January 21, 2019

The Devil Within: Siri Hustvedt’s Memoir of an Undiagnosed Illness

A fraught moment in the encounter between men and women is the one in which an ailing woman seeks a cure from a healer — sometimes a physician, sometimes a psychotherapist, and sometimes a prophet.

That moment has been described in the Bible and other ancient texts, in the writings of Freud, and, more recently, in Karen Armstrong’s memoir, “The Spiral Staircase,” where she reveals how her symptoms of epilepsy were ignored and then misdiagnosed during the years she spent in a convent. In the Middle Ages, the diagnosis for certain kinds of suffering could have been demon-possession, Freud himself might have used the term “hysteria,” and, nowadays, the same symptoms might be characterized as “the somatic manifestations of anxiety.” Every woman who has presented a set of vexing physical symptoms to a baffled doctor knows exactly what I mean.

Now the novelist, essayist and poet Siri Hustvedt (“The Sorrows of an American,” “What I Loved,” “A Plea for Eros,” etc.) describes her own remarkable struggle to find meaning in a mysterious illness in “The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves” (A Frances Coady Book/Henry Holt: $23.00, 214 pps. ), a harrowing and heartfelt memoir that is also a history of medicine, a critique of psychiatry and psychopharmacology, and a study of the curative powers of words, dreams and memories.

A couple of years after the death of her father, Hustvedt delivered an address in his honor at the college campus where he had served as a professor.  She had eulogized him without incident at his funeral, but now she started to shake uncontrollably.  “My arms flapped,” she recalls. “My knees knocked.  I shook as if I were having a seizure.”  She struggled through her speech, and “[w]hen the speech ended, the shaking stopped.”  For Hustvedt, the experience struck her as a kind of possession: “It appeared that some unknown force had suddenly taken over my body and decided I needed a good, sustained jolting.”

“The Shaking Woman” tells the story of how Hustvedt’s sought not only to cure her illness but also to understand it. As she ricocheted between psychiatrists and physicians — “In New York City in 2006 no sane doctor would have sent me to an exorcist,” she writes, “and yet confusion about diagnosis is common”—  the shaking and quivering and buzzing continued, and the author began to blame herself.

“I scolded myself internally, saying repeatedly: ‘Own this. This is you. Own it!’” recalls Hustvedt.  “Of course, the fact that I spoke to myself in the second person suggests the split that had taken place — a grim sense that two Siris were present, not one.”  Eventually, she arrives at a self-diagnosis that is literary and metaphorical rather than medical:  “I have come to think of the shaking woman as an untamed other self, a Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll, a kind of double.”

The doctors she consulted offered tests, diagnoses and prescriptions, but no cures. And Hustvedt began to see the danger of the “neglect and denial of illness,” which “seem[s] to redraw the boundaries of the body and liberate the conscious ‘I’ from having to worry about the bad parts.”  Again, she uses the concept of “ownership” as an approach to regaining one’s health or, at least, an understanding of one’s illness.

“Alas, my life is lived in the borderland of headache,” she writes, referring to her suffering as what she calls a “migraineur.”  “The headache is me, and understanding this has been my salvation.  Perhaps the trick will now be to integrate the shaking woman as well, to acknowledge that she, too, is part of myself.”

Hustvedt has read deeply and widely in the scientific literature as it relates to her various physical ailments, but she always returns to the first-person experience that informs her book. For example, she recalls a visit to a neurologist after experiencing shocks and tingles in her limbs in her 30s, and she describes what he said when she asked for a prognosis: “It could get better; it could get worse; it could stay the same.”  She burst out laughing, but the doctor “did not see the joke,” although it turned out that he was entirely correct: “It gets better for a while; then it gets worse; and sometimes it stays the same for weeks on end.”

“The Shaking Woman” is a challenging but rewarding book. “The task of diagnosis is to abstract ‘illness’ from ‘person,’” writes Hustvedt, but she insists that a much deeper question remains to be answered: “Who are we, anyway?” she muses. “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.  Tracking my pathology turns out to be an adventure in the history of experience and perception.  How do we read a symptom or illness?”

Here the author announces her real goal, and we realize that she is uniquely qualified to achieve it.  Every observed and remembered detail of human experience has meaning if it can only be retrieved, scrutinized and understood.  That’s a tool of psychotherapy, of course, but it also describes exactly what writers do. In “The Shaking Woman,” Siri Hustvedt has done it exceptionally well.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of 13 books, including “The Harlot by the Side of the Road” and “The Woman Who Laughed At God.”  He can be reached at {encode=”books@jewishjournal.com” title=”books@jewishjournal.com”}.