The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves, by Siri Hustvedt

by Jason Tougaw

Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves,  is a genre-bending memoir that calls itself an essay and manages somehow to read like a mystery novel.

The mystery plot is driven by Hustvedt’s search for the roots of her body’s startling behavior: the sudden onset of a condition that caused her to convulse when she spoke in public (which she did often).

The first incident occurred at a memorial service for her father:

I looked out at the fifty or so friends and colleagues of my father’s who had gathered around the memorial Norway spruce, launched into my first sentence, and began to shudder violently from the neck down. My arms flapped. My knees knocked. I shook as if I were having a seizure. Weirdly, my voice wasn’t affected. It didn’t change at all. Astounded by what was happening to me and terrified that I would fall over, I managed to keep my balance and continue, despite the fact that the cards in my hands were flying back and forth in front of me. When the speech ended, the shaking stopped. I looked down at my legs. They had turned a deep red with a bluish cast.

With that glance at her deep red legs begins Hustvedt’s quest to understand what her body did that day—and on so many subsequent days when she spoke in public. As she writes,“I decided to go in search of the shaking woman.” As the statement implies, she is looking for some version of her self, this new woman who shakes. She consults neurologists and psychiatrists; she reads philosophy and the history of medicine; she seeks to understand the relationship between mind and body by looking for her unconscious and looking at fMRI images of her brain. In the process, she manages to write a page-turner fueled by philosophy, neurology, and history.

Because the mystery element is so crucial the the reading experience, I won’t give away any endings. Instead, I’ll trace Hustvedt’s evolving sense of what her condition means for her sense of self. Early on, she describes her condition almost as a visitation: “It appeared that some unknown force had suddenly taken over my body and decided I needed a good, sustained jolting”; “Every sickness has an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control that is evidence in the language we use about it.” A friend who witnesses one of her episodes tells her “it had been like watching a doctor and a patient in the same body.” The condition feels alien partly because its onset is so sudden, but partly because it seems willful, but the will in question is not her own, conscious will. It’s her body acting on her, rather than her acting through her body. If Hustvedt were writing in the nineteenth century, or if she were a devout Christian, she might see this will as either Divine or evil. From Hustvedt’s secular position, the demon becomes some unseen glitch in her physiology, directing her body’s behavior.

But all this changes as the narrative progresses. Later on, Hustvedt asks:

Can I say that the shaking woman is a repeatedly activated pattern of firing neurons and stress hormones released in an involuntary response, which is then dampened as I keep my cool, continue to talk, convinced that I’m not really in danger? Is that all there is to the story?

Here, Hustvedt puts her will and her unconscious in touch with each other. If the shaking is caused by “a repeatedly activated pattern of firing neurons and stress hormones,” then its origins are beyond the will, arising from the body’s ongoing, involuntary processes—the processes that maintain homeostasis and keep our systems operating. But keeping her cool is an ironically willful act, whereby Hustvedt dampens the impulse to resist or fight what’s happening to her. It feels to her as if keeping her cool may have a therapeutic effect, somehow shifting the neuronal and hormonal patterns that drive her body to convulse, her arms to flail, and her legs to turn a deep red. Of course, Hustvedt is speculating here;  her “cool” is not a medically recognized treatment. But it is one of the keys to the philosophical questions her book explores, questions about how the conscious and the unconscious impinge on each other and how a sense of self is produced in the process.

By the end, Hustvedt becomes the shaking woman, partly through analogy with techniques she’s learned to cope with the migraines she’s experienced for years:  “The headache is me,” she writes “and understanding this has been my salvation. Perhaps the trick will now be to integrate the shaking woman as well, to acknowledge that she, too, is part of myself.” It’s not giving too much away to tell you that by book’s end, Hustvedt is able to declare:  “I am the shaking woman.”

