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Hysteria: A memoir of illness, strength and women's stories throughout history

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When Katerina Bryant suddenly began experiencing chronic seizures, she was plunged into a foreign world of doctors and psychiatrists, who understood her condition as little as she did. Reacting the only way she knew how, she immersed herself in books, reading her way through her own complicated diagnosis and finding a community of women who shared similar experiences. In th When Katerina Bryant suddenly began experiencing chronic seizures, she was plunged into a foreign world of doctors and psychiatrists, who understood her condition as little as she did. Reacting the only way she knew how, she immersed herself in books, reading her way through her own complicated diagnosis and finding a community of women who shared similar experiences. In the tradition of Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, Bryant blends memoir with literary and historical analysis to explore women’s medical treatment. Hysteria retells the stories of silenced women, from the ‘Queen of Hysterics’ Blanche Wittmann to Mary Glover’s illness termed ‘hysterica passio’ a panic attack caused by the movement of the uterus — in London in 1602 and more. By centring these stories of women who had no voice in their own diagnosis and treatment, Bryant finds her own voice: powerful, brave and resonant.


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When Katerina Bryant suddenly began experiencing chronic seizures, she was plunged into a foreign world of doctors and psychiatrists, who understood her condition as little as she did. Reacting the only way she knew how, she immersed herself in books, reading her way through her own complicated diagnosis and finding a community of women who shared similar experiences. In th When Katerina Bryant suddenly began experiencing chronic seizures, she was plunged into a foreign world of doctors and psychiatrists, who understood her condition as little as she did. Reacting the only way she knew how, she immersed herself in books, reading her way through her own complicated diagnosis and finding a community of women who shared similar experiences. In the tradition of Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, Bryant blends memoir with literary and historical analysis to explore women’s medical treatment. Hysteria retells the stories of silenced women, from the ‘Queen of Hysterics’ Blanche Wittmann to Mary Glover’s illness termed ‘hysterica passio’ a panic attack caused by the movement of the uterus — in London in 1602 and more. By centring these stories of women who had no voice in their own diagnosis and treatment, Bryant finds her own voice: powerful, brave and resonant.

30 review for Hysteria: A memoir of illness, strength and women's stories throughout history

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael Livingston

    Smart and insightful memoir about living with a hard to pin down chronic illness. Bryant bounces off historical case studies of women with broadly similar conditions as she wrestles with her own challenges. She writes brilliantly about the different ways we treat mental illness compared with physical illness, and the ways that searching for diagnoses can strip away your humanity. A really excellent contribution to a growing genre.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn

    An intellectually rigorous deep dive into the treatment of women’s illness and mental health. Very much in the tradition of Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, Bryant combines her own experiences of mental illness while telling the stories of women through history who sought mental health treatment and their subsequent coersion or erasure. She builds a compelling case of how wronged women have been by medicine and psychiatry and its (male) heroes. Her own story of chronic mental illness is so car An intellectually rigorous deep dive into the treatment of women’s illness and mental health. Very much in the tradition of Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, Bryant combines her own experiences of mental illness while telling the stories of women through history who sought mental health treatment and their subsequent coersion or erasure. She builds a compelling case of how wronged women have been by medicine and psychiatry and its (male) heroes. Her own story of chronic mental illness is so carefully described I feel incredibly grateful for the insights. Bryant’s ‘voicing the shape’ of her own mental illness is a reclamation after the many women who came before her were rendered voiceless and it’s powerful.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sam Van

