Big Think Interview With Siri Hustvedt

A conversation with the novelist and author of “The Shaking Woman.”
  • Transcript


Question: What is your memory of the seizure that you describe in “The Shaking Woman”?

Siri Hustvedt: Well, I can't, you know, you can't tell a story forward, only backward.  So, the event that is central to the book that I've written is a seizure episode that happened very abruptly and suddenly.  I was giving a little speech at a memorial occasion for my father; they were planting a tree in his honor.  He was a Professor at St. Olaf College and he had died two years before then.  I stood up, felt no anxiety, very calm.  I had my index cards in front of me for the speech.  I opened my mouth, began to speak and from the neck down, my limbs, my torso, everything, I started to shudder, but not a small tremor; really huge convulsive motions in my arms and legs.  And I was so shocked.  It was an amazing thing to have happened.  I continued giving the speech.  I really didn't know what else to do.  I didn't fall over.  I thought I might. 

And when I finished the speech, the shuddering left me.  I had—my legs had turned very red, almost blue, and I wondered what had happened.  It was extraordinary.

Question: How did you explain this attack at the time, and how do you explain it now?

Siri Hustvedt: Well you know, long before I had this seizure, I had been immersed in material about the brain and the mind, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and so I decided to—first of all, I asked quite a few friends of mine who were doctors and neuroscientists, what this could be?  And nobody had a ready answer.  I did then diagnose myself with conversion disorder, or hysteria.  I thought, well maybe because I was talking about my dead father, someone who I was very close to, there was an emotional trigger and it was acted out in this way. 

And the inspiration was, I was at a neuroscience lecture and behind me was a woman and we started talking after the lecture was over and I asked her what she did, and she said, I treat mostly conversion patients.  Those patients usually start with neurologists, and then the neurologists send them to me. 

So, actually one day, I was back at a lecture that I go to every month and I always sit in the same place, and this was after I had the shaking episode and it came like an illumination.  I thought maybe I have had a hysterical seizure.  No doctor, neurologist, psychiatrist went along with me on that one.  But in the book, I do talk about hysteria, both in the 19th century and as it's evolved since.  The symptoms are the same, they probably have been around forever and that is simply that a person has, for example, paralysis or a seizure, or blindness, dumbness, and it cannot be explained through say a brain tumor or a brain lesion.  Something clearly neurological and then, let's give the name hysteria. 

So hysteria is something that I've been interested for a very long time.  I thought I might have it, but it seems that it's unlikely.

Question: Do you believe you suffer, or suffered, from a form of epilepsy?

Siri Hustvedt: Well, you know, epilepsy is a big thing.  I mean, I have not been diagnosed with epilepsy, I did have an MRI of the brain, and they found no abnormalities in my brain.  Now, there are people with epilepsy who have completely normal MRI's too.  I just think also, you know, epileptic seizures can be triggered by emotional stress, by all kinds of things, lights.  I do have migraine, that's for sure.  And people who have migraine are more likely to also have epilepsy than people who don't have migraine.  It's not clear.  I may eventually find out exactly what's going on here, and I may not.

Question: Do you believe memory played a role in triggering the seizure?

Siri Hustvedt: This is a really very good question.  If memory played a role, it would have had to have been implicit memory.  Now the fascinating thing about this is all of us, certainly have lost the first three years of our lives, we do not have explicit memories from that time.  There are all kinds of reasons for that. One is that the hippocampus, which is crucial for laying down what scientists call episodic memories, is not developed.  So infantile amnesia, at least in part, has to do with that.  I think that there's also a connection to language, that with language the possibility of self-reflective consciousness and keeping memories through language becomes a possible form of storytelling.  I think there are probably scientists probably interested in that.  But that's really coming from other fields. 

Now, the infantile—the possibility of—so there is, because what you can have without having any explicit memory, or memory that is left that you could put into words, is that people can store emotional memories from early in their life that can be triggered.  So, a simple example would be, if a child is bitten by a dog, there's a bad bite when you’re one and a half years old.  That child could, as he grows up, continue to have a terrible fear of dogs.  They do know that early traumas in infants have a lot to do with how the whole emotional system in the brain develops.  So that temperament, that person can be much more what we call highly strung than other people. 

It is possible in my case that something was triggered by that speech, or you know, I'm not sure.  Some fear.  I just—because I can't get a hold of it, I can't find it.  But I would not rule that out.

Question: Is the “explicit vs. implicit” memory distinction the same as Freud’s “conscious vs. unconscious”?

