Siri Hustvedt: The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010)

While speaking at a memorial event for her father, the novelist Siri Hustvedt suffered a violent seizure from the neck down. Was it triggered by nerves, emotion – or something else entirely? In this profoundly thought-provoking and revealing book, Hustvedt takes the reader on her journey through psychiatry, philosophy, neuroscience and medical history in search of a diagnosis. Conveying the often frightening mysteries of illness, she illuminates the perenially mysterious connection between mind and body and what we mean by ‘I’

Siri Hustvedt is one of my favourite writers. Whenever she has a new novel out I’m likely to buy and read it. I’m a bit behind as I haven’t read Sorrows of an American and The Summer Without Men yet. Until now I haven’t read any of her essays but was planning on doing it and when I saw The Shaking Woman or The History of my Nerves in a bookshop I bought and read it immediately.

Whether someone likes this book or not depends a lot on the expectations. Many readers where disappointed to find a blend. The Shaking Woman is halfway between essay and memoir, very dense, hardly anecdotal but highly informative and thought-provoking.

“Nerves” is such an interesting term and topic. I recently watched the movie Housewife, 49 based on the diaries that a 49-year-old housewife wrote during WWII. She is  depressed and, as she says, “nervous” or has problems with her “nerves”. I also seem to remember distinctly Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice exclaiming on and on “My poor nerves”. By using the word we may mean quite a lot of things and this is precisely what Siri Hustvedt hints at too.

During a speech for her late father Siri Hustvedt started to shake violently from chin down. She continued to speak and the shaking wasn’t in any way audible, it didn’t affect her capability to speak in any way. She says she didn’t even feel nervous or anxious before the speech. If this had happened only once she might not have felt tempted to undergo so many tests and read such a lot about various topics. But it did happen again and from what I understood still happens to this day.

Everybody with a chronic disease can feel with Siri Hustvedt and her struggle to make sense of what happens. It’s the nature of many chronic diseases that are somewhere on the borderline between physical and psychological to be hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.  These are some of the topics she writes about. But she doesn’t only write about the different tests and treatments she undergoes, she looks for a deeper meaning. What does it mean when you say “I’m ill”? Who is this “I”? What does it mean when you say you are physically ill? Is your mind not part of your body?

Who are we anyway? What do I actually know about myself? My symptom has taken me from the Greeks to the present day, in and out of theories and thoughts that are built on various ways of seeing the world. What is body and what is mind? Is each of us a singular being or a plural one? How do we remember things and how do we forget them? Tracking my pathology turns out to be an adventure in the history of experience and perception.

She thinks for a long time that what she has is a convulsion disorder and therefore we hear a lot about the history of hysteria, its early treatment and what has become of it now. She parallels hysteria and shell-shock and wonders why both terms are now out of fashion.

One of the doctors she consults tells her she has a panic disorder and she also reads a lot about this.

But it wouldn’t be Siri Hustvedt if she stopped there. She goes far beyond her illness and so, in the end, this book is less about a symptom than about the mind as a whole. She also writes at length about migraine and different ways of perceiving the world. About memory and imagination.

When I read a novel, I see it, and later, I remember the images I invented for the book. Some of these images are borrowed from intimate places in my own life. Others, I suspect, are taken from movies or pictures in books and paintings I’ve seen.

She also writes about mysticism, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Freud and mixes all kind of views and theories.

At the end she has explored numerous things but still doesn’t know what she really has.

The Shaking Woman describes one woman’s intellectual journey that starts with a symptom and ends with an exploration of all sorts of disciplines, theories and views on consciousness. It seems as if the inconspicuous sounding word “nerves” was a little door that Hustvedt opened to enter a huge, huge landscape. I’m glad I took the journey with her.