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Who's in the Video
Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, a book of poetry, and a number of short stories and essays. She is the author of "The Blindfold" (1992), "The Enchantment[…]

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, I can't, you know, you can't tell arnstory forward, only backward.  So,rnthe event that is central to the book that I've written is a seizure episodernthat happened very abruptly and suddenly. rnI was giving a little speech at a memorial occasion for my father; theyrnwere planting a tree in his honor. rnHe was a Professor at St. Olaf College and he had died two years beforernthen.  I stood up, felt no anxiety,rnvery calm.  I had my index cards inrnfront of me for the speech.  Irnopened my mouth, began to speak and from the neck down, my limbs, my torso,rneverything, I started to shudder, but not a small tremor; really hugernconvulsive motions in my arms and legs. rnAnd I was so shocked.  Itrnwas an amazing thing to have happened. rnI continued giving the speech. rnI really didn't know what else to do.  I didn't fall over. rnI thought I might. 

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: Well you know, long before I had thisrnseizure, I had been immersed in material about the brain and the mind,rnneuroscience, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and so I decided to—first of all, Irnasked quite a few friends of mine who were doctors and neuroscientists, whatrnthis could be?  And nobody had arnready answer.  I did then diagnosernmyself with conversion disorder, or hysteria.  I thought, well maybe because I was talking about my deadrnfather, someone who I was very close to, there was an emotional trigger and itrnwas acted out in this way. 

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

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So, actually one day, I was back at a lecture that I go tornevery month and I always sit in the same place, and this was after I had thernshaking episode and it came like an illumination.  I thought maybe I have had a hysterical seizure.  No doctor, neurologist, psychiatristrnwent along with me on that one. rnBut in the book, I do talk about hysteria, both in the 19th century andrnas it's evolved since.  Thernsymptoms are the same, they probably have been around forever and that isrnsimply that a person has, for example, paralysis or a seizure, or blindness,rndumbness, and it cannot be explained through say a brain tumor or a brainrnlesion.  Something clearlyrnneurological and then, let's give the name hysteria. 

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So hysteria is something that I've been interested for arnvery long time.  I thought I mightrnhave it, but it seems that it's unlikely.

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

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: This is a really very good question.  If memory played a role, it would havernhad to have been implicit memory. rnNow the fascinating thing about this is all of us, certainly have lostrnthe first three years of our lives, we do not have explicit memories from thatrntime.  There are all kinds ofrnreasons for that. One is that the hippocampus, which is crucial for laying downrnwhat scientists call episodic memories, is not developed.  So infantile amnesia, at least in part,rnhas to do with that.  I think thatrnthere's also a connection to language, that with language the possibility ofrnself-reflective consciousness and keeping memories through language becomes arnpossible form of storytelling.  Irnthink there are probably scientists probably interested in that.  But that's really coming from otherrnfields. 

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

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: rnOh, absolutely.  You know,rnit's very fascinating what's happened to—what's happened in sort of thernintellectual history of these ideas. rnFreud, it's very important to say, did not invent the idea of thernunconscious.  This goes wayrnback.  There's some people who sayrnthat in Leibniz you can find a version of this.  When Leibniz was answering Descartes and Hume, especially aboutrnthe nature of consciousness, and he says, "Well, there are things thatrnjust are outside of our consciousness."  And so Leibniz might be certainly interesting. 

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But in the 19th century when Freud was a student and thenrnlater became a physician, the unconscious was something that wasrnacknowledged.  Something likernWilhelm Vunt, who was a researcher and is credited with having the firstrnpsychology lab in Germany, was convinced that many things took place that werernoutside of human awareness, and he was not thinking only of our hearts arernpumping.  He meant memories, evenrnthoughts that simply aren't—we don't have them available to us.  And there was also an Englishrnnaturalist, Carpenter, in the 19th century, in the 1870’s; he had an idearncalled the "adaptive unconscious."  So, this all predates Freud. 

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

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

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

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Question: What is neuropsychoanalysis?

