Loa Zavala later said she felt a certain kinship to her new patients. She looked not unlike the students at Girlstown: She had black hair that fell to her shoulders and almond-colored skin — the sort of complexion that is commonly called “mestiza.” She said she felt compelled to bring the girls back to reality. It was a tricky proposition. Through the course of her interviews, she learned that Villa de las Niñas had actually been an escape from deeper horrors outside its walls. The horrors, in some form, had followed the girls there.
Loa Zavala’s method was to trace manifestations of physical symptoms back to what she suspected were psychological triggers, often difficult and frightening topics for the patients to excavate. But gradually, through hours of sitting down with Loa Zavala, the girls began to improve. Zitlali, one of the first girls whom Loa Zavala interviewed — the girl who recalled seeing bloody babies — stopped showing symptoms as the analyst worked with her. “What helped for her was to talk: about her dreams, how they scared her, her stepfather,” Loa Zavala recalls. “I noticed that when she talked about these things, she got better. The next day, she was walking normally.”
Hysteria, Loa Zavala explains, is an audiovisual contagion. You have to see and hear someone exhibiting symptoms in order to find yourself replicating those symptoms. See it enough, and it becomes you. This is hysteria’s essential and most terrifying threat: Anyone is susceptible.
Loa Zavala began to see a number of similarities among the girls as she sat with them one-on-one in an austere classroom day after day. Many came from broken families and experienced abuse. One 16-year-old girl, whom she identified as Soledad, described how her mother beat her when she was angry, “with an electrical cord or with her shoe, only once she made me bleed.”
“Nobody likes the way I am,” Soledad told Loa Zavala in the classroom. “I know there’s something bad about me but I would rather there weren’t.”
As far as Sister Cheong could tell, evil had invaded her school. One of her first moves was to have a priest perform an exorcism. It didn’t seem to work. The nuns also tried a traditional Chinese therapy that involved sprinkling a plant powder on the girls’ legs and then lighting it on fire. That, too, failed to cure them.
But under Loa Zavala’s care, Soledad finally improved. Soledad didn’t want to leave the classroom, Loa Zavala noted in her report. “It was difficult for her to say goodbye to me,” she wrote. “She was trying to stay with me longer.”
At night, at her home in the center of Mexico City, Loa Zavala, too, began to have nightmares. Perhaps it was all the girls’ descriptions of divorce and shattered relationships. She thought about how the girls in Maria’s dormitory said they saw Maria in their dreams and woke up screaming. ‘‘Maria was burning, surrounded by flames, and laughed as she told us that we would be the next, that it was our fault because we accused her,” Loa Zavala quoted one girl in her report.
During the day, as Loa Zavala sat in the austere classroom talking with the terrified girls, something strange began to happen. Loa Zavala began to feel symptoms in her legs, though she fought back the sensations. She also described feeling as though the nuns — not in view — were eavesdropping or listening to her sessions with the Girlstown students. She said others in the government medical team felt it, too, but had no evidence to prove their hunch. Describing the whole scenario now, Loa Zavala spreads her arms and nods to her right hand. “Here is health,” she says, and then nods to her left hand. “And here is illness.”
Then she draws her hands together. “After a while, the boundary there isn’t always so clear.”