The Shaking Woman

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Siri Hustvedt’s memoir is a sprawling exploration of memory and the ways trauma manifests in physical illness—less Mary Karr, more Oliver Sacks.

Following her father’s death, novelist Siri Hustvedt split into two women: one who fell into sharp, inexplicable body tremors at unexpected moments, and another woman, even more tortured, who became fixated on the existence of the first. It’s that second woman, the tortured one, who narrates Hustvedt’s fascinating memoir The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, a clinical yet visceral look into not just how our body responds to loss, but the more complicated ways in which our minds cope with the uncertainty of undiagnosable illness.

The setup is this: During a speech honoring the memory of her father two years after his funeral, Hustvedt’s body convulsed with a force so raw and enveloping that her relatives in the audience—who rushed the podium to hold her still—felt as though “they were looking at an electrocution.” Yet when it becomes clear that the spell is more than an isolated incident (she has episodes at public engagements, around the house, at a Paris art gallery), Hustvedt doesn’t spend time reconstructing the drama-ridden father/daughter narrative that may have led to the convulsions. Though doctors couldn’t diagnose the shakes, it was obvious that her father’s death triggered them—so Hustvedt chooses to focus on the nuts and bolts of her and similar illnesses, the psychoses fueling the breakdowns, not the personalities behind them. The Shaking Woman is thus less a traditional memoir than a sprawling, ruthlessly researched exploration into memory and the curious ways in which trauma can manifest through physical illness. Think less Mary Karr, more Oliver Sacks.

It’s a tactic that yields some of the book’s most compelling passages. Hustvedt is driven to examine the Shaking Woman through “every angle,” reads “obsessively” about the history of hysteria, consults with specialists about treatments such as Narrative Medicine (which maps the whole of neurological disorders with storytelling), and the power of cloaked trauma to render the body independent of the mind’s intentions. She profiles amnesiacs who, by simply free-writing to the prompt “I remember,” are able to uncover hidden pockets of memories that spoken attempts can’t. She examines victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, grieving widows who lose control of halves of their bodies, and the plight of a man who, following a cerebral hemorrhage, grows so intensely hateful of his twitchy left hand that he vows to “smash this hand into a million pieces and post the pieces to the surgeon, in envelopes, one by one.”

While Hustvedt’s musings on the mind/body war sometimes fall into the stoned grad-schooler category (“Who are we, anyway?”), she’s largely able to anchor these passages with thoughtful reflections about the nature of her own shakes that attempt to locate, through all the neurological hiccups, where—if anywhere—control resides. But it’s the failure of her consultations with doctors, and her own forays into medical history, to give a name to her own mind/body betrayal that opens The Shaking Woman up to something beyond a standard illness memoir. Hustvedt is left with little more than her hunger for more research, her desire to, as Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking—with which The Shaking Woman shares some core DNA—“read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” for control.

Yet unlike Didion, Hustvedt includes very few bona fide “scenes” to dramatically purge the paragraphs of information she reels out. Instead there are only her relentless investigations into conditions and theories with seemingly no medical authority to guide her—Asperger’s Syndrome, out-of-body experiences, and the bizarre Stendhal syndrome, in which people feel, deeply, whatever pain they witness. She tries them all on, hoping one might fit the Shaking Woman, hoping that if she can’t extinguish the condition she might at least categorize it, even when the rain of data seems to hold her hostage. “I know it wasn’t psychogenic,” she writes after experiencing a seizure while hiking. “Can it be related to my peripheral neuropathy? Can that turn into the shakes?”

Rather than lean on the answers—there are few—The Shaking Woman is driven by the continuing questions; the research-driven passages of self-diagnosis that make up the second half of the book combine to form a unique and moving pathos that traditional drama can’t access. In the process, Hustvedt’s chronicle offers a rich, beleaguered account of how illness can smother the identity of the person who suffers from it.

Mike Scalise's essays and articles have appeared in Agni, Post Road, Ninth Letter, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Southampton writers conferences and was most recently the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University. More from this author →