Feb/Mar 2010

The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves

Sarah Manguso


At her father's funeral, Siri Hustvedt delivered a tearless eulogy. Two and a half years later, while giving a talk at St. Olaf College in honor of her father's work in the school's Norwegian Department, she began to shudder violently from the neck down. Of the episode, she writes, "I hadn't felt emotional. I had felt entirely calm and reasonable. Something seemed to have gone terribly wrong with me, but what exactly? I decided to go in search of the shaking woman."

This is the basis for Hustvedt's textbook-like memoir, The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves. A couple of pages after this mission statement, she writes of her migraines as an entirely separate malady: "I had become…[an] enormous headache." Despite the ease with which she becomes the headache, Hustvedt dutifully undertakes the research for the book as if it were literally necessary to identify the shaking woman. (How can it be so difficult to reason—and Hustvedt is nothing if not reasonable—that if you can be a headache, you can also be a shaking woman?) Foreshadowings of the fake discovery crowd the last few pages of the book, when she hires a psychiatrist and a neurologist (she resists psychoanalysis) and frets that neither can tell her who the shaking woman is. If either one were reading these pages, I suspect that each would say, as I would, "Same one as the headache." And in fact, the book's final sentence is "I am the shaking woman."

The purported mystery story is less a whodunit than Hustvedt's attempt to integrate a new, mysterious component of her identity into her existing self-concept. But Hustvedt seems uninterested in truly delving into the self; the architecture of her personal narrative is hastily constructed. The true project of the book is a reading journal, an account of her impressively broad research. She digests volumes of primary and secondary texts, case studies alongside social histories and scholarship on classical rhetoric. Pierre Janet, Freud, Dickens, Cicero, Lacan, Francis Crick, and a horde of others find their way into the account (there are almost two hundred endnotes). Yet a coldness pervades the text; at best, it's an excellent research report. While Hustvedt's previous nonfiction books, particularly Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting (2005), show both intellectual and emotional engagement, in this one I often sensed some obstacle preventing the same emotional participation. "Intellectual curiosity about one's own illness is certainly born of a desire for mastery," she writes. "If I couldn't cure myself, perhaps I could at least begin to understand myself." In the project of self-understanding, though, intellectual curiosity takes one only so far.

Fifty pages from the end, Hustvedt includes an aside—that on numberless occasions, when men have asked her to inscribe her novels to their wives, she has sensed a subtext: "Masculinity aligns itself with nonfiction, while femininity is associated with frivolous 'made-up' stories. Real men like objective texts, not the subjective wanderings of mere fiction writers." I can't help correlating this experience with Hustvedt's interest in the historically gendered nomenclature of hysteria, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the other names for what makes people shake. I suspect the attitude of these men might have encouraged this book's interest in objective research despite its pretense to being memoir.

Viewed through the lens of that telling experience, The Shaking Woman becomes a memoir written by a woman for men who hate memoirs (and also, possibly, women). Though Hustvedt's research educates and often entertains, I wish she had more freely and deeply explored the problem of the self-examining self.

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March 25, 2013
5:49 am

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