    This is a beautifully observed memoir that juxtaposes personal experience with stories of women's 'hysteria' throughout history, as well as scientific and modern understandings of what's happening in the brain for those who experience seizures. Broken into five large chapters, each focusing on the story of a 'hysterical' woman - the final one being Bryant herself. By looking back at the stories of these other women, Bryant comes to an understanding of the cause and meaning of her own seizures. T This is a beautifully observed memoir that juxtaposes personal experience with stories of women's 'hysteria' throughout history, as well as scientific and modern understandings of what's happening in the brain for those who experience seizures. Broken into five large chapters, each focusing on the story of a 'hysterical' woman - the final one being Bryant herself. By looking back at the stories of these other women, Bryant comes to an understanding of the cause and meaning of her own seizures. This book's coming out in May. There's a massive upswing in women's trauma memoir at the moment, and HYSTERIA is a gorgeous addition to the collection. Bryant's writing is both poetic and clear. It's well-paced, shifting skillfully between experience and research. Insightful, brave, bold. I loved it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Underground Writers

    This review was first published on the Underground Writers website: http://underground-writers.org/review... Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria does not fall comfortably into a familiar literary category: it is not unequivocally memoir or autobiography, nor entirely a historical or cultural analysis. Instead it is a critical deep-dive that begins with Bryant’s own journey that then seeks out the experiences of others, with detailed historical research dissipated throughout. In its make-up, Hysteria blend This review was first published on the Underground Writers website: http://underground-writers.org/review... Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria does not fall comfortably into a familiar literary category: it is not unequivocally memoir or autobiography, nor entirely a historical or cultural analysis. Instead it is a critical deep-dive that begins with Bryant’s own journey that then seeks out the experiences of others, with detailed historical research dissipated throughout. In its make-up, Hysteria blends and bleeds multiple generic conventions, creating a text as varied as the people and places detailed within it. Hysteria initiates with a scene from a supermarket, where Bryant and her boyfriend are shopping for groceries. As she wheels the trolley through the fresh foods section, her head ‘begins to rush…[she] feels light, as if [her] bones had been taken out of [her]’. Bryant endures a dissociative episode—a dislocating experience she and a myriad of other women have been taught to tolerate. Essentially, Hysteria is the story of mental illness. It follows Bryant and her attempts to navigate her symptoms, search for a diagnosis and, eventually, recover. But as much as this work is about illness, it is also about deconstructing the cultural frameworks that permeate common understandings of women’s mental health. Through extensive literary and historical analysis, Bryant arrives at hysteria; a previously common medical diagnosis that, colloquially, described ungovernable, emotionally excessive women. While it is now an outdated term, Bryant argues that ‘its legacy remains when women enter the waiting room… sick women are still told by medical professionals and bystanders alike how well and happy they might be if they drink water, try yoga, exercise more, sleep well, take melatonin and maybe even smile.’ Woman’s mental illness, as Bryant suggests, continues to be screened by male health ‘heroes’ as hysterical female behaviour—a contemporary issue that Bryant also realises to have bled into the makeup of professional correctional practices, as well as mental illness treatment facilities. Bryant strengthens these concerns through referencing the stories of women throughout history, including those of Edith Jacobson, a Jewish psychoanalyst; Mary Glover, a teenager who suffered from seizures; Katharina, a Freudian case study; and Blanche Wittman, the ‘queen of hysterics’. Despite the universal understanding of these women to be ‘hysterical’, Bryant is able to find elements of herself and her own illness in each of their trajectories. The question is thus posed: has anything changed in relation to women and mental illness? Will we always be misinterpreted, misdiagnosed, and universally categorised by our male counterparts? Hysteria is also exceptional in exemplifying the healing power of writing. Bryant expressed that she began writing Hysteria in an attempt to make sense of what was happening to her, and when its end neared she found acceptance in who she was, ‘seizures and all’. Illness is oftentimes a journey comprised of loss and grief, but in explaining her findings and experiences, Bryant was also able to make hers one of growth. As a reader, I feel as though I grew with her. Bryant does a marvellous job in not only detailing the complexities and intricacies of mental illness, but also in destabilising long-established projections of female behaviour. She does not glamorise or romanticise this struggle. There is, however, a beauty in Hysteria, in its story of hope, in its insight and its compassion. This is an exceptional debut, comprised of hybrid conventions and characters, that will no doubt have an impact on many people.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    '...the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.' (H.P. Lovecraft) Katerina Bryant's memoir, Hysteria , recounts her search for a diagnosis for chronic illness. Bryant was experiencing seizures, episodes that struck without warning and where she felt disconnected from her body.The seizures left her feeling anxious, exhausted and increasingly fearful of participating in ordinary activities. Doctors wavered between diagnosi '...the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.' (H.P. Lovecraft) Katerina Bryant's memoir, Hysteria , recounts her search for a diagnosis for chronic illness. Bryant was experiencing seizures, episodes that struck without warning and where she felt disconnected from her body.The seizures left her feeling anxious, exhausted and increasingly fearful of participating in ordinary activities. Doctors wavered between diagnosing epilepsy, conversion disorder, or psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES). Meanwhile, Bryant considered the possibility of 'old-fashioned' hysteria - Labels are tricky things and I piece together that hysteria seems to be the absence of a diagnosis. Hysteria is well documented, and Bryant weaves historical case studies of women with broadly similar conditions to her own, through her story. ...hysteria is a fluid diagnosis that throughout history has presented in varied ways. Yet, even today, when hysteria is mentioned, an image of a shaking, manic woman comes to mind. The case studies reveal that in many ways, little has changed over time. The stigma associated with mental illness, and the way that the experiences of people suffering from illness that you can't 'see' are marginalised, remains. Through her own experience of having various possible diagnoses, Bryant was living the mind-body dualism that governs Western medicine. It's difficult for me not to slip into the line of thinking that with conversion there is a less serious risk of harm than epilepsy. This was particularly notable when it came to the financial cost of her diagnosis - CT scans and EEGs are bulk-billed, therefore, you're financially 'better off' to have something wrong with your brain than you are to have something wrong with your mind (access to adequate mental health support is often cost prohibitive over the long term). She highlights these differences again with language - ' I am mentally ill' versus 'I have cancer'. The language suggests that mental illness is you, whilst cancer is only one part of you (noting that no one ever says 'I am cancerous'). Ultimately, Bryant finds help via a psychologist who is not interested in why she is ill, but instead in how he can help her live. Of her episodes, she says - Dr Robert and I decide that while I have no control over when they occur or how they present, my own reaction to them will change how much effect they have. This 'acceptance', is contrary to the broad approach of Western medicine - We're so often told to fight an illness, as if all illness were something we could conquer if we tried hard enough. There is much more to this book - notably, the role of gender in medicine and treatment (and this is particularly relevant in psychiatry where 'hysterical women' were, and are, subjects for 'hero' male doctors); the belief that you don't deserve help because others are suffering 'more'; and Bryant's understanding that she may live the rest of her life with an 'illness', and the ambiguous grief associated with that. Medical and mental health memoirs are one of my favourite memoir sub-genres, and Bryant's use of case studies broadens the appeal of this book. Her writing is engaging, honest, and the case studies provide robustness to her story, without interfering with the personal perspective. 4/5 Wonderful insights.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Natasha (jouljet)