Siri Hustvedt:  Oh, absolutely.  You know, it's very fascinating what's happened to—what's happened in sort of the intellectual history of these ideas.  Freud, it's very important to say, did not invent the idea of the unconscious.  This goes way back.  There's some people who say that in Leibniz you can find a version of this.  When Leibniz was answering Descartes and Hume, especially about the nature of consciousness, and he says, "Well, there are things that just are outside of our consciousness."  And so Leibniz might be certainly interesting. 

But in the 19th century when Freud was a student and then later became a physician, the unconscious was something that was acknowledged.  Something like Wilhelm Vunt, who was a researcher and is credited with having the first psychology lab in Germany, was convinced that many things took place that were outside of human awareness, and he was not thinking only of our hearts are pumping.  He meant memories, even thoughts that simply aren't—we don't have them available to us.  And there was also an English naturalist, Carpenter, in the 19th century, in the 1870’s; he had an idea called the "adaptive unconscious."  So, this all predates Freud. 

In the early 20th century with the rise of behaviorism in the United States.  Now psychoanalysis was going its merry way alone and developing and thinking its thoughts, but nevertheless, in the scientific community, behaviorism really got a kind of stranglehold on cognitive science and behaviorism maintained that they did not want to talk about consciousness or unconsciousness.  All that mattered was a third-person point of view, looking at human behavior and we would get all the answers.  In fact, as I point out in the book, there was a man, a big guy in behaviorism, rather controversial, Watson, who maintained that human beings have no visual imagery in their minds.  This seems insane to me. 

Now it's thought that about 96% of us have visual imagery and there's a very tiny minority in the population, some of whom are normal, some of whom have brain lesions who cannot produce visual imagery. 

But this internal reality of the human being was so threatening to behaviorism that they really went very far to squash it.  Even a hint of something called introspection.  You know, looking in at what's going on inside us, was anathema.  So, that had a long stranglehold, I think, on a lot of scientific research that's beginning to open up now.  They didn't like to talk about emotions either.  But now in neuroscience and in cognitive science, there's a lot of research being done on emotion. 

Question: What is neuropsychoanalysis?

Siri Hustvedt:  I became interested in neuropsychoanalysis through the person who is really responsible, I think, for beginning this movement or organization.  His name is Mark Solms.  And he's a brain researcher and a psychoanalyst.  He's worked particularly doing dream research, but he's done other explorations as well.  And it really is an organization that is trying to fulfill an old dream of Freud's.  In 1895, Freud, who was then a neurologist and he had spent a long time working on nerve cells, as a scientist.  So, he sat down and wrote something that is now called "The Project."  It's a project for a scientific psychology.  And his hope was that, what he knew about the brain and the nervous system would provide him with a map or a model of how the mind works. 

He worked on this in a great fury and then he realized that science simply was not able to answer the questions that he had, he put "The Project" aside and the fate of psychoanalysis went from there.  In other words, Freud always knew that the underpinnings of what he thought of as the psyche and his psychic model were in the brain, in these neuronal networks that are coursing through us all the time.  But he couldn't fit them together. 

So, neuropsychoanalysis is really trying to join two languages; the language of the psyche and Freudian psychoanalysis—which of course has gone in many different directions, it’s not just Freud—and neurobiology, and see how these two can be fit together because there is a fit.  It's not easy, but there is a fit.

Question: Does the field further Freud’s project of analyzing the individual mind?

Siri Hustvedt: I think that's the hope.  I think that's exactly the hope.  Now, neuropsychoanalysis does not want to leave out subjectivity.  In other words, we all have a subjective reality.  And talk therapy, psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, is all about constructing some kind of narrative for the patient out of subjective experience.  But even that... I mean subjectivity itself is now a huge subject in brain research.  Where does subjectivity come from?  How does it work on the level of neurons and synapses in the brain?  And people are studying this very carefully. 

I don't think—there's no solution, but there are overlaps.  I mean, very recently I read a paper by five Italian neuroscientists who were talking about something called long-term potentiation in neural networks in the brain that are connected to learning and memory.  And they had been looking at Freud's project, the project I just talked about that he put aside, and they're conclusion was that the project actually anticipates contemporary neuroscience research into LTP's.  Pretty fascinating.

Question: What was the visual hallucination you once experienced?

