Review by Charlotte Smith
Hysteria, Katerina Bryant’s debut memoir, is an exceptional and intimate portrayal of mental illness. She maps the experience of unexpected and intermittent seizures, subsequently diagnosed as PNES – ‘psychogenic non-epileptic seizures’ – and the road to reaching this diagnosis. The names of each chapter correspond with a female figure from history – Edith, Mary, Katharina, and Blanche – whose diagnoses were often incorrect and framed in terms of ‘hysteria’ by their male observers (one of whom was Freud, unsurprisingly). The final chapter is titled ‘Katerina,’ with Bryant placing herself within this history of illness, thus creating a sequence that links these women’s lives with contemporary cases such as her own.
Finding the right descriptions for her symptoms is important to Bryant, as naming can give her experiences a weightiness that offsets the depersonalising effects of the seizures themselves. She highlights the toxicity of mind-body dualism and how this can create stigma surrounding conditions that are more acceptable than others, such as those of a neurological or ‘organic’ origin, which are often more legitimised than those defined as psychiatric or ‘non-organic.’ This is an extremely important distinction and displays how difficult it can be to navigate the latter.
The language itself is unadorned, almost as if Katerina is linguistically peeling back the veil that this strange experience has created. Changes in perception and bodily awareness are offset by very grounded language that seems to bring Bryant closer to herself. This is evidently integral to the way she orders her experiences, but it also allows the reader to empathise, and perhaps identify, with certain sensations like dissociation. I was especially moved by a passage in which she outlines the devastation of looking at trees and feeling that even they have taken on a strange and unreal quality when the seizures come on. For Bryant, ‘Something about losing one’s knowledge of trees is more alarming than not recognising an everyday item like a smartphone or a kitchen chair. Trees are alive.’
Observations like these are astute and tap into wider questions surrounding what is aberrant or normal, material or made up. Bryant reveals the pain of not knowing what the origin of these seizures could be, and comes to accept that sometimes you just don’t know. She concedes, ‘Perhaps the trigger may not be a single traumatic event but instead a slow build of every-day aggressions.’ Insights like these are what make the work so fresh and nuanced, as Bryant writes with kindness towards herself and those who came before. She is also honest in noting that it is only with the aid of a loving partner and parents that she is able to get the support, both monetary and emotional, which allows her to move forward with tests and treatment. She is aware of her privileged place in the mental healthcare system, but still balances this with the struggle of having to move through the system at all.
The tone of this memoir is transparent and, to me, that is its greatest strength. I have come back to particular lines I have marked, and revisited certain vignettes that Bryant has beautifully created. There is a generosity to her writing that reminds me why I like memoir, and a lack of judgement towards herself that is very refreshing. She provides a sense of optimism that experiences like hers can be further clarified and unmasked for women of the future. This seems to be her fundamental aim and I think she successfully brings us a little closer to the core of these struggles. A very important read.
Charlotte Smith recently completed her Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She works at The Book Grocer, enjoys bouldering and believes that spinach is the king of edible leaves.