17 May 2011
By Samantha Ellis
When novelist Siri Hustvedt's father died, she was able to deliver a eulogy "in a strong voice, without tears". But two and a half years later, she began another speech about him and suddenly started to shake, shuddering violently from the neck down, knees knocking, arms flapping, yet able to continue her speech. "It appeared," she writes "that some unknown force had suddenly taken over my body and decided I needed a good, sustained jolting."
She started shaking every time she spoke in public. Could it be a delayed grief reaction? Was it connected to words and her sense of herself as a writer? Was it a side effect of the migraines that have plagued her for years? She "decided to go in search of the shaking woman".
This is not quite a memoir, certainly not a misery memoir, but more an investigation into the "unknown force". As Hustvedt writes, instead of saying "I am cancer" or "I am cancerous", one says "I have cancer" but we do say "I'm epileptic" or "I'm bipoloar"; neurological and psychiatric illnesses feel like attacks on the self.
Hustvedt finds that by taking a beta-blocker before she has to speak in public she can almost (though not entirely) avoid her seizures. But this is not enough when she still doesn't know why they began, can't cure them completely, and how they fit in with her other neurological symptoms, including "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."
I was anxious about reading this book. I've had seizures, almost certainly caused by migraines, for seventeen years, during which I've read many books in which the authors are so fascinated by the vagaries of the brain that they make seizures seem almost desirable. But Hustvedt's achievement is to combine a cool detachment with a passionate curiosity; she writes as though she is a detective solving her own medical mystery. Is her shaking epilepsy? Is it hysteria (or the diagnosis hysteria has morphed into: "conversion disorder")? Is it a migraine? Is it mirror-touch synaesthesia?
If she can control the shaking, can she ignore it? Or is she, in fact, "the shaking woman"? Question begets question and she tries to answer them all, taking the reader on a dazzling tour through the thickets of neurology and psychiatry. Where the book really becomes thrilling is where she starts asking where illness begins and she begins, how far her seizures affect her personality and how far her personality creates her seizures-how, essentially, one can keep hold of a sense of self that isn't intertwined with one's disorder or disability. "When I shook," she writes, "it didn't feel like me.
That was the problem." At other times, she feels that "the headaches are me, and rejecting them would mean expelling myself from myself." As a writer, she finds this conflict particularly distressing; she wants, like David Copperfield, to be the hero of her own life, to be able to tell its story, not to have an alien force jostling for narrative control. She eventually reaches a point where she is able to contain her seizures and other symptoms within her sense of self, where . "I am," she writes, "the shaking woman."
'The Shaking Woman, or a history of my nerves' by Siri Hustvedt (Picador 2010) is available from Amazon
Samantha Ellis's play 'Cling To Me Like Ivy' is published by Nick Hern Books (£8.99). She blogs at http://samanthaellisblog.blogspot.com