Hustvedt arrives at this conclusion through writing, and it’s no coincidence that her fundamental understanding of writing involves the touching of what’s what’s unconscious:

Perhaps it would be useful to describe degrees of consciousness. After all, even when I’m writing, much is generated unconsciously. I feel beneath my words a preconscious world from which I draw them, thoughts not yet articulated but potentially there, and when I find them, I believe in their rightness or wrongness. Yes, that’s what I wanted to say. Against what do I measure this? It is not outside me. I don’t have some externalized notion of the perfect sentence that best expresses what I want to say. The knowledge lives inside me, and yet, isn’t that verbal interior made from the exterior, from all the books I’ve read, the conversations I’ve had and their mnemic traces? I like the expressions “in the back of my mind” and “on the tip of my tongue,” which indicate that half-remembered underground. What actually happens when I write the symbols that together make up the words I remember? (Hustvedt 136)

Hustvedt relies on what’s unconscious to craft a sense of control—or agency—through writing. She also adds what she calls “the exterior” to the equation, the social forces shaping her internal sense of self. Hustvedt’s voice, urgent, curious, reflective, and friendly, seems to “live inside” her, even if she realizes it’s “made from the exterior, from all the books [she’s] read, the conversations [she’s] had.” A lot of these books are written by brain researchers with whom she spends a great deal of time, at lectures and conferences, at dinners and parties. When she harvests words to represent her “half-remembered underground,” she constructs a voice suffused with these books and conversations.

One of these books was surely her friend Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Conscoiusness. In fact, Damasio’s self sounds a lot like Hustvedt’s.

Hustvedt with Damasio. Click here for video of a dialogue between them on bigthink.com.

“The presence of you,” he writes, “is the feeling of what happens when your being is modified by the acts of apprehending something. . . . Consciousness, as we commonly think of it, from its basic levels to its most complex, is the unified mental pattern that brings together the object and the self.” Damasio argues that “core consciousness” arises when an organism confronts an object (say, a memory, symptom, another person, or a word) and in the process forms, first, an image of that object and, second, an awareness of herself in the act of perceiving. When Damasio asserts that we’re changed by the objects we perceive, I think he means it both physiologically and phenomenologically. We’re changed at the cellular level. Our nervous systems register the encounter and neural networks reconfigure, remapping the state of the organism’s body as it’s altered by its interaction with the object; our minds are also altered, the stream of our consciousness redirected.

In one sense, writing involves an unusually directed form of Damasio’s scenario: the writer, as organism, examines objects with more attention and intention than usual and seeks words to describe those objects. But the seeking of words involves a suspension of will and intention, requiring a lot of unconscious, undirected thinking. The writer is continuously changed through the succession of intentional looking, searching for words, and unconscious cognition involved. The act of writing concentrates and intensifies Damasio’s organism-object-image relationship. But none of this is neat, or easy, as Hustvedt’s memoir make clear.

If Hustvedt writes herself into a new comfort with the idea that she is the shaking woman, she does so in large part through a series of acts that elude her conscious will. She is changed by her actions, much the way her shaking is quelled by her cool. But those actions were often motivated unconsciously, and their succession is impossible to reconstruct. Of course, this is true for anybody, regardless of neurological or psychological health. Hustvedt isn’t writing for an audience of people who share her illness (which is, after all, a highly idiosyncratic one). If she writes for fellow sufferers, it’s only in the sense that we all live and wrestle with the mysterious touching of what’s conscious and what’s unconscious.

Damasio describes the mind as a “screen” that hides our the internal workings of our body from us, making them mysterious:

One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean the ins of it, its interiors. Like a veil thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, but not too well, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.

For Damasio, the mind is what’s conscious, the mental processes we can observe. But a whole lot of brain work regulates our bodies and engenders action and behavior under Damasio’s veil. Hustvedt went looking for “the ins” of her body, trying to figure out just how they might cause the exterior shaking that was all too observable, by her or anybody else looking. She found out pretty quickly that the sciences of the brain and mind—psychology, psychoanalysis, neurology, and neurobiology—are short on answers about relationships between mind and body that must have been at play when her limbs flailed and  her legs turned red. Her search confirms an intuition many writers will recognize. The self is in a constant state of becoming, created and recreated through our conscious and unconscious interactions with the world outside. This is why Hustvedt’s autobiographical essay roams through philosophy, history, biology, and psychoanalysis. She writes her way through them in order to become, to feel like, the shaking woman she once observed withfear and fascination.