    A memoir and deep dive into historical perceptions of mental illness, hysteria, diagnostic theories, and Katerina's quest for answers, an understanding, effective treatment, and a way to live with her own experience of an evolved psychiatric diagnosis. Using the tales of four women, threaded through her own, Katerina explores historical understandings of mental illness, the evolution of diagnostic processes and framework, the gendered lens, stigma and treatment. Freud's Katharina, Mary Glover in A memoir and deep dive into historical perceptions of mental illness, hysteria, diagnostic theories, and Katerina's quest for answers, an understanding, effective treatment, and a way to live with her own experience of an evolved psychiatric diagnosis. Using the tales of four women, threaded through her own, Katerina explores historical understandings of mental illness, the evolution of diagnostic processes and framework, the gendered lens, stigma and treatment. Freud's Katharina, Mary Glover in 1602 London undergoing exorcism and other rituals to cure her symptoms. A painting of Charcot's Blanche, and Edith, a pioneering woman psychiatrist. Telling examples of hysteria told across time. Like many #OwnVoices stories of women experiencing chronic illness, mental ill health, and disability, Katerina's quest for answers, medical personnel who believe her symptoms, and the right treatment path for her, is frustrating, confusing and confronting, expensive, and a challenge in itself. The visceral insight into the experience of the dissociative, conversion episodes of Katerina's Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES) is impressive writing. The very vivid descriptions are powerful, and one of the best windows into these moments I have read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Giovanna Walker

