Hysteria
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Hysteria

Katerina Bryant

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.

Review

I’m an avid reader of Australian debut writing, especially from younger authors. If you haven’t heard of it, Voiceworks is a literary journal produced by and for writers and artists under twenty-five. That in itself is amazing, but what is truly extraordinary is the sheer number of books that have come out of these writers. This year alone has seen debuts or new books from Emily Clements, Ronnie Scott, Liam Pieper, Ella Jeffrey and Elizabeth Tan. Joey Bui is on The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020 shortlist (see page 5) and was on the 2020 Stella Prize longlist for Lucky Ticket, and Josephine Rowe on the Stella shortlist for Here Until August. This leads me to Hysteria by Katerina Bryant, who has been both a writer and editor for Voiceworks.

Hysteria is a journey. It follows Bryant’s life-long mental illness, but focuses primarily on her chronic seizures – is it epilepsy or something psychological? Bryant’s world becomes smaller as she tries to navigate her symptoms. She researches historical concepts of hysteria and how these still influence the treatment of women’s health and mental illness in particular. In true creative nonfiction style, she blends her concerns with the stories of ill women or researchers over history: Edith, a contemporary of Freud; Mary, whose symptoms led to questions of possession and witchcraft; Katharina, a one-off patient of Freud; and Blanche, an ill woman painted by André Brouillet in Jean Charcot’s public hysteria demonstrations. Bryant finds elements of herself and her illness in each of these stories.

Hysteria demonstrates that writing is, as always, a cathartic and healing process. It can be part of the puzzle of solving a diagnosis, or a way to articulate the demons of a disease that others mightn’t understand, in the hope that there’ll be a reader who will. This is a fascinating read for anyone interested in mental health, women’s health, and the process of writing about oneself. A strong debut.


Clare Millar works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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