Culture & Conversation

An “Untamed Other Self”

Siri Hustvedt’s troubles began in the spring of 2006 at a memorial speech for her late father. As she stood at the podium, her body began to tremble violently from the neck down. She remained lucid, kept her voice calm and proceeded to speak to the stunned audience under the spell of wild and uncontrollable contortions. The Shaking Woman chronicles Hustvedt’s fascinating investigation into the mind-body dichotomy that has plagued her since that day.

Hustvedt digs back to 19th-century case studies of hysteria, presents 20th-century cases of shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder, and cites research from modern-day neurologists and psychiatrists. From schizophrenia, epilepsy and panic disorder, Hustvedt delves into a range of conditions in a quest to find the persistent “shaking woman.” She undergoes MRIs and consults a stream of psychologists and medical specialists, but to no avail. Though inconclusive, Hustvedt’s obsessive labours make for an expansive and nuanced historical overview of neurology, trauma, and the search for the self. She combines historical analysis with her own experience volunteering as a writing teacher for psychiatric in-patients at New York’s Payne Whitney clinic.

Many of her stories will haunt you. One brain-damaged man dissociates from his left hand and must fend off its attempts to strangle him. A disturbed girl, abandoned by her parents and sexually assaulted at eleven years old, slips occasionally into the third person. “If I had my father’s love, I would be the real Linnie,” she tells Hustvedt. Such bizarre observations and case studies highlight some of humanity’s most profound existential questions and inform Hustvedt’s quest to understand her own self and body.

The only apparent conclusion she draws is the inadequate and arbitrary nature of diagnosis. “It is human to want to pin things down and give them a name,” she acknowledges, but in the uncertain intersection of mind and body, there remains little clarity or distinctness. She retells her medical history of migraines and mild hallucinations, and confesses to a deep, uncontrollable empathy which has occasionally worked against her. Her visions of a tiny pink man and an ox–known in the medical world as “Lilliputian hallucinations”–are nothing short of bizarre. Wherever she goes, her case baffles specialists. Hustvedt’s tone is first and foremost academic, and she admirably delves into the roots of her own psyche without descending into self-indulgent egotism. As a literary scholar, her thorough and critical analyses are not surprising. However, there is a conspicuous remove in her approach–a strangely scientific tone regarding matters of intense personal relevance. Hustvedt, indeed, may be prone to what Anna Freud dubbed “intellectualizing”–using verbal ideas as a form of defense.

Ultimately, the “shaking woman” is both enshrined in and separate from Hustvedt’s person. “I have come to think of the shaking woman as an untamed other self, a Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll,” she writes. Her overview highlights the arbitrariness of selfhood, the unsatisfactory division between “you” and “I,” and the paradox that the self cannot exist without another person. Most of all, it presents, with admirable skill and a powerful critical distance, the inalienable connection of mind and body, and how little of ourselves we yet know.

Sarah Fletcher obtained her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Montreal. She works as a copywriter currently based in Montreal.

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