There are those who, after having a frightening physical experience, would flee first to their doctors, begging for medication to cure their puzzling and troubling symptoms. Others would first tell the story of their experience to friends or family, hoping for emotional reassurance and relief. And then there’s the third kind, who would use such a traumatic experience as the jumping-off place for a wide-ranging, intellectually rigorous examination of what happened --- and why.
Noted novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt falls into this third camp. After her father’s death, Hustvedt was able to deliver the eulogy at his funeral confidently and competently, paying tribute to his life with a speech that was heartfelt yet not overwhelming. More than two years later, long after most people would agree that the grieving process had come to an end, she was asked to give another talk in honor of her father. This one was to be delivered at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, the school where she earned her undergraduate degree and where her father was a professor in the Norwegian department for four decades (and also, in the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer’s alma mater). There, in the shade of a tree planted in her father’s memory, Hustvedt, normally a cool and collected speaker, suddenly began shuddering uncontrollably from the neck down, barely able to remain standing even as she continued delivering her address.
Overwhelmed by her experience --- which was replayed at other later speeches --- she decided to investigate her tremors to discover what was happening to her and why. Hustvedt, whose novels and essays often have a strong psychological component, read widely in the works of Freud, Janet and James in an attempt to find case studies of others like her and, in a broader sense, to understand the theory behind her frightening, disorienting ordeal. She also works as a writing teacher with the mentally ill, and her genuine curiosity about their conditions informs her insight into her own bodily phenomena.
But is it a bodily phenomenon at all? That’s the question into which Hustvedt’s memoir delves most thoroughly. Her doctors fail to find a physical cause for her shaking, leading her --- as have many scholars before her --- to reflect on the real or philosophical boundaries between body and mind, to ask where the true “self” resides, and to consider how attempts to isolate one or the other --- or to identify discrete points of connection --- have been tried in the past.
As a writer, Hustvedt is more sensitive than most to the experience of narrating her condition, also exploring the very act of narration, of storytelling, as critical not only to psychoanalysis but also to illness and human experience in general. Considering that her exploration is all about points of connection and points of separateness, she very carefully crafts her memoir to connect all these various strands in a way that will spark readers’ own thought processes, to consider how the way the body experiences the world might be only loosely related to the way the mind does so.
THE SHAKING WOMAN OR A HISTORY OF MY NERVES starts with a small, seemingly minor incident in one woman’s life, but quickly broadens into a wide-ranging, intellectually rigorous examination of what it means to be whole --- and human.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011