“Confident and armed with index cards, I looked out at the fifty or so friends and colleagues of my father’s who had gathered around the memorial Norway spruce, launched into my first sentence, and began to shudder violently from the neck down. My arms flapped. My knees knocked. I shook as if I were having a seizure. Weirdly, my voice wasn’t affected. It didn’t change at all. Astounded by what was happening to me and terrified that I would fall over, I managed to keep my balance and continued, despite the fact that the cards were in my hands were flying back and forth in front of me. When the speech ended, the shaking stopped. I looked down at my legs. They had turned a deep red with a bluish cast.”
Yes, it’s Hustvedt again! This time she explores a personal experience, the time she became the ‘shaking women’ coupled with her very deep interest in neurology and what the human conscious experience means. The story begins shortly after her father’s death, when she was giving a speech at his memorial. Inexplicably, despite feeling no fear and being a regular and confident speaker, Siri begins to shake. Her body shakes like she’s having a fit, but her voice remains measured and calm and apart from the obvious disturbance that the shaking causes, she doesn’t feel afraid. The event, coupled with her history of migraine (which she covers in more detail in Living Thinking Looking), not surprisingly, propel her into an exploration of neurology, philosophy, psychology, conversion disorder and epilepsy that make for a fascinating read.
Hustvedt is highly self-aware and has experienced issues with migraine that has formed such a core part of her life experience that it, in part, defines who she is. In the case of the ‘shaking woman’ it is the separation of the woman who shakes and who she feels she is that disturbs her. When the shaking repeats, often when she is talking about her father, she goes in search of a diagnosis but rather than resorting to doctors and psychoanalysts she reads and researches and investigates the phenomenon. Her initial impression is that the shaking is a form of conversion disorder, a psychosomatic illness triggered by her repression of the impact of her father’s death. In this way The Shaking Woman is highly reminiscent of Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head which won the Wellcome Prize earlier this year and which is a fascinating read in itself. Here Hustvedt explores the same territory, reflecting on how we consider some illnesses ‘real’ and others ‘imagined’ when the effect on the body is the same and so little is known in the field of neuroscience that the lack of an apparent originating cause tells us virtually nothing:
“On September 26, 2006, the Science section of the New York Times published an article entitled “Is Hysteria Real? Brain Images Say Yes.” Aside from the fact that this headline makes one wonder what is meant by the world real, it offers insight into misconceptions about mental illness and the mind-body relation. The unarticulated argument is that if a hysterical paralysis or seizure shows up on a brain scan, an illness once thought to be “all in your head” is actually in your body and if it’s in your body its “reality” is confirmed. “Hysteria seemed to be a vanished 19th-century extravagance,” the journalist writes “useful for literary analysis but surely out of place in the serious reaches of contemporary science.” Again, a hierarchy is established. Those pesky people who take literature seriously may have some use for hysteria, but why would scientists, the masters of culture who determine our truths, be concerned with something so retrograde as hysteria?”
Similarly Husdvedt reflects on the importance of language and perception, and the way in which psychological illness can be used as a mechanism to oppress, particularly when it comes to women. That more women than men suffer from conversion disorder, Hustvedt reflects on how this statistic only rings true if you ignore soldiers when making your equations. Like women, soldiers are at the mercy of forces which control them and which threaten their continued existence. Like women, soldiers suffer from hysteria, but unlike women their ‘hysteria’ carries another name perhaps to make it seem less weak. As she describes here:
“Inexplicable paralyses, seizures, blindness, mutism, aphasias and deafness have long been documented among soldiers who, until recently, were all men. The largest number of reported cases was during and after the First World War, when shell-shocked victims were legion. Life in the trenches was horror. The soldiers were immobilized. As they huddled in their long, narrow holes, they knew that at any moment they could be blasted to bits. A theme that links one case of conversion after another is that its victims suffer from a feeling of vulnerability and impotence. Events overwhelm them. They control nothing. When soldiers were allowed to move from the trenches and felt less trapped, the incidence of shell shock diminished considerably.[…]
[…] Hysteria and war go together. The problem is one of vocabulary and the magic of naming. If you give it another name it appears to be another thing. Military physicians were loath to label their men with an illness that had always been associated with women. How could fighting men be hysterics?”
It’s an interesting point, a timely reminder that language can shape experience and can be used as a powerful tool to control ideas and, in more extreme scenarios, people. Interesting that one of the writers who bright to light the horror of shell shock was the ‘hysteric’ Virginia Woolf, a woman who is known as much for her battles with mental illness as her incredible literature. It also made me realise that the parallel stories of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith are perhaps more inter-connected than I originally recognised and evidence Woolf at her most insightful. I didn’t think it was possible to have more respect for that woman, but Hustvedt, unwittingly, has proved me wrong again. Proof again of the brilliance of Hustevedt’s own insightful writing.
When the idea of conversion disorder is dismissed by a neurologist, Hustvedt undertook further research into the strange world of neurology and the complexity of the nervous system. Here she encounters strange illnesses such as ‘neglect’, a disorder where a patient cannot or does not recognise their disability. In researching it, she discovered this weird but absolutely fascinating fact:
“It is weird but true that if you pour cold water into the left ear of a neglect patient the anosognosia will disappear. A patient of V.S. Ramachandran’s did not acknowledge that she was paralysed on the left side and that her left arm was effectively useless. Mrs. M. insisted that she was fine, could walk, could use both her hands, and when forced to look at the dead left hand claimed that it belonged to her son. After her doctor poured ice water in her ear, she freely admitted her paralysis and acknowledged that her body had been that way ever since her stroke. Ramachandran confessed that witnessing the phenomenon made him take Freud’s idea of repression seriously for the first time. It was obvious that at an unconscious level Mrs. M. knew she was paralysed, but on a conscious level she did not want to know.”
Proof, if ever, that the human body is a mysterious thing! Research into epilepsy demonstrates a strange connection between epilepsy and religious experience as well as creativity. Many writers also suffered from epilepsy. But more than anything, Hustvedt seeks a way to integrate the shaking women into her life, to find a way to encompass the shaking into her identity so that she does not feel like a split being. Does she succeed? Well to find out I recommend that you read this fascinating, intelligent and very humane book. In some respects it does cover similar territory to Living Thinking Looking, but the very personal nature of the events, coupled with Hustvedt’s willingness to dive deep into the world of the mind, make this both an insightful and personable read which seeks to connect the theory of mind to the living experience. Which is how it is for all of us.
The Shaking Woman is published by Sceptre.