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The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves

Siri Hustvedt




Trade Paperback

224 Pages



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While speaking at a memorial event for her father in 2006, Siri Hustvedt suffered a violent seizure from the neck down. Despite her flapping arms and shaking legs, she continued to speak clearly and was able to finish her speech. It was as if she had suddenly become two people: a calm orator and a shuddering wreck. Then the seizures happened again and again. The Shaking Woman tracks Hustvedt’s search for a diagnosis, one that takes her inside the thought processes of several scientific disciplines, each one of which offers a distinct perspective on her paroxysms but no ready solution. In the process, she finds herself entangled in fundamental questions: What is the relationship between brain and mind? How do we remember? What is the self?  During her investigations, Hustvedt joins a discussion group in which neurologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and brain scientists trade ideas to develop a new field: neuropsychoanalysis. She volunteers as a writing teacher for psychiatric in-patients at the Payne Whitney clinic in New York City and unearths precedents in medical history that illuminate the origins of and shifts in our theories about the mind-body problem. In The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt synthesizes her experience and research into a compelling mystery: Who is the shaking woman? In the end, the story she tells becomes, in the words of George Makari, author of Revolution in Mind, "a brilliant illumination for us all."


Praise for The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves

"In the neurological memoir The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves, Hustvedt takes us on her personal journey as she tries to unravel reasons for her tremors (which mostly occur while speaking in public) and to explain the mysterious disconnect between her body and mind. Hustvedt's deeply personal narrative reads at once like a detective novel, a medical history and a scientific critique. Through her own medical mystery, she keeps the reader engaged in the science by drawing connections to fascinating case stories from the medical literature."—Frederik Joelving, Scientific American
"Siri Hustvedt's book is part case study, part detective story. In it she draws on the years of research that went into her novel, The Sorrows of an American (2008), narrated by a psychiatrist . . . Hustvedt’s account of the diagnostic mess surrounding puzzling physical symptoms is very accessible. It’s also extremely fair-minded, especially regarding psychoanalysis."—Anouchka Grose, Financial Times
"[Hustvedt's] eloquent account flits between philosophy, science and anecdotes from the writing classes she runs for psychiatric patients, as well as her own experiences of those seizures, migraines, voices in her head and a heightened perceptual awareness. Hustvedt explores many gray areas—between mind, brain and body, sleep and wakefulness, consciousness and reality, truth and confabulation. In the process she shows how hard it is to study the mind objectively. How apt, then, that her account is stitched together by a delightfully subjective novelist's pen."—Celeste Biever, New Scientist

"Hustvedt . . . pursues her symptoms with Javertian devotion; her husband, writer Paul Auster, said she was moving beyond devotion into obsession. She read voraciously, attended lectures on brain science, visited a variety of medical and psychological specialists, underwent examinations and MRIs and took drugs. She also ruminated excessively . . . As Hustvedt tries to remember pivotal medical and psychological moments in her life—she heard voices as a child, as did a couple of her sisters, had an early quaking fever, suffered from fierce migraines, tried various drugs—she segues smoothly into a wonderful section about the nature of memory. She also considers dream research and moves steadily toward an integrative theory of personality, concluding that she and her symptoms are not separate. 'Ambiguity does not obey logic,' she states plainly. Self-absorption can be grating in memoirs by lesser writers; in Hustvedt's capable hands, it opens a door to revelation."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this far-roaming neurological memoir, Hustvedt, a writer of psychologically complex fiction, chronicles her quest for a diagnosis after she was seized by powerful convulsions while speaking at a memorial for her father, whose journals shaped her last novel, The Sorrows of an American. With exceptional gifts for translating dense medical discourse into lucid and supple prose and for conducting fierce and revealing analysis, Hustvedt pinpoints the perceptions underlying contradictory theories pertaining to a host of neurological pathologies, from conversion disorder to alien hand syndrome and other eerie mental states that bring into question the very nature of the self. With forays into the dynamics of consciousness and memory, the power of thoughts, and the role of language and narrative in the growth of the psyche, Hustvedt reveals how little we actually know about psychobiological processes and how to distinguish between 'sick minds versus sick brains.' Fizzing with uncommon facts, case studies, and profiles of migraine-afflicted and epileptic writers, Hustvedt’s inquiry into some of the most baffling aspects of human life is graceful, intense, and curiously affirming."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Novelist Hustvedt (The Sorrows of an American) has been puzzling for years over the cause of her physical distress, from migraines to convulsions, and in this wide-ranging hodgepodge of technical jargon, research, memory and narrative, she tries to get at the root of what ails her . . . The more she delved, the more fractured the possibilities of explanation, as the self has many facets, conscious and otherwise, similar to the voices in a novel she might write. Indeed, Hustvedt's probing of the question 'What happened to me?' taps at the source of the creative process, as such famous victims of migraine, epilepsy and bipolar disorder as Dostoyevski and Flaubert have documented. The barest of personal detail holds Hustvedt's narrative together."—Publishers Weekly

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WHEN MY FATHER DIED, I was at home in Brooklyn, but only days before I had been sitting beside his bed in a nursing home in Northfield, Minnesota. Although he was weak in body, his mind remained sharp, and I remember that we talked and even laughed, though I can’t recall the content of our last conversation. I can, however, clearly see the room where he lived at the end of his life. My three sisters, my mother, and I had hung pictures on the wall and bought a pale green bedspread to make the room less stark. There was a vase of flowers

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  • Siri Hustvedt

  • Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, The Sorrows of an American, What I Loved, The Blindfold, and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, as well as two collections of essays, A Plea for Eros and Mysteries of the Rectangle. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.

  • Siri Hustvedt Marion Ettlinger
    Siri Hustvedt