The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves
  • The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves
  • The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves

The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves

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by Siri Hustvedt

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"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.

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"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 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 inpatients 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?

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Editorial Reviews

Alexandra Mullen

I have always admired the sly politeness in Mr. Bennet's response to his wife's cross complaints about his callousness about her nerves: "I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least." Other people's nerves are indeed very tiresome, and it is a real commendation for Siri Hustvedt that she has written a 231-page book about her nerves that is both fascinating and not overly self-absorbed.

The dramatic part of Hustvedt's story begins when she starts to speak at a memorial tree-planting for her father and is bodily beset by violent shudders and shakes like a seizure -- and yet she finds that her voice issues forth quite unaffected. What has happened? Why? The method of the rest of her book is a like a screwdriver twisting ever deeper to get a purchase on an answer.

Is there a Freudian cause? A physiological one dating back to a fever in her infancy? Much of Hustvedt's background research (she is a very fine novelist) has been in neurology and psychoanalysis -- so is this merely a case of susceptibility run amok? Is there a secret flaw in her brain? Does she need analysis, pharmacology, religion? Hustvedt's reaction to becoming seriously and mysteriously out of control of herself led her to write this book, "an adventure in the history of experience and perception."

Hustvedt's self-study has no chapters to channel her into familiar runnels of thought; she is instead pushed forward by torrents of questions like these. Her material roughly divides into autobiographical sections and more detached medical considerations, but thoughts flow in more unanticipated ways than often useful divisions such as nature/nurture or brain/mind allow. So as she thinks about how memories are made and retrieved, we learn about her early childhood living in a dorm on campus and we get a history of hysteria and post-traumatic stress disorder; we hear about the writing exercises she does with psychiatric patients and we read about a boy whose brain was partly damaged by a tumor: "The talking Neil had amnesia. Neil's writing hand did not." Spurs for her thinking include the psychiatrist Luria and the novelist Dickens, and the two James brothers of Varieties of Religious Experience and "The Turn of the Screw." I could imagine people finding the book a mish-mash, or far preferring certain parts to others, but surely part of Hustvedt's point is that all these facets are part of her and might hold the solution to the mystery.

And that mystery goes beyond the particular physical problems suffered by Hustvedt to a metaphysical fear and trembling apparently built into our systems. "Who are we anyway? What do I actually know about myself?" Fittingly Socratic for Hustvedt's search, the answer current when she wrote the book is that she knows that she doesn't know.

--Alexandra Mullen

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

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WHEN MY FATHER DIED, I was at home in Brooklyn, but only days before I had been sitting beside his bed in a nursing home in Northfield, Minnesota. Although he was weak in body, his mind remained sharp, and I remember that we talked and even laughed, though I can’t recall the content of our last conversation. I can, however, clearly see the room where he lived at the end of his life. My three sisters, my mother, and I had hung pictures on the wall and bought a pale green bedspread to make the room less stark. There was a vase of flowers on the windowsill. My father had emphysema, and we knew he would not last long. My sister Liv, who lives in Minnesota, was the only daughter with him on the final day. His lung had collapsed for the second time, and the doctor understood that he would not survive another intervention. While he was still conscious, but unable to speak, my mother called her three daughters in New York City, one by one, so we could talk to him on the telephone. I distinctly remember that I paused to think about what I should say to him. I had the curious thought that I should not utter something stupid at such a moment, that I should choose my words carefully. I wanted to say something memorable—an absurd thought, because my father’s memory would soon be snuffed out with the rest of him. But when my mother put the telephone to his ear, all I could do was choke out the words "I love you so much." Later, my mother told me that when he heard my voice, he smiled.

That night I dreamed that I was with him and he reached out for me, that I fell toward him for an embrace, and then, before he could put his arms around me, I woke up. My sister Liv called me the next morning to say that our father was dead. Immediately after that conversation, I stood up from the chair where I had been sitting, climbed the stairs to my study, and sat down to write his eulogy. My father had asked me to do it. Several weeks earlier, when I was sitting beside him in the nursing home, he had mentioned "three points" he wanted me to take down. He didn’t say, "I want you to include them in the text you will write for my funeral." He didn’t have to. It was understood. When the time came, I didn’t weep. I wrote. At the funeral I delivered my speech in a strong voice, without tears.

