The Nerve Trainer

Being a pioneer is never easy.  Especially if you're a woman.

For Annie Payson Call, things started going wrong on June 10, 1890.  That was the day when Dr. Edward R. Utley of Newton, Massachusetts, announced to several Boston newspapers that the nervous collapse he was seeing in two of his female patients was due to their being "hypnotised" by Call.    The two patients were day students at the Lasell Seminary for Young Woman, located in Auburndale, not far from Boston.   They had been confined to bed following nervous problems that had occurred months earlier, not long after taking part in a nerve training course Call had conducted.  While Annie Call denied using hypnotism on her students, there was still enough mystery surrounding hypnosis in general, and the "mind training" that she was providing to her young female students, that a nationwide controversy erupted over what exactly was happening at Lasell Seminary.

While largely overlooked in the history of psychology, Annie Payson Call was one of the very few female practising psychologists of her era.   Despite the warm endorsement that she received from William James himself, Call's prolific self-help books, and frequent articles in the Ladies' Home Journal never attracted the kind of following that would make her famous.   Not that there was anything particularly revolutionary about her work, at least by modern standards.   

Drawing on many different self-help philosophies, including the voice and gesture training developed by Francois Delsarte, Call established her own system of nerve training to help women and men learn to deal with anxiety and nervous exhaustion.   Given that she lived in an era in which women were routinely confined to insane asylums, subjected to mind-numbing therapies,  or forced to undergo dangerous surgical operations to cure their "hysteria", suggesting that women could take charge of their own emotional health through mental training was a revelation.

In her most well-known book, Nerves and Common Sense, she wrote:

PEOPLE form habits which cause nervous strain. When these habits have fixed themselves for long enough upon their victims, the nerves give way and severe depression or some other form of nervous prostration is the result. If such an illness turns the attention to its cause, and so starts the sufferer toward a radical change from habits which cause nervous strain to habits which bring nervous strength, then the illness can be the beginning of better and permanent health. If, however, there simply is an enforced rest, without any intelligent understanding of the trouble, the invalid gets "well" only to drag out a miserable existence or to get very ill again.

Call argued that women could learn to manage stress and relax themselves to deal with their anxiety safely and effectively using various exercises of what she termed "mind concentration.”   Unfortunately, her techniques involved methods such as guided imagery and autosuggestion which, while a standard part of stress management training today, tapped into the cultural panic surrounding "hypnotism.”  Still poorly understood at the time (not that we understand it much better today), stories of sinister hypnotists gaining control over their (usually female) victims had generated a fair amount of mistrust over any treatment program that even suggested that women were being targeted.   Since Call described her training system as "combined concentration and relaxation in connection with the art of acting into a powerful means for relieving nervous distress",  many critics promptly accused her of hypnotism and the controversy was on.

The newspaper war that began  in response to Dr. Utley's accusation seemed evenly split between pro- and anti-Call forces.  The headline for the New York Sun read. "Girl Pupils Hypnotized" while the Boston Globe headline was, "Hypnotism Not Taught at Lasell".  The Sun story stated that the girl students at the centre of the controversy had been "completely hypnotized and their nervous systems... almost shattered" which was then picked up by newspapers across the country.    Newspaper coverage sensationalized the story further by suggesting that Call's "victims" were in critical condition and unlikely ever to recover.   

While the names of the patients were never released to the public, the Sun described them both as being fifteen years old and having been forced to take Call's course against their will.   The Sun also interviewed prominent neurologist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Frederick Peterson, who declared the Call system as being "full of danger" and that "compelling the girls to concentrate the mind intently on the various  muscles which they are taught to train to obedience."    Peterson went on to stress that the nerve training provided by Call was "sure to produce injurious results."   In what he likely thought would be helpful advice, Peterson concluded that "“girls in school shouldn’t be taught that they have any nerves.”

Call's defenders were somewhat saner in her defense.   The president and principal of Lasell Seminary, Charles D. Bragdon, stood by Annie Call and her training.   He reasonably pointed out that having one or two students developing problems later was almost inevitable considering the large class sizes Call was obliged to teach.   Following on that theme, one of Call's student told the press, "Would you abolish gymnasiums just because one or two persons sprained an ankle?”   Parents and teachers all stood by Call as well and dismissed any concerns about her nerve training.

All that remained was for Annie Payson Call to speak out in her own defense.   In a letter to the editor published in the New York Sun, Call emphatically denied using or teaching hypnotism to her students.   She produced an impressive list of experts who  all endorsed her nerve training, including eminent neurologist James Jackson Putnam.   As for her archnemesis, Dr. Utley, she pointed out that he had no special training in hypnotism and had even turned down an invitation to come to the school and see her class for himself.    Her letter also pointed out that the purpose of her nerve training was "to free the pupil’s body from tension and overstrain, and this only by securing the obedience of the organs of the body to their owner’s will, not the will of another.”  

Though the various testimonials Call produced from experts and students helped defuse some of the tension, newspapers were reluctant to tone down their crusade against her.   As far as they were concerned, Lasell Seminry had adopted "a vigorous description of mind culture closely resembling hypnotism" which could only result in harm to impressionable young girls.   

Given the era in which they lived, the curriculum at Lasell was largely intended to prepare girls for their presumed future as wives and mothers.   Training focused on domestic science and all the other arts that would supposedly lead to success in managing their own homes and children.   Annie Payson Call's nerve training was part of the "New Departure" curriculum offered at Lasell to set it apart from other "finishing schools" for girls by training them to  handle stress, something with which  "vulnerable women" presumably had difficulty.

As the story unfolded further, most newspapers became more accepting of Call and her nerve training.   The Boston Globe concluded that Call could not be reasonably blamed for the “little unpleasantness” at Lasell.   The paper even added that Lasell was "“not afraid to experiment in the new psychological sciences that are opening up such wide and interesting fields of inquiry.”    Other papers even suggested that Call's nerve training should be adopted at seminaries across the country since "the country needs women of nerve."  

While there was still demands that nerve training be discontinued, Call continued writing self-help books which made her methods more widely known.   Her 1891 book, Power Through Repose, was written as a direct response to the Lasell controversy.  Many of the exercises she described in her book have had a strong influence on the development of relaxation training and stress management techniques throughout the 20th century (even though her name has been largely forgotten).  

Many of the therapists that Annie Payson Call trained in her workshops would go on to become influential in their own right.   Whether directly through her own teachings or through the teachings of her students, Annie Call’s nerve training and concentration exercises would play an important role in the development of mind-body interventions.   Many of the stress management techniques used in modern cognitive-behavioural therapy bear a strong resemblance to the techniques that she taught.

Despite lingering suspicions about Call’s nerve training, her course continued to be taught throughout the thirty-two years she spent at Lasell Seminary.   By the time of her death in 1940, Annie Payson Call’s “Gospel of Relaxation” had been largely overshadowed by other therapeutic techniques (not to mention the rise of Freudian therapy as a cure-all for hysteria).   Still, she remains an important pioneer in many ways and her life’s work lives on in one form of another.   Though her books addressed women of an earlier era, the message she conveyed seems as relevant as ever today.  

           

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