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

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He worked on this in a great fury and then he realized thatrnscience simply was not able to answer the questions that he had, he putrn"The Project" aside and the fate of psychoanalysis went fromrnthere.  In other words, Freudrnalways knew that the underpinnings of what he thought of as the psyche and hisrnpsychic model were in the brain, in these neuronal networks that are coursingrnthrough us all the time.  But herncouldn't fit them together. 

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: I think that's the hope.  I think that's exactly the hope.  Now, neuropsychoanalysis does not wantrnto leave out subjectivity.  Inrnother words, we all have a subjective reality.  And talk therapy, psychoanalysis, psychoanalyticrnpsychotherapy, is all about constructing some kind of narrative for the patientrnout of subjective experience.  Butrneven 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 ofrnneurons and synapses in the brain? rnAnd people are studying this very carefully. 

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

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Question: What was the visual hallucination you oncernexperienced?

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Siri Hustvedt: You know, this is a story I love and therernare 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 "ThernConfessions of Zeno," there’s actually a new translation, but I was reading thernold one.  And I looked—I wasrnlying in bed and I looked down at the floor and there was a little pink man andrna 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 arnfeeling of fascination, friendliness, and pleasure.  And I watched them for a while without saying to myself—Irndid not say "You're having a hallucination.I didn't say it. rnI just looked at them and then they disappeared.  This hallucination was followed by arnmigraine.  And I didn't know at therntime, I had no idea, they too have a name, it's called Lilliputianrnhallucination.  It is associatedrnwith migraine.  But other people—sometimes people who have had stroke can also have these visual hallucinations.

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

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

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

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In Nabokov's "Speak, Memory," he has a wonderful little passagernabout exactly that, both his hypnogogic hallucinations of a visual kind beforernhe'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 beenrncertain studies that have been done that many, many people at one time orrnanother have experienced auditory hallucinations.  It becomes part of a pathology, I think, when, for example,rnin schizophrenia... people who have schizophrenia are often tormented by voicesrntalking all the time and jabbering away, telling them to do terriblernthings.  That becomes a curse.  And also in schizophrenia, usually thernpresence of the voices is explained in a delusional way.  You know, like the famous CIA hasrnplanted things in your brain, or whatever.  This is very common. rnWhereas, when I've had auditory hallucinations, I have always thought Irnwas having auditory hallucinations. rnI mean, once I mistook the voice of a friend for a real experience, thatrnhe was actually calling me.  Butrnotherwise, I haven't.  So, therernare normal variances of many experiences that are often regarded asrnpathological, such as hearing voices, or hallucination.

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

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, this is a very interesting thing andrnthis is based on, in some way, introspection of my own, thinking about therncharacter of my own memories.  Butrnthis idea of loci and place, that goes way back. It goes... certainly Cicerornhad this notion that in order to remember things, they have to be placed, andrnmemory systems would often use a house. rnSay you need to memorize a speech. rnAnd what the technique would mean is you would give yourself a spatialrnlocation and usually a house.  Yournwould walk through it as you give the speech, so you would assign various partsrnof the speech to different rooms, and this seems to help keep the words insidernyou. 

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I have found that all of my memories seem to need a placernand that a good part of what we think of as explicit memory has to do withrnlocation. So for example, it is not that when you started going to gradernschool, say you went to the same school, that you remember every day of yourrngrade school experience. What you are remembering is the site of thosernexperiences.  Some of them explicitrnand many of them completely buried or forgotten. 

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I find that I need to locate my memories.  There was one illustration that I gavernin the book that interested me.  Itrnwas a failure of my own memory, an error. rnAnd this is what it was. rnWhen I was four years old, I was in Norway with my mother andrnsister.  We were at my aunt's housernsitting around the table, having a meal. rnI remember—I can see the living room perfectly in my mind.  My cousin, my older cousin, Vivica,rnbegins 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 Irnremember my feet were dangling, so I had to drop.  Went around and patted my cousin on her arm to comfortrnher.  And all the grown ups burstrninto laughter and I was so angry and humiliated by that laughter.  Of course no one meant any harm, but Irnwas four. 

