The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves
by Siri Hustvedt.
Henry Holt, 2010
Something strange happened to American novelist Siri Hustvedt when she was delivering a eulogy in honor of her late father a few years ago. As Hustvedt began to speak, wild spasms suddenly gripped her body, making her arms thrash and her knees knock. Bizarrely, even as she flailed uncontrollably, her voice remained calm and confident.
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.
Plagued by bouts of shaking, Hustvedt wonders if she could be suffering from repressed grief, performance anxiety or, worse, epilepsy. “Am I looking for a narrative, a confabulation,” she writes, “to interpret a debility that is no more and no less than synaptic wiring and firing?” Filled with apprehension, she decides to see a psychiatrist and a neurologist and to get her brain scanned.
As an intimate witness to Hustvedt’s joys and sorrows at this point, the reader may end up wishing that the shaking will mean something on a personal level; that it’s more than just a physiological hiccup. But in the end, the doctors have no clear answers for Hustvedt, just as she has none for her readers. We are left wondering about the relation between the mental and the physical, between brain science and modern psychology. With the ballooning availability of psychiatric medications to deal with neurological disorders, these connections and questions seem more important than ever.