The MWF Interview: Katerina Bryant

Introduction by Jenny Valentish

When writer Katerina Bryant started having seizures without any discernable cause, she was unceremoniously dropped into unfamiliar terrain. Hysteria: Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History is her attempt to get to grips with the distress of depersonalisation. It leads her to wonder about the very gendered concept of hysteria through the ages, the label of which – as she says – ‘seems to be the absence of a diagnosis’. Bryant’s story is the through-line between five sections of the book named after women of different eras who had either conducted their own research into mysterious ailments of brain or nerves, or had themselves been the case studies of male physicians.

For the first half of the book as we follow your visits to doctors and psychiatrists, it’s a bit like you’re playing detective in a missing person’s case. Did you think that there would be concrete answers by the end of it?  

I thought that by researching it, I would be able to fix it. Some people have written about patients whose symptoms disappear upon learning that it is a manifestation of trauma, so I thought, oh, I can solve this. And then as I went on it took a lot of reflection to realise I couldn’t make this go away and I couldn’t recover a past self and continue on from that life. I had to venture into a new space. And then, after a lot of work on that, I realised that was a good thing and that this is a good space to live within.

You come to feel a sense of wonder at the depersonalisation you experience, which makes everything seem as though you’re seeing it for the first time; even faces and trees.

I think you can appreciate aspects of an illness – if not the symptoms, which are quite frightening – in the way it makes you see the world. Nothing is ever comfortable or completely wonderful or terrible, it’s a messy thing in between. When you’re particularly anxious it’s not nice to dissociate, but that is a self-imposed safety mechanism. It’s your brain trying to protect you. And that can be useful.

Your research unearths women who have shared similar symptoms, but you’re usually reliant on the accounts of male physicians. You write, ‘I feel as though I’m not used to seeing the patients who live with the illnesses. I am far more familiar with the worlds of those who diagnose it.’ Did you want to commemorate these women?

That’s a good way of putting it. We have all of this history of these people who have lived through difficult circumstances, and that history feels particularly important when we’re living through our own challenges and illnesses and tragedies. I wanted to tap into that. Because this is perceived as a woman’s illness, I wanted to show the strength of the women who had come before me, as beacons for us to look back upon and admire. I wanted them to be seen as people, not patients, and I wanted their strength to be shown. And for me to hopefully be a part of that – to share history and a timeline with them.

One woman, Blanche Wittmann, was known as the ‘Queen of Hysterics’, made famous by the hypnosis work of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who would show her off to other doctors at his ‘Tuesday Sessions’ clinic. She and the other ‘hysterical’ women became precious commodities to the hospital.

They were not only precious, but hypersexualised. The women were made to perform in front of men at their Tuesday Sessions and would be wearing revealing clothes for that era. The kind of contortions that their bodies would take during hysterica passio; the sketches of those are quite sexual. What came up in some literature about Charcot’s patients was that those women had a lot more power than the average person in a hospital. They were able to move through the grounds. A lot of them had romantic relationships with the doctors who were treating them, which obviously is not ideal, and they even travelled through Paris as a literal exhibit to convey Charcot’s hypnosis therapy. They’re spoken of as victims when actually they were very good at leveraging power in a situation where most of us would feel powerless.

Charcot wanted to measure ‘extreme suggestibility’ by inscribing words on his patients’ skin, which reminds me of recent headlines about surgeon Simon Bramhall marking his initials on patients’ livers. There’s something very proprietary about it, even when it was Blanche’s own name that was written on her.

I hated that. And writing the hospital’s name on her body – that’s just horrifying to me. Blanche did a lot. For somebody who grew up in poverty and had been homeless, she advocated for herself intensely and then dedicated herself to working at the hospital throughout the remainder of her life, assisting with the first x-rays.

While Hysteria is a research-memoir hybrid, you don’t reflect on your early life. Why is that?

I think we are way too quick to draw lines between women’s earlier experiences and the trauma potentially around that, to allay the diagnosis of severe mental illness. While that perhaps plays a part for some people, I think it becomes a narrative device, and can be poorly used to explain away a person. The term ‘hysteria’ is associated with women, but Siri Hustvedt made this point in The Shaking Woman that shellshock has a lot of similar symptoms, but is never thought of as a woman’s illness. I wonder how much more the medical industry listens to men, respects their narrative of their body, and provides them with a range of treatment options.

Lastly, to get a bit meta, my own experience of writing a memoir and closing the book on an era was that I’d effectively killed off my protagonist, which resulted in an identity crisis post-publication. Have you given any thought to who you’ll be when Hysteria comes out into the world?

Definitely. I wrote it in the first six months of falling ill, and not with the intention to ever have it published, more as a sense-making exercise. I was still at a point where I had this very ableist idea of tying my identity with my ability to produce work. It’s interesting, because not only are we always cycling through identities, but the nature of my illness is that I’m cycling through symptoms, too. It used to be that I’d remember periods of my youth through songs. Symptoms are a much more depressing way to remember aspects of time! It’s difficult going back and reading past parts of self and trying to work out who you are moving on from that, and also knowing that people are going to read those past parts of self and that’s going to be their idea of who you are. The book I’m working on now is a hybrid-biography of someone else: the first woman clown in America. Hard left!

Hysteria: Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History is out through NewSouth Books in September 2020.

Katerina Bryant is a writer based in South Australia. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, Island and Voiceworks, among others. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Writing, the 2018 Feminartsy Memoir Prize, and the 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Flinders University.

Jenny Valentish is the author of the research-memoir hybrid Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment. She is working on her second book for Black Inc, Everything Harder Than Everyone Else, about endurance and high-risk behaviour. You can also find her writing for The Guardian.