Inventing the Self

Siri Hustvedt’s “The Shaking Woman” and the Hysterical

September 9th, 2013 · 3 Comments


When Hustvedt’s described her father’s death, I felt myself in her. She, as I did, understood intellectually and academically the meaning of the loss of a loved one. When my mother died two years ago I had some time to prepare for it. When I received the call that she was gone, I remember observing that the world had not stopped, that I still breathed, that I still felt remarkably normal. Though I do not describe  my mother’s death as eloquently as Hustvedt does in her essay, I understood perfectly what she meant.  I too had a delayed very physical reaction to my mother’s death though nothing so severe as the author. My support system was well in place for any possible physio-psycho breakdown. My family, mainly my stepmother was concerned that I would become absolutely hysterical and backslide.

You see I understand Hustvedt’s search and meaning for understanding in her illness  and her identity through it.  I understand  her trying (and wanting) to find a common ‘physical’ cause for what she endured. For years, I would get inexplicably ill and because of a childhood trauma I had (have) sometimes awful depression. This new aspect of my illness would physically knock me down have me stuck in bed or the bathroom for days.  No one knew why. Every known test came back normal. I went into astromonical debt from collapsing and being rushed to the hospital.  I was told to get therapy for my problems and that my symptoms were ‘all in my head’. Myself and the people around me changed. They were afraid to set me off lest I have another episode because it was ‘all in my head’. My identity, who I was to myself and the people around me became my illness much like Husvedt’s and at times I seemed to drown in it.  She connected her shaking to her grief and past migraines, I connected mine to my childhood trauma.

Husvedt’s journey for identity and selfhood mirrored mine except for some major differences.  It turned out after many years my new ailment was quite physical. A keen woman doctor noticed a cyclical not psychic pattern of my symptoms that revolved around my menstruation (Sorry for the TMI). I suffered from stage IV endometriosis, which oddly enough still has a sexist hysterical background as it was once known as the ‘career woman’s disease’ as it was once thought that the only cure was to have a child. It is also a disease that can only be diagnosised by exploratory surgery as it will not show up in an MRI, PET SCAN,etc.  It took eight doctors and about four years in order to get this diagnosis. When I saw this last doctor, I omitted  my own history of depression and PTSD because once said my physical symptoms were written off as hysterical.  But I knew it wasn’t ‘me’.

I never really thought about my identity  as my illness and how  it attached itself to me in this way until I read this book. The psychic me and the physical me intertwined to make one identity, which thankfully I can now separate, but it doesn’t change the fact that one of the  illnesses really is ‘in my head’.  It was implicit in Husvedt’s  case as in mine that being a woman our symptoms and feelings were not taken seriously. And that often we must fight to be taken seriously, our very actions automatically taken as hyperbole and as superfluous.

This is not a new phenomenon and something that was also delved into in Barbara Duden’s ‘The Woman Beneath the Skin’, where John Storch, an 18th century physician, journals his women patient’s illnesses between the years 1747 and 1752. They way in which these women were treated 250 years ago frighteningly mirrors some of what Hustvedt’s experience in her own journey through her studies of Freud, neuroscience, modern medicine, & etc. As well as her Kantian/Freudian psychoanalysis and the cultural ans social constructions around women’s bodies. And although we no longer believe in the ‘wandering uterus’ and ‘humours’ many of the attitudes remain the same.

This book, for me at least, hit a little too close to home.


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