TWO AND A HALF YEARS LATER, I gave another talk in honor of my father. I was back in my hometown, in Minnesota, standing under a blue May sky on the St. Olaf College campus, just beyond the old building that housed the Norwegian Department, where my father had been a professor for almost forty years. The department had planted a memorial pine tree with a small plaque beneath it that read, LLOYD HUSTVEDT (1922–2004). While I’d been writing this second text, I’d had a strong sensation of hearing my father’s voice. He wrote excellent and often very funny speeches, and as I composed I imagined that I had caught some of his humor in my sentences. I even used the phrase "Were my father here today, he might have said . . ." Confident and armed with index cards, I looked out at the fifty or so friends and colleagues of my father’s who had gathered around the memorial Norway spruce, launched into my first sentence, and began to shudder violently from the neck down. My arms flapped. My knees knocked. I shook as if I were having a seizure. Weirdly, my voice wasn’t affected. It didn’t change at all. Astounded by what was happening to me and terrified that I would fall over, I managed to keep my balance and continue, despite the fact that the cards in my hands were flying back and forth in front of me. When the speech ended, the shaking stopped. I looked down at my legs. They had turned a deep red with a bluish cast.

My mother and sisters were startled by the mysterious bodily transformation that had taken place within me. They had seen me speak in public many times, sometimes in front of hundreds of people. Liv said she had wanted to go over and put her arms around me to hold me up. My mother said she had felt as if she were looking at an electrocution. It appeared that some unknown force had suddenly taken over my body and decided I needed a good, sustained jolting. Once before, during the summer of 1982, I’d felt as if some superior power picked me up and tossed me about as if I were a doll. In an art gallery in Paris, I suddenly felt my left arm jerk upward and slam me backward into the wall. The whole event lasted no more than a few seconds. Not long after that, I felt euphoric, filled with supernatural joy, and then came the violent migraine that lasted for almost a year, the year of Fiorinal, Inderal, cafergot, Elavil, Tofranil, and Mellaril, of a sleeping-drug cocktail I took in the doctor’s office in hopes that I would wake up headache-free. No such luck. Finally, that same neurologist sent me to the hospital and put me on the antipsychotic drug Thorazine. Those eight stuporous days in the neurology ward with my old but surprisingly agile roommate, a stroke victim, who every night was strapped to her bed with a restraint sweetly known as a Posey, and who every night defied the nurses by escaping her fetters and fleeing down the corridor, those strange drugged days, punctuated by visits from young men in white coats who held up pencils for me to identify, asked me the day and the year and the name of the president, pricked me with little needles—Can you feel this?—and the rare wave through the door from the Headache Czar himself, Dr. C., a man who mostly ignored me and seemed irritated that I didn’t cooperate and get well, have stayed with me as a time of the blackest of all black comedies. Nobody really knew what was wrong with me. My doctor gave it a name—vascular migraine syndrome—but why I had become a vomiting, miserable, flattened, frightened ENORMOUS headache, a Humpty Dumpty after his fall, no one could say.

My travels in the worlds of neurology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis began well before my stint in Mount Sinai Medical Center. I have suffered from migraines since childhood and have long been curious about my own aching head, my dizziness, my divine lifting feelings, my sparklers and black holes, and my single visual hallucination of a little pink man and a pink ox on the floor of my bedroom. I had been reading about these mysteries for many years before I had my shaking fit that afternoon in Northfield. But my investigations intensified when I decided to write a novel in which I would have to impersonate a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, a man I came to think of as my imaginary brother, Erik Davidsen. Brought up in Minnesota by parents very much like mine, he was the boy never born to the Hustvedt family. To be Erik, I threw myself into the convolutions of psychiatric diagnoses and the innumerable mental disorders that afflict human beings. I studied pharmacology and familiarized myself with the various classes of drugs. I bought a book with sample tests for the New York State psychiatric boards and practiced taking them. I read more psychoanalysis and countless memoirs of mental illness. I found myself fascinated by neuroscience, attended a monthly lecture on brain science at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and was invited to become a member of a discussion group devoted to a new field: neuropsychoanalysis.

In that group, neuroscientists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts sought a common ground that might bring together the insights of analysis with the most recent brain research. I bought myself a rubber brain, familiarized myself with its many parts, listened intently, and read more. In fact, I read obsessively, as my husband has told me repeatedly. He has even suggested that my rapacious reading resembles an addiction. Then I signed up as a volunteer at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic and began teaching a writing class to the patients there every week. At the hospital, I found myself close to particular human beings who suffered from complex illnesses that sometimes bore little resemblance to the descriptions cataloged in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (usually referred to as the DSM). By the time I shook in front of my father’s tree, I had been steeped in the world of the brain/mind for years. What began with curiosity about the mysteries of my own nervous system had developed into an overriding passion. Intellectual curiosity about one’s own illness is certainly born of a desire for mastery. If I couldn’t cure myself, perhaps I could at least begin to understand myself.

