Hysteria: a Review

By Maria Griffin

Hysteria opens with a scene in a supermarket. Entering the store, the author and narrator, Katerina Bryant, is overcome by an overwhelming sense of disembodiment that causes her, temporarily, to be unable to speak, and barely able to move. It’s disconcerting for a reader. But I trust a writer at this early stage, and accept that I can’t expect to understand everything in the first few pages.

Having reached the end of the book, I see that by throwing the reader into a confusing scene at the opening, Bryant has given me a small insight into her experience. I did not understand what was happening to her, but neither did she, when it occurred. It’s a reminder for readers lucky enough to perceive ourselves as “well,” that those who suffer from “unknown” conditions do not have any magical insight into what is happening to them that makes the experience any easier to bear.

Hysteria is self-described as “A memoir of illness, strength and women’s stories throughout history.” Bryant tells her own story, covering a period of her life where she starts experiencing debilitating “events” like the one described above, and her subsequent navigation through diagnostic tests, psychiatric and psychological treatments, to try and get a diagnosis. It becomes apparent that medical professionals have no better word for her disembodying experiences than seizures.

Hysteria is structured by a journey through the various self-diagnoses and clinical diagnoses Bryant receives, what she learns about them, and historical case studies with an equivalent diagnosis. The question no one can answer is: what causes the seizures? It might be epilepsy, or Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES) – a “modern incarnation of hysteria,” says Bryant. A prolific reader, she turned to books; “I try to read my way to an answer.” Bryant dived into an interrogation of her own condition, reading everything from medical journals to histories of women who shared similar diagnoses.

Initially, Bryant diagnosed herself with Depersonalisation Disorder. She read about Edith Jacobsen, a Jewish psychoanalyst imprisoned by the Germans in 1936, who observed and wrote about depersonalisation in female prisoners. Bryant’s new psychiatrist had a different perspective, leading Bryant to suspect a diagnosis of PNES. She then dived into historical representations of hysteria.

We learn about Mary Glover, a fourteen-year-old girl who lived in London in 1602. Glover’s illness manifested in debilitating “fits.” Some thought she was faking, others thought she was possessed, but a physician testified that she was ill, suffering from hysteria. Bryant next read Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, and encountered Katharina, a young girl who sought Freud’s help on a mountain top. Freud’s cold clinical attitude to his patients led him to write of Katharina, “I was interested to find that neuroses could flourish in this way at a height of over 60,000 feet.” “It’s difficult,” says Bryant in response, “knowing that others see you as ‘a puzzle’ and ‘not quite human.’’’

Katharina’s story lead Bryant to a profound realisation. “Katharina is a remedy; she is a short story; she is Freud’s Case 4. She is strong, but she is not powerful. All that is left of her is on the page and she wrote none of it. They are Freud’s words.” Bryant realised that Katharina is “not just a reflection of me – a woman who shares my name and an illness – but an image of my great fear. One greater than seizures pulsing through me each day. A fear that leaves me as just an idea of hysteria. Not a body, not a person, but a case number to be read and considered.”

The act of writing Hysteria, Bryant tells us, began as a coping mechanism, but during the writing it became something else – a desire to break the prevalent stigma of being ill: “More so, to make severe mental illness something other than abject.”

From the first page of Hysteria, I shared Bryant’s curiosity and frustration around her diagnosis. And, like Bryant, I read eagerly, hoping to reach an answer. It’s a tribute to Bryant’s writing that despite the difficult journey she describes, the book is, overall, a pleasure to read. She paints a picture of a young woman who has a warm, loving and respectful relationship with her partner and parents, her closest supports. These contemporary, positive relationships are a warm and positive counterbalance to the historical women Bryant writes about: women treated as nothing more than clinically interesting case studies; whose illnesses were often exploited by others to serve a purpose.

In the telling of her own story, Bryant moves seamlessly from describing a scene (e.g. dinner with her family, a medical procedure, or a seizure), to associated memories and ideas, to the history of certain conditions, and then delves into the lives of women diagnosed with those conditions. I know that a writer weaves all this material together with a structure in mind, but Bryant managed the flow of ideas so successfully that I could easily imagine I was following the train of thought, recorded in real time, of a curious and intelligent mind fuelled by a burning desire to get a diagnosis. It’s this richness in the layers of ideas, and this sense of a driving, enquiring, active voice telling the story, that makes Hysteria the antidote to the women she tells us about – those women whose stories were reduced to their illness, and told by someone else.

Bryant is the subject of her own case study, but the “‘story”’ in Hysteria does not obey the requirements of a neatly closed medical case, or a nicely resolved literary narrative. Nor does life. The narrator/subject leaves the reader with uncertainty over the cause of her seizures – it seems that is still unknown – but on the question of her agency, we are left in no doubt. Bryant generously and courageously gives us her story, in her own words, weaving all the elements of a complex human life into a sum that is richer and fuller than can ever be defined by any one part.

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