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.

15 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt: The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010)

  1. I like your allusion to “nerves” as being considered as a feminine disease, like migraine. I wonder how many of various faintnesses experienced by women were due to clothing. (corset…) I remember Mrs Bennet and her poor nerves. It also reminded me The Yellow Wall Paper and The Bell Jar.

    But “Marcel Proust” is the first thing I thought of while reading you post. The body is a fortress where his mind lives. This idea is somewhere in Le Temps Retrouvé. (Strange that I remember this so many years later)Proust for what you say about memory and imagination too. Le Temps Retrouvé was one of my favourite books of In Search of Lost Time.Then I thought of Bergson and his theories on Time (well understood by Proust but too complicated for my poor mind)

    And then I thought of Mme Hulot (La Cousine Bette) who suffers from a “trembling” that will never go away after a shock, I don’t remember which one considering the rain of misery that pours down on her.

    • Yes, exactly, that’s what she looks at, the linking of “nerves” to women. Never heard a man mention it (migraine yes, though). For many years, I guess centuries even, this was an appropriate excuse and explanation for all sorts of things, like migraine too. I’m not sure that all the women saying they had a migraine really had one. My mother always mentioned her nerves. Of course it was nervous, but the term meant so much more. It was like a weapon. Like Mrs Bennett, a means to dominate others. But it can also be the weapon of the helpless. I suffer from migraine, not as much as I used too, but still do and also suffered from a weird chronic desease that wasn’t diagnosed and – thank good – just sort of disappeared. There is a certain predisposition to migraine that goes hand in hand with other things and a hightened sensitivity. It can be challenging to cope. I don’t rememeber that detail in La Cousin Bette. Proust didn’t suffer from migraines, did he?

      • I agree, nerves have been used as an excuse and a good pretext to maintain women in a state of children. Some women probably did some harm to their gender by playing with the “nerve excuse”. I guess our hormones do have ups and downs and influence our mood but not as much as it has been said.

        No Proust didn’t suffer from migraine, as far as I know. But his mind was locked up in a sick body. He experienced a chronic disease and it influenced his life and certainly his writing. He had a lot of time to think in his last years. In “Au Boeuf sur le Toit”, Maurice Sachs reports that Proust wasn’t well enough to go to the cinema and he regretted not to see that new technology. So he was really weak.

        • I always read “A la recherche du temps perdu” as the work of a person who is ill. The attention to details like the chnaging of light in a room and many other things seem typical for someone who spends a lot of time in bed.
          I would love to hear if Litlove has read the Shaking Woman. She has done reserach on hysteria and taught classes of hysteria in literature, if I’m not completely mistaken. We “spoke” about Marie Cradinal’s les mots pour le dire recently. Did you read this?
          Hormones have nothing to do with “nerves”, with some types of migraine, to a certain extent but hormonal imbalance doesn’t cause the type of suffering you find in Pride and Prejudice or The Bell Jar. It’s the result of socialization, not hormones but it gets explained away like this, you are right.

  2. I read this last year when it came out in hardback (I was really keen!) and I enjoyed it very much indeed for the richness and the depth of Hustvedt’s analysis. Wouldn’t have said no to a chapter division or two, and the memoir element was so fascinating I wished she had spent more time on it that some of the neurology. But it was a wonderful overview of a very complex field, and I liked Hustvedt through it.

    • She is very much present in her novels. I identified a lot with the first two protagonists, both had migraine. The memoir part is held back but I thought we still hear a lot about her. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been longer and more personal but I wasn’t disappointed. I knew what to expect. There are quite a lot of reading suggestions and I ordered a book on Narrative Medicine.

    • Thanks, Novroz. It isn’t depressing, surprisingly. At least not her story or not the way she tells it. Some of the other stories she tells are indeed depressing. When it comes to neurology there are so many mysterious ailments people can have.

  3. This sounds interesting. I didn’t realize Siri Hustvedt wrote something other than fiction. I wonder if this would be a good place to start for someone who has not in any way studied psychiatry or psychology?

    • A starting point to her nonfiction book? Yes I gues but it’s a dense book. She squeezes in a lot of information into a few pages. I found it very interesting but challenging at times. She has some books with essays out, I got A Plea for Eros. Might be even better.
      I was fascinated by the disease. So mysterious. It must be hard to cope. It did remind of Oliver Sachs books, only her writing is sophisticated, nothing you just read in one sitting.

  4. Fascinating stuff. I have read several books about psychological or neurological disorder, the latest being Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim PArks. I am sure this would be a great read – alas, I am awash with piles of books at the moment

    • I got that Tim Parks book and am very much looking forward to read it. I had completely forgotten that there was also an illness triggering the exploration of many other things.
      The Shakiong Woman is fascinating. Many of the case stories and her own illness are so mysterious.

  5. Pingback: The Heartguard « Book Around The Corner

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