In 2006, writer Siri Hustvedt stood before an audience of dear friends at St. Olaf College, in her hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. The occasion was the dedication of a memorial to her father, Lloyd Hustvedt, a professor of Norwegian Studies for 40 years. Hustvedt stood at the podium to deliver her speech, confident and comfortable.
Suddenly, she began shaking uncontrollably. From the neck down, her limbs rattled; her fair skin turned a mottled reddish blue. From the neck up, she continued her speech, frightened but perfectly articulate. For no discernible reason, the shaking subsided. Hustvedt wrote it off as an isolated incident, brought about by stress.
The shaking, however, recurred — invariably when speaking before an audience. Her husband, writer Paul Auster, witnessed one episode. Afterward he told Hustvedt he had to restrain himself from running onstage and carrying her off to safety.
Hustvedt was reluctant to have a full neurological workup. She got prescriptions for Lorazepam, a powerful tranquilizer that proved ineffective, and Inderal, a blood pressure medication commonly given to migraineurs as a prophylactic. Inderal worked. A lifelong migraineur, Hustvedt felt this “shaking woman” was somehow a physical manifestation of grief over her father’s death. In lieu of a neurologist, she hit the books.
The result, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, is by turns fascinating and disappointing. Psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and neurobiology are all fields rich in literature. Hustvedt documents these in great detail, but to the detriment of her own disorders, which are startling in their own right.
Hustvedt is deeply sensitive neurologically, suffering not only the aforementioned migraines and unspecified seizures, but also severe idiopathic neuropathy and a rare type of synthesthesia called mirror-touch. That is, she:
… felt the actual taps, knocks, and bumps, as well as the moods, of other people almost (italics author’s) as if they were mine. I can tell the difference between an actual touch and the one I feel when I look, but the sensation is there nevertheless. I feel the sprained ankle of someone else as a pain of my own… If someone is being hurt in a movie, I must close my eyes and head for the exit.
Hustvedt writes that she wakes daily with migraines, which usually recede after coffee (caffeine often helps migraines). She mentions her training in biofeedback, which she employs daily to treat her headache, and her acquired ability to ignore all but the most debilitating pain.
I wrote of my own migraine battles when reviewing Andrew Levy’s A Brain Wider than the Sky. In the Levy review, I said I found writing while experiencing a migraine impossible. I have no idea how Hustvedt, a daily sufferer of this incapacitating malady, can work through it. She makes no mention of medications; perhaps she, like me, has run the gamut and given up.
Hustvedt’s reading ranges widely, from conceptions of the self, the self while dreaming, the concept of doubles, to the vagaries of brain injuries. Scientists from Freud to Pinker are cited. I am my migraine, Hustvedt says at one point in Woman, but she is not the shaking woman. That woman is another story, one given to over to scientists, their studies, and their patients.
While thought-provoking and engaging, they are in the vein of an Oliver Sacks book. There is Neil, a 13-year-old who undergoes radiation for a brain tumor. Though he survives, he gradually loses the ability to read, recall faces, or retain memories. Yet the portion of his brain related to writing is undamaged. When his mother asks about his school day, he writes fluently about viewing the film My Left Foot. When verbally questioned about the film, he has no recollection of watching it.
A patient named Zazetsky, gravely brain-injured in World War II, cannot read. Nor can he recall much, until he regains his ability to write. Though unable to read his writing, he writes compulsively. The act of writing helps him regain his memories; it also serves a document of a damaged man all too aware of his cognitive defects.
While interesting, these cases fail to illuminate much about Hustvedt herself, except to emphasize her unusual sensitivities. After a seizure brought on by physical exertion, she finally capitulates, seeking the help of both a psychiatrist and a neurologist. Though both doctors are sympathetic, excellent practitioners, neither is able to offer a diagnosis.
One could say this book is about the “between” stages — Hustvedt’s term — of neurological disorder. Sacks has written extensively of the blurred line between migraines and seizures, even mentioning the term “migralepsy” for a patient displaying both symptoms of migraine and epilepsy. I have an epileptic sibling. Our warning auras, the physiological warnings of impending seizure or migraine, are identical.
Hustvedt is fascinated by the elusive sense of self, the parts of the brain that create a unique “I”, the role memory plays in creating this sense of self, and impact illness or neurological deficits have on the conception of self. Her work with mental patients at Payne Whitney Hospital sheds light on how mental illness shatters this internal “I”: many of the women she works with as a writing teacher refer to themselves in third person.
Still, no amount of scientific investigation, argumentation, or discovery has thus far solved the original mind-body problem. The precise mechanisms of certain seizure disorders — including my sibling’s — remain idiopathic.
As for Hustvedt, her shaking is another indicator of an overly delicate neurological sensibility. This in itself cannot be called disappointing. One can hardly blame Hustvedt for lacking a convenient explanation. Yet she is strangely dismissive of this undiagnosed shaking woman. Yes, the shaking woman generated an entire book, yet Hustvedt seems unwilling to integrate her into an already neurologically sensitive self.
The book ends rather suddenly, leaving the reader with more questions than answers. Yet I would still recommend the book. Hustvedt is an exquisite writer whose gifts make otherwise complicated scientific material accessible to the lay reader. Further, the neurologically sensitive may find succor here; their friends and family may better understand the strange and often frightening symptoms that accompany the neurological self at war.
For the fortunate who neither suffer nor know sufferers, The Shaking Woman raises the timeless, ultimately unanswerable question of what it means to be an embodied self in the world.