Siri Hustvedt: You know, this is a story I love and there are moments that I'm sorry it never happened again.  It only happened to me once.  I was in my 30's, I remember I was reading Svevo, it was "The Confessions of Zeno," there’s actually a new translation, but I was reading the old one.  And I looked—I was lying in bed and I looked down at the floor and there was a little pink man and a pink ox, and they were about this tall, moving and beautifully articulated.  So, lovely.  And they gave me a very good feeling.  I had no fear, no distress, just a feeling of fascination, friendliness, and pleasure.  And I watched them for a while without saying to myself—I did not say "You're having a hallucination.I didn't say it.  I just looked at them and then they disappeared.  This hallucination was followed by a migraine.  And I didn't know at the time, I had no idea, they too have a name, it's called Lilliputian hallucination.  It is associated with migraine.  But other people—sometimes people who have had stroke can also have these visual hallucinations.

Question: Do you think many “visionary” prophets were in fact epileptics?

Siri Hustvedt: Well, they may have been epileptics, but I think again, it's always so complicated in medicine to draw a line between normal experience and what's pathological.  I mean, this is not so easy to do.

So, for example, it does seem that something like auditory hallucinations, I've had it a number of times.  The only time I have it now is when I'm dropping off to sleep, I will often hear voices.  Men's voices, women's voices, usually short sentences, very hard for me to remember what they said in the morning. 

In Nabokov's "Speak, Memory," he has a wonderful little passage about exactly that, both his hypnogogic hallucinations of a visual kind before he's going to sleep, and hearing voices.  It's a beautifully written little passage in "Speak, Memory."  You know, Nabokov was clearly not mad.  I don't feel mad.  And many people, and there have been certain studies that have been done that many, many people at one time or another have experienced auditory hallucinations.  It becomes part of a pathology, I think, when, for example, in schizophrenia... people who have schizophrenia are often tormented by voices talking all the time and jabbering away, telling them to do terrible things.  That becomes a curse.  And also in schizophrenia, usually the presence of the voices is explained in a delusional way.  You know, like the famous CIA has planted things in your brain, or whatever.  This is very common.  Whereas, when I've had auditory hallucinations, I have always thought I was having auditory hallucinations.  I mean, once I mistook the voice of a friend for a real experience, that he was actually calling me.  But otherwise, I haven't.  So, there are normal variances of many experiences that are often regarded as pathological, such as hearing voices, or hallucination.

Question: Does your claim that “explicit memories thrive on place” mean that non-location-based memories tend to fade?

Siri Hustvedt: Well, this is a very interesting thing and this is based on, in some way, introspection of my own, thinking about the character of my own memories.  But this idea of loci and place, that goes way back. It goes... certainly Cicero had this notion that in order to remember things, they have to be placed, and memory systems would often use a house.  Say you need to memorize a speech.  And what the technique would mean is you would give yourself a spatial location and usually a house.  You would walk through it as you give the speech, so you would assign various parts of the speech to different rooms, and this seems to help keep the words inside you. 

I have found that all of my memories seem to need a place and that a good part of what we think of as explicit memory has to do with location. So for example, it is not that when you started going to grade school, say you went to the same school, that you remember every day of your grade school experience. What you are remembering is the site of those experiences.  Some of them explicit and many of them completely buried or forgotten. 

I find that I need to locate my memories.  There was one illustration that I gave in the book that interested me.  It was a failure of my own memory, an error.  And this is what it was.  When I was four years old, I was in Norway with my mother and sister.  We were at my aunt's house sitting around the table, having a meal.  I remember—I can see the living room perfectly in my mind.  My cousin, my older cousin, Vivica, begins to cry.  I love this because—she is older than she is still older than I am—and so I felt bad, I didn't know why she was crying.  I pushed myself off the chair, and I remember my feet were dangling, so I had to drop.  Went around and patted my cousin on her arm to comfort her.  And all the grown ups burst into laughter and I was so angry and humiliated by that laughter.  Of course no one meant any harm, but I was four. 

Only a few years ago, I've carried this memory of humiliation around with me my whole life.  Only a couple of years ago I recognized that it couldn't have taken place in that living room because that house had not been built.  What had happened was that in order to preserve the memory, I replaced one house with another.  My aunt's second house, the one built after that I do remember vividly. 

I think this tells us something about the nature of memory.  First of all, that it's shifting.  There are no fixed original memories that we can actually get ahold of, and that place is somehow vital to the retention of those memories; even if we need an artificial house to put it in.

Question: What is the nature of synesthetic memory?

