Siri Hustvedt, best-selling author of What I Loved and more recently The Sorrows of An American, has a charming way of referring to her various ailments. In her latest book, The Shaking Woman: Or, A History of My Nerves, she speaks, somewhat anachronistically, of her hypersensitive nerves¸; of herself as a migraneur¸ and, of course, as a shaking woman¸. The terms call to mind nineteenth-century heroines and medieval mystics and position Hustvedt within a particularly gendered literary canon. The spectre of hysteria that much-maligned condition haunts both the work and its author. Hustvedt investigates literary and historical precedents in an attempt to get to the bottom of her friable nervous system and in the process takes the reader on a journey through the mysterious worlds of contemporary psychiatry, neurology and psychoanalysis.
The books inception was a single autobiographical event: two years following the death of her beloved father, Hustvedt was giving a memorial speech at his alma mater in Minnesota when she was seized by an uncontrollable paroxysm. Her limbs flailed and knocked, freely and unstoppably; they were alien appendages, impervious to her internal calls for control. Hustvedts outward voice remained calm, however, and she was able to finish the speech. Afterwards, her family and friends commented on the spectacle, with her mother likening it to an electrocution. This violent incident was an important touchstone in Hustvedts life and the springboard for two subsequent books: The Sorrows of an American, her 2008 novel whose protagonist is a psychiatrist coping with the recent death of his father (Hustvedt has described the character as her imaginary brother); and of course, The Shaking Woman. These works entailed deep research into the study of the human brain and an exploration of Hustvedts own mind. As such, The Shaking Woman is composed of two interweaving narrative strands, one autobiographical and one investigative and academic.
Psychological phenomena appeared in Hustvedts writing even before the death of her father. The character of Violet in What I Loved with whom parallels can be drawn with Hustvedt herself spends the majority of the novel writing a PhD on female hysteria, having experienced a violent shaking fit in her youth. And, as Hustvedt points out at the beginning of The Shaking Woman, the convulsions she suffered at her fathers memorial were not new. She had experienced them as a young woman in an art gallery in Paris and endured severe migraines for a year after. Psychiatrists and neurologists failed then to get to the bottom of her convulsions, and seem not to be able to help with the most recent bout.
Self-diagnosis is an ill-advised, frequently problematic venture, but Hustvedt takes it on with passionate urgency. She relates how her husband, author Paul Auster, calls her an obsessive reader; and her research into her condition is certainly exhaustive. And while it is the autobiographical touches that really pique the readers interest, the narratives of the various case studies Hustvedt comes across in her research are equally fascinating. Indeed, throughout the book Hustvedt argues for the importance of narrative when analysing and diagnosing the malfunctions of a given brain and nervous system. Parts of the book read like a vindication of Freud, whose ideas are out of vogue in contemporary psychology, not least because of his investigations into hysteria. But his status as a story-builder, sewing together the fragments of his patients traumatic narratives, explains his continuing appeal to a writer like Hustvedt and to literary criticism in general.
In her preface, Hustvedt reprints Emily Dickinsons poem, I Felt a Cleaving in My Mind:
I felt a cleaving in my Mind
As if my Brain had split
I tried to match it Seam by Seam
But could not make it fit.
The poem aptly describes Hustvedts concern about the brain and mind being two separate realms, with the physical, more scientifically knowable brain invariably considered the ascendant of the two. While the author devours information relating to the brain how physical lesions, for example, affect the way it works and displays a writerly fascination with the medical words describing its various regions, she is never quite convinced that the core of her selfhood is defined simply by two lumps of grey matter. She juxtaposes DNA discoverer Francis Cricks belief that humans are no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules¸ with a section from Tolstoys The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which the protagonist cannot accept the idea that he is not exempt from death that he is like everyone else. Hustvedt asks: What is the self? Who am I? Despite advances in neurology and psychiatry, the brain remains an unknowable, mysterious entity. Perhaps it is this slippage between the known and the unknown Hustvedt calls it ambiguity that carries the elusive answer to her questions.
Hustvedt never quite gets to the bottom of who the shaking woman is, why she came into her life and how she can be treated. But by the end of the book, Hustvedt who refers to her shaking self throughout in the third person finally subsumes the alien. I shook that day and then I shook again on other days," she writes. "I am the shaking woman."