Inventing the Self

Siri Hustvedt’s “The Shaking Woman” and grandmother

September 10th, 2013 by Samantha Gamble · 2 Comments


I grew up in a very religious family, my grandparents who I lived with for a few years and who I spent most of weekends with are Pentecostal Christians and my mother is a Jehovah Witness. In my grandparents church I was told that I would go to hell and burn in fire if I didn’t ask Jesus to “save” us and my mother believed that I would simply die and turn into dirt if I did not get baptized. I was in church/Kingdom Hall at least 4 times a week, sometimes sleeping over.  Because of my strong religious influenced, into adulthood I believed that my actions were controlled by the devil and that I needed to be “saved” by Jesus and the holy ghost will cast the devil out of my . I will then become a Righteous being and my spirit would float up to heavens once I died. When my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer, my entire belief system about who my core self will always be was challenged. My strong independent grandmother became a walking corpse in just a few years. She spent the majority of her days staring into space. My grandfather in his frustration told me “this is not the person I married. I don’t know who she is.” Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman only raised more question in regards to whom or what “I” am.

In The Shaking Woman Siri Hustvedt elicit thoughts about what it means to be human and how we perceive ourselves.  While my grandmother lost cognitive control, Hustvedt lost control over her body. She believed that this loss of control was due to hysteria, a Conversion disorder, which occurred because she did not grieve her father’s death. This caused a duality in her and like the statement that my grandfather made in reference to his wife; Hustvedt’s shaking body became separate from which she was. She states that “the shaking woman is certainly not anyone with a name. She is a speechless alien who appears only during speeches (47).” Hustvedt was not the shaking woman and this woman was not my grandmother although she occupied my grandmother’s body.

Another study that Hustvedt explored was that “the very interesting act of inscribing the words I remember generates memories (62-63).” The simple act of writing can generate memory. She presented case studies in which two subjects lost the ability to recall memory in speech but were able to write what happened even when they were unable to read their own writings; this lead to Hustvedt wondering if she suffered from systemic disconnection (68). This makes me think of my grandmother’s own memory loss and wonder if she will one day regain them. There are moments where my grandmother seems to return to her body when she looks at me and say “I haven’t seen you in a while pretty girl.” Then I feel like she remembers me and my grandmother has returned. Will she always be able to look at me and have these moments of clarity?

When I think of who I am, I wonder if I will always be a lucid rational being. Will emotional trauma or physical trauma cause any radical changes in my personality? Can anyone ever truly figure out who we are as humans? What ultimately control our behavior? Is it our brains? Is it God? Is it our unconscious? Is it the Devil?


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2 responses so far ↓

  • Yitian Liao // Sep 10th 2013 at 9:49 pm

    I often think personality is inherent, and it is not genetic but can be affected by family. Personality will dictate the way one thinks, acts and, in turn, what kind of memories or experiences one will have. Ways of thinking can be changed by trauma – the question is, what level of trauma is needed to shake the fundamentals of one’s personality – surely it differs from individual to individual. All of these factors can be generated as “consciousness”, which is the key to create “self”. Consciousness is hard to pin point in location, yet we are aware when it IS and is NOT present. It is also inherently linked to the brain – when the brain is not functioning, or has less capability to function in a right way, I think, the self, under this consequence, is incomplete, or it is just not the “self”. When we are unconscious, even though the brain is working fine, we still do not know what we are doing. Defining the self is dependent on the presence of consciousness.

  • Sabrina Smith // Sep 10th 2013 at 11:20 pm

    I really appreciate the fact that you were able to find a personal connection with Hustvedt’s story. The brain is a powerful entity, so much that we sometimes take for granted how important it is and the magnitude to which it allows us to comprehend all that is around us. I agree that trauma changes our ways of thinking and in this case it changed the way an experienced speaker performed, a “shaking” reaction due to the passing of her father. In a sense Hustvedt had become dissociative; on one hand she was her normal self who loved to speak publicly about her studies, and the other was what I considered a different personality that attempted to hinder her best quality. The beauty about it all was that her consciousness was able to inform her about everything that occurred and was occurring from different perspectives, while offering an emotional, humanistic reflection. The novel itself will influence others (like yourself) to share their stories which is an amazing thing.

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