The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves
In this unique neurological memoir Siri Hustvedt attempts to solve her own mysterious condition
While speaking at a memorial event for her father in 2006, Siri Hustvedt suffered a violent seizure from the neck down. Despite her flapping arms and shaking legs, she continued to speak clearly and was able to finish her speech. It was as if she had suddenly become two people: a calm orator and a shuddering wreck. Then the seizures happened again and again.
The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves tracks Hustvedt's search for a diagnosis, one that takes her inside the thought processes of several scientific disciplines, each one of which offers a distinct perspective on her paroxysms but no ready solution. In the process, she finds herself entangled in fundamental questions: What is the relationship between brain and mind? How do we remember? What is the self?
During her investigations, Hustvedt joins a discussion group in which neurologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and brain scientists trade ideas to develop a new field: neuropsychoanalysis. She volunteers as a writing teacher for psychiatric in-patients at the Payne Whitney clinic in New York City and unearths precedents in medical history that illuminate the origins of and shifts in our theories about the mind-body problem.
In The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt synthesizes her experience and research into a compelling mystery: Who is the shaking woman? In the end, the story she tells becomes, in the words of George Makari, author of Revolution in Mind, "a brilliant illumination for us all."
Novelist Hustvedt (The Sorrows of an American) has been puzzling for years over the cause of her physical distress, from migraines to convulsions, and in this wide-ranging hodgepodge of technical jargon, research, memory and narrative, she tries to get at the root of what ails her. Since the death of her father some years before, the author has been beset by tremors, often before she has to speak publicly about him; she sensed that her shaking was hysterical, in the sense used by Freud, now called conversion disorder, a psychiatric illness whose manifestations often mimic neurological symptoms such as paralysis, seizures, blindness or deafness. Hustvedt immersed herself in the literature, visited psychiatrists and other specialists, volunteered to teach writing to psychiatric patients, tried antishaking medicine such as lorazepam, analyzed her dreams and submitted to tests like MRIs of brain and spine all in order to try out "theories and thoughts that are built on various ways of seeing the world." The more she delved, the more fractured the possibilities of explanation, as the self has many facets, conscious and otherwise, similar to the voices in a novel she might write. Indeed, Hustvedt's probing of the question "What happened to me?" taps at the source of the creative process, as such famous victims of migraine, epilepsy and bipolar disorder as Dostoyevski and Flaubert have documented. The barest of personal detail holds Hustvedt's narrative together, in favor of a dryly detailed academic treatise on etiology that is by turns elucidating and tedious.