The Shaking Woman

Siri Hustvedt

Two and a half years after her father died, the Norwegian-American novelist Siri Hustvedt was about to give a speech in his honour at the place where he had worked. Before she had finished her first sentence, she began to shudder violently from the neck down, her arms flapping, and her knees knocking.

She kept shaking as if she was having a seizure, but her voice was not affected, and she managed to finish her speech. When the speech ended, so did her shaking, but similar fits returned to her on several later occasions. And then she wrote a book about it: “The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves”. I read the Kindle version on an iPhone.

Personal and intellectual
The book is at times a personal and quite emotional journey, at other times an intellectual exploration of all sorts of medical and psychological theories, in particular the relatively new field of neuropsychoanalysis. Most of the time it attempts to be both. In her search for an explanation of her fits she looks everywhere: her relation to her father, memories from childhood, her long-term experience with migraine, her intense hypersensitivity, as well as theories of neurons and the brain, of self and other, of memory and trauma, of language, of hysteria, of nature vs. nurture, of body and mind, and of fear. She seeks out neurologists and psychoanalysts and others who might help her understand.

Hustvedt has an impressive knowledge of any thinkable field that might somehow shed light on her condition, whether in psychology, neurology, biology, medicine or, for that matter, literature. She also has a sympathetically sensitive way of exploring her own life and personality. The book is a treasure-grove of interesting discussions of topics that are relevant for most of us, not only those few who have had shaking fits like the ones she had. It has already been quoted on The Meditation Blog.

Siri Hustvedt & Paul Auster

Siri Hustvedt with her husband Paul Auster. (from sirihustvedt.com)

Stop the chatter!
And yet, where does it all lead us? Hustvedt is a great writer, but the mixture of personal memory and scientific exploration in one long stream-of-consciousness-like text without a single chapter heading seriously challenges the reader’s patience, as if one is being talked to incessantly by a person who is unable to take a break. The personal parts of the book have literary qualities that drown in the long discussions of split brains and mirror neurons. And the intellectual explorations point in so many different directions that the book at best helps us amass an extraordinary amount of knowledge, without being able to bring the different threads together in a deeper and more comprehensive understanding.

Hustvedt reminds me of the French author Marie Cardinal, who would chatter on endlessly about her gynaecological problems, until her psychoanalyst, only seemingly in conflict with the Freudian principle of free association, forbid her to say a word more about it. For Ms. Cardinal, after the initial shock of having to dispense with her usual chattering, this became the beginning of a genuine process of self-reflection; being forced to let go of her gynaecological obsession brought her to new levels of emotional insight. Would a doctor or a psychoanalyst do Siri Hustvedt a favour if she, too, was told to stop the endless and obsessive stream of personal and intellectual thoughts, so that she might relax and be closer to herself without having to jump on the next bandwagon of fresh associations?

Beyond acceptance
At the end of the book we are left with the feeling that neither she nor we understand much more about her condition – or our own. The last sentence of the book could just as well have been the first: “I am the shaking woman.” In between we have been through an intense cascade of sometimes touching, often fascinating, and almost consistently interesting reflections, but it all resembles the propeller of an outboard motor that only reaches the surface of the water, producing gushing sprays of water in all directions without bringing the boat forward.

There are also attempts at producing a meditative attitude towards the shaking woman. We learn that biofeedback exercises have taught Hustvedt to accept her fits of migraine as parts of herself, instead of trying in vain to pretend the headache is not there. But her similar attempts at stoic acceptance of the shaking woman aren’t equally convincing. Biofeedback may be useful for migraine, but in psychological terms it is probably a quite shallow technique, and the shaking woman is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to the simple question of immediate acceptance. It would have been interesting to see what deeper meditative processes might have done for the problem.

4 Comments

  1. Katarina

    For the benefit of non-meditators it might be helpful to add that involuntary body movements sometimes happen during meditation. Some meditators have concrete memories linked to their body movements while other meditators don’t have any conscious idea of why this happens to them.

  2. I red this book halfway before I got too bored of what seemed to be a ‘clever girl syndrome’ with no capability of deeper insight. An earlier novel by Siri Hustvedt ‘What I Loved’ got the same fate in my library for the same reason. I cannot understand why her books get such exquisite reviews: superb…page turner etc. If meditation is involved in this difference of understanding, it is both interesting and a bit scaring.

  3. While it is impossible to diagnose a medical condition from a brief description, the author’ shaking does sound like Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES)[1]. There are a variety of causes[2] of shaking and twitching in the body. It could even be caused by something as simple and objective as ingesting psychoactive mold or substances.

    In my experience as a meditation teacher[3], I have had a small number of clients who experienced movements ranging from twitching of a part of the body to full convulsions or myoclonic spasms. Similar effects involve uncontrollable release of emotion.[4] In many of these cases, the cause is stored stresses[5][6]. We normally accumulate stress that affects our nervous system and can cause movements when we finally get a deep enough state of rest that allows the nervous system to begin to normalize.

    Chronic or triggered shaking is a medical condition that can limit our ability to function productively in life, as well as our ability to enjoy life. It requires skilled intervention in a situation where the guide and the student are both committed to an ongoing process of experimentation to find practices that eliminate stress in a controlled and tolerable way, based on transcending[3], an alternative state of restful alertness that has been shown to be a deeper state of rest than sleeping and dreaming.[7]

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogenic_non-epileptic_seizures
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-epileptic_seizure
    [3] http://www.nsrusa.org
    [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudobulbar_affect
    [5] http://www.nsrusa.org/about-stress.php
    [6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_disorder
    [7] http://www.psrast.org/tmunique.htm

  4. Luke McHale

    It’s not a problem, it’s a gift to be able to shake.

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