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

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I think this tells us something about the nature ofrnmemory.  First of all, that it'srnshifting.  There are no fixedrnoriginal memories that we can actually get ahold of, and that place is somehowrnvital to the retention of those memories; even if we need an artificial housernto put it in.

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Question: What is the nature of synesthetic memory?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well there's speculation, and it may be arnlittle more than speculation now, that infants are synesthetes, and synesthesiarnis simply a crossing of two senses. rnIt's almost like a translation of one sense into another.  Famous examples are people who seernnumbers as colors.  Every numberrnhas a distinct color.  Synesthetesrndon't agree on which color.  Butrnwhen a "7," for example, for some people is always green.  I do not have that kind of synesthesia,rnbut in a way I think many of us have that when we read.  You know, when I read a book, I'mrnalways seeing the people.  I'mrnmaking mental images to accompany it. rnSo that I'm translating the sight of those little characters on the pagerninto visual images that I can take with me and keep. 

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I was rather amused to read, during my research for thisrnbook, about something called "Mirror Touch Synesthesia" and saying tornmyself, "Well, I have that."  And sornthat is when people look at someone. rnSomething is happening to another person.  Say you look at someone being slapped on the arm.  And then the mirror touch synestheternhas a sensation in the arm.  Notrnthe same as being slapped, at least not in my case at all.  But there is a kind of mirroringrnexperience so that the visual looking becomes the tactile impression in thernbody.  And I think you see it againrngoing back to behaviorism and talk of it. rnBefore brain scans and before recent research into the brain, peoplernwere very reluctant to do any studies about synesthesia because it just seemedrnso wacky.  And so that's whatrnhappens.  Once researchers havernsome kind of hypothesis about neural networks in the brain and maybe thatrninfants are all synesthetes and that as the brain develops and as itsrnplasticity continues, most people lose that crossing over of one sense to thernother, and some people don't.  Theyrnretain it. 

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

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

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Earlier in my life as a writer, I had a tendency to hoard myrnmanuscripts from Paul and not show him anything until  I had a complete draft.  And then he would usually read itrnsilently and talk to me afterwards. rnIn the last few years, the last three books, I've read to him as I'mrngoing along, chunks of 50 to 70 pages, and get his feedback.  So,rnthis is very important to us. rnEveryone needs a reader. rnAnd I just happen to be married to mine and he happens to be married tornhis. 

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: I'm better at this now.  I've always been extremely disciplinedrnin the sense that I can wake up early, sit at my desk and work for hours andrnhours every day.  This is neverrnbeen a problem.  What I'vernunderstood as the years have gone on is that the best place for me anyway forrnme to be when I'm writing, is in a state of great relaxation and openness.  And I think when you're in that staternall kinds of unconscious material can become available.  For me, the danger is being tight,rnbeing constipated, in a sense.  Andrnthat will create constipation. rnThat will create a day of looking at a paragraph, erasing it, writingrnanother one and getting rid of that.

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: Oh yeah.  Well, it's not entirely forgotten and for some people, yournknow, it's a very important book. rnBut it is a book that seems to sort of go underwater to come up arnlittle and then fall again.  And itrnis Djuna Barnes’s "Nightwood."  Thisrnis 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 hasrnT.S. Eliot's introduction to it; a very enthusiastic one.  I have read this book now threerntimes.  It is a remarkable littlernbook about passion; sexual passion, also that is sort of living on the marginsrnof a culture.  It takes place inrnParis and it's a love story between two women.  And there is a character, a character that I love, whosernname is Dr. Matthew O'Connor.  He'srna transvestite kind of pseudo-doctor who gives some of the most wonderfulrnspeeches in literature.  And I, sornwhen 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 herrnwork.  But this is a reallyrnextraordinary, unusual little book. rnAnd it's not my absolutely favorite work of literature, but it's onernthat I think people should look at and read more.

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