Happy birthday to Siri Husvedt! I think she is a fascinating human, writing about fascinating neurological anomalies. I’m always rather refreshed by her perspective, as she accepts the quirks, jerks and strange surprises that our minds and bodies produce, embracing the unknown with a sense of humor and hope.
Here is an excerpt from NPR’s Writer’s Almanac:
It’s the birthday of novelist Siri Hustvedt, born in Northfield, Minnesota (1955). She is the author of four novels, The Blindfold (1992), The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), and The Sorrows of an American (2008). For years, her talent as a writer was often given less attention than her marriage to the novelist Paul Auster, a darling of the New York literary scene. After she published The Blindfold, one journalist even suggested that her husband had written it for her.
Her big breakthrough was the novel What I Loved, which got rave reviews. It took her six years to write. She said: “I redrafted it over and over. It just wasn’t good enough; the tone wasn’t right. Finally, in that last draft, I hit it. You feel it. It’s a strange thing about writing fiction; there’s a sense of rightness and wrongness.”
Most recently, she turned away from novel writing and published a memoir, The Shaking Woman; or, A History of My Nerves (2010). A few years ago, she was speaking at a memorial service for her father at St. Olaf College in Northfield, where he had been chairman of the Norwegian department. In the middle of her speech, she suddenly started shaking uncontrollably, her knees knocking and arms flailing. Her skin turned a strange color. But her speech and thoughts remained completely clear. She was disturbed by this episode, and wondered if and how it connected to other dramatic health issues in her past. She said: “As a child I had what I called ‘lifting feelings.’ Every once in a while, I had a powerful internal sensation of being pulled upward, as if my head were rising, even though I knew my feet hadn’t left the ground. This lift was accompanied by what can only be called awe — a feeling of transcendence.” During her honeymoon, in a gallery in Paris, her arm had jerked suddenly and slammed her against a wall, and she spent a year in doctor’s offices and was even hospitalized, taking every combination of drugs they could think to prescribe in an attempt to ward off terrible, constant headaches. There was the time she hallucinated and saw a tiny, pink version of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue (now pink) ox, sitting on her bed. In The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt sorted through all the neurological and psychiatric disorders that might be at play in her own condition, and she wrote about the fuzzy lines in a disease that is, finally, impossible to diagnose, and that affects her mental world and her conception of herself as much as just her body.
“Every sickness has an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control that is evident in the language we use about it. No one says, ‘I am cancer’ or even ‘I am cancerous,’ despite the fact that there is no intruding virus or bacteria; it’s the body’s own cells that have run amok. One has cancer. Neurological and psychiatric illnesses are different, however, because they often attack the very source of what one imagines is one’s self. ‘He’s an epileptic’ doesn’t sound strange to us. In the psychiatric clinic, the patients often say, ‘Well, you see, I’m bipolar’ or ‘I’m schizophrenic.’ The illness and the self are fully identified in these sentences. The shaking woman felt like me and not like me at the same time. From the chin up, I was my familiar self. From the neck down, I was a shuddering stranger. What ever had happened to me, what ever name would be assigned to my affliction, my strange seizure must have had an emotional component that was somehow connected to my father. The problem was that 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.”