    A very personal memoir, and a great insight into mental illness from a patient's point of view. I would recommend for those who are suffering, or have friends or family who suffer, it would really help you 'see' what is happening to your nearest & dearest, and how hard it is. I liked her insight about mental illness - around language - I am mentally ill - I have cancer - the subtle difference? (Does anyone ever say 'I am cancerous'?) The mental illness IS you, whilst the cancer is just one part A very personal memoir, and a great insight into mental illness from a patient's point of view. I would recommend for those who are suffering, or have friends or family who suffer, it would really help you 'see' what is happening to your nearest & dearest, and how hard it is. I liked her insight about mental illness - around language - I am mentally ill - I have cancer - the subtle difference? (Does anyone ever say 'I am cancerous'?) The mental illness IS you, whilst the cancer is just one part of you. I hadn't thought of that. Also the perspective of the (mostly male) doctors of female patients. She also acknowledges the struggles in Australia on a local level. At times she did go on a bit about her own experience (comparison with another Katerina goes ON), and some anecdotal stories I wasn't quite sure of the point. A great debut.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Heather Taylor Johnson

    How to make an illness memoir un-solipsistic? Katerina Bryant's worked it out in Hysteria and I think she does it through a wide-open embrace of constantly becoming. She is becoming sick, she is becoming a writer, she is becoming an advocate, and it's as if the process is unfolding as we're reading, as if this wasn't a book written in the vein of look-how-much-my-illness-has-taught-me, rather look-what-I-am-becoming. Her questions aren't answered for us, often they're not even asked, so we don't How to make an illness memoir un-solipsistic? Katerina Bryant's worked it out in Hysteria and I think she does it through a wide-open embrace of constantly becoming. She is becoming sick, she is becoming a writer, she is becoming an advocate, and it's as if the process is unfolding as we're reading, as if this wasn't a book written in the vein of look-how-much-my-illness-has-taught-me, rather look-what-I-am-becoming. Her questions aren't answered for us, often they're not even asked, so we don't feel as though we're being taught anything. We're being shown, it's immersive, and this is why I'd recommend this book to any friends or family undergoing life-changing chronic diagnoses.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    This was an interesting study of mental illness and one woman's journey into diagnosis of her curious condition. Quite introspective and written I think as a kind of therapy, this memoir is heartfelt and confronting. This was an interesting study of mental illness and one woman's journey into diagnosis of her curious condition. Quite introspective and written I think as a kind of therapy, this memoir is heartfelt and confronting.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lisandra Linde

    A terrific debut by Katerina Bryant. Beautifully written, thought provoking and definitely worth reading if you have an interest in women's writing on illness. Bryant explores her illness through a combination of life narrative and explorations of the lives of historical women. A terrific debut by Katerina Bryant. Beautifully written, thought provoking and definitely worth reading if you have an interest in women's writing on illness. Bryant explores her illness through a combination of life narrative and explorations of the lives of historical women.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Haider

    3.5 stars

  12. 4 out of 5

    Georgia

    3.5 stars

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mandy Ava

    Page turner ~ read cover to cover in one sitting. Probably more interesting if you had her mental disorder.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

  15. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Knowler

  16. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  17. 5 out of 5

    Katharine

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sher

  19. 4 out of 5

    Emily

  20. 4 out of 5

    Phoebe

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jo Case

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lucy Newlinds

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kirsty

  24. 4 out of 5

    Buggy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Claire Page

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sophie Langley

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Hannett

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mel Shorter

  29. 4 out of 5

    Angela Elizabeth

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rachael

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