Siri Hustvedt: Well there's speculation, and it may be a little more than speculation now, that infants are synesthetes, and synesthesia is simply a crossing of two senses.  It's almost like a translation of one sense into another.  Famous examples are people who see numbers as colors.  Every number has a distinct color.  Synesthetes don't agree on which color.  But when a "7," for example, for some people is always green.  I do not have that kind of synesthesia, but in a way I think many of us have that when we read.  You know, when I read a book, I'm always seeing the people.  I'm making mental images to accompany it.  So that I'm translating the sight of those little characters on the page into visual images that I can take with me and keep. 

I was rather amused to read, during my research for this book, about something called "Mirror Touch Synesthesia" and saying to myself, "Well, I have that."  And so that is when people look at someone.  Something is happening to another person.  Say you look at someone being slapped on the arm.  And then the mirror touch synesthete has a sensation in the arm.  Not the same as being slapped, at least not in my case at all.  But there is a kind of mirroring experience so that the visual looking becomes the tactile impression in the body.  And I think you see it again going back to behaviorism and talk of it.  Before brain scans and before recent research into the brain, people were very reluctant to do any studies about synesthesia because it just seemed so wacky.  And so that's what happens.  Once researchers have some kind of hypothesis about neural networks in the brain and maybe that infants are all synesthetes and that as the brain develops and as its plasticity continues, most people lose that crossing over of one sense to the other, and some people don't.  They retain it. 

Question: Do you and your husband ever critique each other’s works in progress?

Siri Hustvedt: Always, actually.  We both read to each other during the course of the book.  When Paul's writing a novel, he reads to me at intervals of about a month, month and a half, two months, something like that.  And he will take a batch of the story, read it to me aloud, and listen to what I have to say. 

Earlier in my life as a writer, I had a tendency to hoard my manuscripts from Paul and not show him anything until  I had a complete draft.  And then he would usually read it silently and talk to me afterwards.  In the last few years, the last three books, I've read to him as I'm going along, chunks of 50 to 70 pages, and get his feedback.  So, this is very important to us.  Everyone needs a reader.  And I just happen to be married to mine and he happens to be married to his. 

The good thing about the two of us is that I and he are very free to be brutal if we feel it's necessary.  And I think that all works because there's an essential respect always of the project of the other person, so what you're really talking about is, "Does this help the overall project, or is there a weakness here.And I don't think that in either case we've ever rejected the other person's suggestions.  I have resisted a couple of times, but in the end I think he's always been right.  And I had—with one novel he read me three endings before I thought he hit on the one that really worked.

Question: How do you discipline yourself to overcome the challenges of writing?

Siri Hustvedt: I'm better at this now.  I've always been extremely disciplined in the sense that I can wake up early, sit at my desk and work for hours and hours every day.  This is never been a problem.  What I've understood as the years have gone on is that the best place for me anyway for me to be when I'm writing, is in a state of great relaxation and openness.  And I think when you're in that state all kinds of unconscious material can become available.  For me, the danger is being tight, being constipated, in a sense.  And that will create constipation.  That will create a day of looking at a paragraph, erasing it, writing another one and getting rid of that.

And I think of this as a state of play, that you really are open to the creative possibilities of what will happen, what can happen.  And both, I think, both playing in children and fantasizing in teenagers.  I don't know—you're much closer to your teenage years then I am, but those years are particularly prone to all kinds of fantasies, especially about the future, you know, what am I going to do.  Oh, the beloved.  All kinds of fantasies.  And I think that writing novels comes straight out of those two... first the childhood play and then the adolescent fantasy to making art.  But that the process is very similar.  And you need to be open, loose and let yourself play in order for the work to happen.

Question: What’s your favorite “forgotten” novel?

Siri Hustvedt: Oh yeah.  Well, it's not entirely forgotten and for some people, you know, it's a very important book.  But it is a book that seems to sort of go underwater to come up a little and then fall again.  And it is Djuna Barnes’s "Nightwood."  This is a book that was published in the '30s.  It's a tiny little book; a dense, poetic little novel.  I think the current edition still has T.S. Eliot's introduction to it; a very enthusiastic one.  I have read this book now three times.  It is a remarkable little book about passion; sexual passion, also that is sort of living on the margins of a culture.  It takes place in Paris and it's a love story between two women.  And there is a character, a character that I love, whose name is Dr. Matthew O'Connor.  He's a transvestite kind of pseudo-doctor who gives some of the most wonderful speeches in literature.  And I, so when I have a chance, I do come out and say, if you haven't read Djuna Barnes’ "Nightwood"—I think it's the only book, by the way to recommend, by her.  I'm not so crazy about the rest of her work.  But this is a really extraordinary, unusual little book.  And it's not my absolutely favorite work of literature, but it's one that I think people should look at and read more.