The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves
by Siri Hustvedt
Reviewed by Scott F. Parker
Writing a speech she would give at a memorial for her father, Siri Hustvedt heard her father's voice and felt like she was tapping into the humor that had made him a lively and adept public speaker in his life as a professor of Norwegian. Hustvedt, an accomplished author and public intellectual, had herself given speeches regularly and comfortably, but at her father's memorial she had a unique reaction to facing her audience: "Confident and armed with index cards, I looked out at the fifty or so friends and colleagues of my father's who had gathered...launched into my first sentence, and began to shudder violently from the neck down." The last phrase is important. Mentally, Hustvedt was unaffected, and was even able to finish her speech.
Hustvedt's shaking -- which repeats, not always, but commonly, in future speeches -- is not just a physical symptom to be cured (she eventually treats it successfully with Inderal) but a mystery to be unlocked. The search for the cause of the shaking drives the book, and anyone looking for a straight recovery memoir will be disappointed. The title gives as much away: first-person narration is given secondary weight to a third-person exposition of philosophy, psychology, and neurology. But even the third-person account is less focused on Hustvedt's shaking in particular than on the history of the mind/body dualism in general.
On first glance, the crux of the book is determining whether the shaking is a psychological or neurological problem -- or how the mind and brain each contribute to the shaking. Hustvedt is well versed on this topic, and as far as the reader is concerned, the shaking happened to the right person: an elegant writer whose idea of fun is studying for the psych boards and who has what sounds like a unique neurological system -- over the course of the book Hustvedt describes having migraine, mirror-touch synesthesia, Stendhal syndrome, and sound-sensitive teeth, among other things. It's, as one friend tells her, like having "a doctor and a patient in the same body."
At times, however, Hustvedt fails to be the simultaneous doctor-patient, choosing instead to devote large stretches to reporting case studies that get pretty far away from her condition. The reader will see that the Oliver Sacks-like accounts do reconnect with and eventually bolster her story, but will wonder why the background wasn't provided more concisely. These lengthy digressions give the book a peripatetic feel, which, combined with the lack of chapter breaks, leaves little room for the reader to enter into the text.
But this density isn't necessarily a flaw; it's meant to mimic the complicated nature of the mind/body dualism and resist reductive descriptions, be they mental or physical. After setting up her shaking story, Hustvedt circles her subject, getting at it from different angles, struggling to find an elusive cause. But the story of causation constantly demands retelling; there's always more to be said, a factor that's been ignored. Late in the book, she recounts having had a severe fever and convulsions as an infant. She writes: "Why haven't I written about it here? I missed it. I repressed it." Later still -- after foregoing her self-diagnosis of conversion disorder and seeking professional opinion -- she writes: "Am I back at the beginning yet again? I now have a psychoanalyst-psychiatrist and a neurologist treating me, but neither of them can tell me who the shaking woman is."
She is back at the beginning, but the reader understands by now that Hustvedt is not a doctor but a writer, and the book is ultimately searching for a cohesive narrative of her self. "Perhaps the trick will now be to integrate the shaking woman as well, to acknowledge that she, too, is part of myself." That's the real rub of the book, and quite the intellectual challenge. Hustvedt circles and circles because there's no way to go right at this issue. The mind-body relationship is the black hole at the center of consciousness and it lurks behind all stories -- the stories we read and the stories we all call "I." "I chase it with words even though it won't be captured and, every once in a while, I imagine I have come close to it." In The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt does come close; without solving any metaphysical mysteries, she is able to offer a model for a naturalistic integration of "I" that is satisfying for that "I" -- and that works for the reader too.