EVERY SICKNESS HAS an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control that is evident in the language we use about it. No one says, "I am cancer" or even "I am cancerous," despite the fact that there is no intruding virus or bacteria; it’s the body’s own cells that have run amok. One has cancer. Neurological and psychiatric illnesses are different, however, because they often attack the very source of what one imagines is one’s self. "He’s an epileptic" doesn’t sound strange to us. In the psychiatric clinic, the patients often say, "Well, you see, I’m bipolar" or "I’m schizophrenic." The illness and the self are fully identified in these sentences. The shaking woman felt like me and not like me at the same time. From the chin up, I was my familiar self. From the neck down, I was a shuddering stranger. What ever had happened to me, what ever name would be assigned to my affliction, my strange seizure must have had an emotional component that was somehow connected to my father. The problem was that I hadn’t felt emotional. I had felt entirely calm and reasonable. Something seemed to have gone terribly wrong with me, but what exactly? I decided to go in search of the shaking woman.

PHYSICIANS HAVE BEEN PUZZLING over convulsions like mine for centuries. Many diseases can make you shudder, but it’s not always easy to separate one from the other. From Hippocrates onward, making a diagnosis has meant herding a cluster of symptoms under a single name. Epilepsy is the most famous of all the shaking illnesses. Had I been a patient of the Greek physician Galen, who ministered to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and whose copious writings influenced medical history for hundreds of years, he would have diagnosed me with a convulsive illness, but he would have ruled out epilepsy. For Galen, epilepsy not only caused convulsions of the entire body, it interrupted "leading functions"—awareness and speech.1 Although there were popular beliefs among the Greeks that gods and ghosts could make you shake, most physicians took a naturalist view of the phenomenon, and it wasn’t until the rise of Christianity that tremors and the supernatural were bound together with bewildering intimacy. Nature, God, and the devil could wrack your body, and medical experts struggled to distinguish among causes. How could you separate an act of nature from a divine intervention or a demonic possession? Saint Teresa of Avila’s paroxysmal agonies and blackouts, her visions and transports were mystical flights toward God, but the girls in Salem who writhed and shook were the victims of witches. In A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, John Hale describes the fits of the tormented children and then pointedly adds that their extreme sufferings were "beyond the power of any epileptic fits or natural disease to effect."2 If my tremulous episode had occurred during the witch madness in Salem, the consequences might have been dire. Surely I would have looked like a woman possessed. But, more important, had I been steeped in the religious beliefs of the age, as I most likely would have been, the weird sensation that some external power had entered my body to cause the shudder probably would have been enough to convince me that I had indeed been hexed.

In New York City in 2006 no sane doctor would have sent me to an exorcist, and yet confusion about diagnosis is common. The frames for viewing convulsive illness may have changed, but understanding what had happened to me would not be a simple matter. I could go to a neurologist to see if I had come down with epilepsy, although my past experience in the ward at Mount Sinai Hospital had left me wary of the doctors in charge of investigating nervous systems. I knew that in order to be diagnosed with the disease, I needed to have had at least two seizures. I believed I had had one genuine seizure before my intractable migraine. The second one looked suspicious to me. Uncontrollable shaking can occur in some seizures. My shaking was on both sides of my body—and I had talked throughout the fit. How many people talk through a seizure? Also, I had had no aura, no warning that some neurological event was in the making, as I often do for migraine, and it had come and gone with the speech about my dead father. Because of my history, I knew that a careful neurologist would do an EEG, an electroencephalogram. I’d have to sit with gooey electrodes clamped onto my scalp for quite a while, and my guess is that the doctor would find nothing. Of course, many people suffer from seizures that are not detected by standard tests, so the physician would have to do more tests. Unless I kept shaking, a diagnosis might not be forthcoming. I could float in the limbo of an unknown affliction.

I had puzzled for some time over my shaking when a possible answer announced itself. It didn’t appear slowly but came all at once as an epiphany. I was sitting in my regular seat at the monthly neuroscience lecture, and I remembered a brief conversation I had had with a psychiatrist who had been sitting behind me at an earlier talk. I’d asked her where she worked and what she did, and she’d told me she was on the staff in a hospital, where she saw mostly "conversion patients." "The neurologists don’t know what to do with them," she’d said, "so they send them to me." That could be it! I thought. My fit had been hysterical. This ancient word has been mostly dropped from current medical discourse and replaced by conversion disorder, but lying beneath the newer term is the old one, haunting it like a ghost.

