossly inaccurate. For example, his 1892 discovery of Peary Channel in northern Greenland was later discredited and his 1899 find of Jesup Land west of Ellesmere Island turned out to be wishful thinking. In 1906 he announced his discovery of Crocker Land, northwest of Axel Heiberg Island. On a subsequent expedition Donald MacMillan and his crew found Crocker Land didn't exist.

Peary, his crewmates, and his peers were no more reliable ethnographers than they were cartographers in their day. Researchers today don't cite Peary as an accurate source for information on the Arctic as they do other of his contemporary explorers, such as Vilhjalmur Stephansson, for example.

Indeed, the descriptions of pibloktoq that emerged from his expeditions ring hollow with some of the people who populate today's Arctic.

Lucy Evo - a teacher with Nunavut Arctic College from Baker Lake and a former curator with the Inuit Heritage Centre - says she doesn't even recognize the word as part of her language. She also doubts pibloktoq exists, although she imagines Inuit women would experience great stress when separated from their partner, as happened during the early contact period when some men were taken from their families to be guides and hunters for explorers.

"When I read this word pibloktoq... I started thinking that at certain times, a woman might go into this hysteria because the hunter will be leaving," Evo says. "In the old days, you needed to have a hunter or partner who has the skills in hunting. Otherwise, you don't have anyone to support you any longer and you're under great pressure."

Sam Law, a psychiatrist at Baffin Regional Hospital in Iqaluit, Nunavut recognizes the term Arctic hysteria from the official reference book used by psychiatrists in North America, the American Psychiatric Association's DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). But he calls it an antiquated term. "If someone experienced that type of behaviour now, we would call it a brief psychotic disorder."

In fact, Law says if anyone experiences extreme reactions to living through the cold, dark Arctic winters, it tends to be the newcomers to the North. "The Inuit don't talk much about the change in seasons. They recognize it as normal. It's the southern people who come up who talk about how difficult winter is. They tend to feel moody, they think winter will never end, they get depressed and lose hope."

If the concept of pibloktoq is being challenged in the Arctic and academic circles, the medical community is not about to make quick changes to its records and definitions. Dr. Benjamin Sadock, the author of the reference Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry, was intrigued when told of Dick's research. But, after reviewing the arguments, he said that the 40 examples cited by Dick served as a reasonable basis for keeping the term on the record.

"At this point, the definition of pibloktoq is widespread," Sadock said. "It's in all official nomenclature and in the American Psychiatric Association materials. When you read that stuff, you assume you're reading the Bible - in fact, it is a bible of some kind."

If he's not removing the term just yet, Sadock does say he'd be willing to add a note to his book noting that Arctic hysteria has not been seen in recent years - but only if he can be sure no new similar cases have been reported.

"Someone would need to survey all the circumpolar people. They would have to cover everybody before we would say a case doesn't exist," Sadock said.

For now, Arctic hysteria remains a documented culture bound syndrome in the reference textbooks. Some people say it's a garden-variety psychotic episode with a fancy label arising from the exoticization of the Inuit by early 20th century outsiders. They say that it tells more about the culture bestowing the term than the one affected by it. But is there a name for the strange fixation with legendary mental illnesses of the Inuit? Whatever it is, Lyle Dick figures it will crop up again.

"I'm sure it will become an obsession for some other scholar and I wish them well with it."