Nearly every time the word hysteria is used now in newspapers or magazines, the writer points out that the root comes from the Greek for "womb." Its origin as a purely female problem connected to reproductive organs serves to warn readers that the word itself reflects an ancient bias against women, but its history is far more complicated than misogyny. Galen believed that hysteria was an illness that beset unmarried and widowed women who were deprived of sexual intercourse but that it wasn’t madness, because it didn’t necessarily involve psychological impairments. Ancient doctors were well aware that epileptic fits and hysterical fits could look alike, and that it was essential to try to distinguish between the two. As it turns out, the confusion has never disappeared. The fifteenth-century physician Antonius Guainerius believed that vapors rising from the uterus caused hysteria and that hysteria could be distinguished from epilepsy because the hysterical person would remember everything that had happened during the fit.3 The great seventeenth-century English doctor Thomas Willis dispensed with the uterus as the offending organ and located both hysteria and epilepsy in the brain. But Willis’s thought didn’t rule the day. There were those who believed that the two were merely different forms of the same disease. The Swiss physician Samuel Auguste David Tissot (1728–1797), who has remained part of medical history mostly for his widely published treatise on the dangers of masturbation, maintained that the two illnesses were distinct, despite the fact that there were epilepsies that originated in the uterus.4 From ancient times through the eighteenth century, hysteria was regarded as a convulsive illness that originated somewhere in the body—in the uterus or the brain or a limb—and the people suffering from it weren’t considered insane. It is safe to say that if any one of the doctors above had witnessed my convulsive speech, he might have diagnosed me with hysteria. My higher functions weren’t interrupted; I remembered everything about my fit; and, of course, I was a woman with a potentially vaporous or disturbed uterus.

Excerpted from The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt.
Copyright 2009 by Siri Hustvedt.
Published in 2009 by A Frances Coady Book Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book The Shaking Women Or A History Of My Nerves  by Siri Hustvedt is about Siri Hustvedt and her neurological problem through out time. In this book she has an experience where she has seizure in a middle of a speech. The weird thing is that it’s only from the neck down. Soon after the event she goes into research about why that happened and what disease she had. During her research she looks into the phycology of it all and the connection between mind and body. She discusses different questions like, what are the differences between mind and brain? How does perception affect reality?  And at what point do we know a symptom is real? I thought the book was extremely interesting. It wasn’t as personal as I expected it to be but it is the kind of book that gets you thinking. I really enjoyed learning about the connection of the mind and body and the phycology between it all. Though she rambled on about her research it was still good. If you want to read something with a lot of good information and questions about the phycology behind illness then this book would be a great book for you. I would not recommend this book if you want something personal about a women with a disease which is what I was expecting. I have never read anything by Siri Hustvedt before but I did really enjoy this book however it was not what I was expecting.  
Bahnsey More than 1 year ago
Siri Hustvedt is an impressive thinker and writer, and her Shaking Woman will appeal to anyone interested in the mind and its disorders--particularly those of a humanist bent. No, it's not that personal (as some readers apparently wish it to be), although there is a fair amount of personal reflection on her own circumstances: she suffers occasional bodily convulsions. What the book is is a wide-ranging investigation into what is known and not known about her condition, which falls somewhere between conversion disorder (hysteria) and frontal lobe epilepsy but appears to be neither. In the course of her wide-ranging research Hustvedt touches on hysteria, split-brain patients, shell-shock/PTSD, self & identity, body & mind, hypnosis, automatic writing, brain scans, neuropsychiatry, the philosophy of consciousness, memory & imagination, transitional objects/subjects, synasthesia, dreams, migraine & epilepsy, mystical experience, hearing voices, and the self and narrative. The book is set up more like an essay than a memoir or a treatise, with only nominal chapter breaks (untitled) and no index. (The latter actually would have been handy to have.) She seems to have read everything relevant to her subject, including specialized scientific papers; and yet, throughout, she maintains her own strong voice and raises questions that challenge prevailing opinions. The Shaking Woman will draw you in and make you think about who you are as a human individual and where "you" leave off and your body (and/or the world at large) takes over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The study of the human brain is expanding in both the biological and psychological disciplines. This well written and well researched book contains information and documentation that will instruct both the novice and the informed. Well worth the read.