“My illness is not a metaphor. Any amount of self-reflection in the world will not make it go away.”
Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For October that debut is Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria, out now from NewSouth Books.
When Katerina suddenly began experiencing chronic non-epileptic 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 Hysteria, Bryant blends memoir with literary and historical analysis to explore women’s medical treatment throughout history.
Our November First Book Club title will be Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan). Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Hysteria in our October Books Roundup.
Read Katerina’s Shelf Reflection on her reading habits and the writing that inspires her.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Alice Cottrell: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m KYD publisher Alice Cottrell and today I’ll be bringing you our October First Book Club interview. Our pick this month is Hysteria by Katerina Bryant, out now from NewSouth Books. When Katerina suddenly began experiencing chronic non-epileptic 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 Hysteria, Katerina blends memoir with literary and historical analysis to explore women’s medical treatment throughout history. First Book Club host Ellen Cregan spoke with Katerina to ask her about the book.
Ellen Cregan: Hi Katerina, thanks so much for joining me on the phone today.
Katerina Bryant: Hi Ellen!
EC: Um, we’re just going to start with a reading from the book.
KB: As I wheel the trolley into the supermarket, my partner, Mathew, already ahead of me picking out plums, my head begins to rush. I feel light, as if my bones have been taken out of me and I float along. Buoyant, I’m only flesh and blood. Mathew comes back, placing the crinkled bag in the trolley.
‘You all right?
I hadn’t realised but since the rush of air filling my mind, I haven’t moved. I’m standing still, frozen, a metre or so from the entrance. The trolley is empty bar the plums. I don’t answer him. I’m caught where I’m standing. A stream of air pushes through my head; I haven’t moved.
A name only Mathew and my parents call me; I barely register his lips moving.
I move my eyes away from the silver lines of the trolley and up to him. It’s hot today and the warm weather has made his hair curl up into its natural rings. I can see the thickness of his brows behind his glasses.
‘Mmm’, I mumble and try my best to nod. It comes out slow and measured, as if I’m trying to hold a conversation while reading.
Mathew takes the trolley from my hands and pushes forward to scoop up mushrooms. I follow him with slow short footsteps. My movements are a fraction of the speed of those around me. I’m immune to the urgency of Sunday late afternoon shopping. Mathew places the mushrooms in the trolley and I can just smell their earthy scent. I look at their duotones, brown and white. They are small curls stacked up in a tray. They remind me of snails and somewhere inside me, I hear ‘Snails in the supermarket!’ and the hint of a laugh.
I follow Mathew, pinching the cotton of his t-shirt like a toddler would, moving towards the aisles. We walk past the fish, open-mouthed and eyes gaping, and I feel curious alarm. Did they always look like this? I look at the women and men behind the counter. They wear rubber aprons with brown leather straps. One is talking to a middle-aged customer with thick red-rimmed glasses.
The seafood line trickles out into our path and I struggle to move my body past the knot of people. I grip Mathew more tightly. He leads me away, pulling me into the safety of the aisles. I stand by the trolley as he runs up and down filling it with our staples: tofu and pasta, canned tomatoes and cheap soy milk. I can feel his annoyance. I have left this all to him. I will myself to move, walking down the aisle and loosely pulling the trolley beside me. I make it to the cracker section. What do we need again? My eyes cannot gloss over the brands as they usually do. They fixate on colourful packets and thick text.
It’s beautiful. The bright mix of cardboard reminds me of driving up to Lobethal to see the Christmas lights with Yiayia. The cardboard shimmers under the gleam of fluorescent lights.
When we reach the checkout, I start to become myself again. As I come to, I can hear the music. Christmas carols playing in heavy loops. I ask Mathew, ‘Have they always been playing?’ He looks at me, confounded. He continues stacking the conveyor belt.
I pay and carry three out of the five bags back to the car: an act of penance. When we settle into the warmth of the car, I begin to speak. Short choppy sentences come out.
‘I’m sorry. I don’t know. What happened. It was. Too much.’
My spindly hands grip my knees. Mathew reaches out to them. I notice the line of hair on his forearm creeping up to his hands.
‘It’s okay, he says. ‘Let’s go home.
This is just the beginning; I think this is what it’s like to go mad.
‘Illness’, Susan Sontag writes in the opening pages of Illness as Metaphor, ‘is the night-side of life… Everyone who is born holds a dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick’. Running my experience of childhood through my mind, I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in the kingdom of the well. Compulsions laced the daily drives to school which arched around the city from Lower Mitcham to North Adelaide. My compulsive counting would distract me from the aggressively cheerful 1960s British pop Dad would play over and over.
But this feels like something stronger. Like a cloak taking me out of the world, at first small gaps and then swallowing hours in gulps. In the beginning, I did not recognise my own street, a leafy lane in Adelaide’s CBD. Not only was I taken outside of myself, but outside of my home too. The Penguin crime paperback-green of my fence was not mine. My hands and forearms did not resemble my own, either. I would drift in and out of living with no sense of place, or self, to tie me down.
I wrote this off as an almost-dream. It always happened while I was alone and so I doubted that it would stick. Until, that is, it all became much worse.
EC: That’s so harrowing and so beautiful. Thank you.
KB: Oh, thank you.
EC: So could you, for those who haven’t yet read the book, could you give us a really brief summary of what Hysteria is? Sorry, Hysteria the book, I mean, not hysteria the condition!
KB: So the book charts my own lived experience of diagnosis of non-epileptic seizures, a diagnosis that sits in the inbetween of neurology and psychiatry, and would have once been called hysteria, and it weaves my own experience and places it alongside women’s stories throughout history whose experiences interacted, and even were diagnosed with hysteria as well. I view the book as a collective archive of stories and the strength of women living with mental illness.
EC: So I’m going to go to both parts of that sort of explanation of the book. The first part I wanted to ask you about is these women from history. So how did you decide who you wanted to write about, and sort of, what was your connection to them?
KB: Well, I was writing my own parts of the book, my own—sounds funny, but my own memoir parts as they were occurring, and within that I was reading quite voraciously, as if that was my full-time job, to read about what I was experiencing. And that research was kind of being melded into the writing, and it was not till I was working Harriet at NewSouth that she saw the threads of each woman in each section of the book, and put it to me, ‘why don’t we bring those out more?’ and really, the work there was dampening the men who have for so long written about hysteria and who wrote much of the experience of the women I write about, very few of them, only one wrote about their life in their own words, and so it was a collaborative process of drawing out those women, and I was quite surprised at how much of a force they were already in the book. It took someone else to see it, I think.
EC: This is something that I love that’s been happening, that’s sort of been happening in the literary world over the past few years, is these reclamations of women’s stories from, sort of, them being footnotes in a story about a man. And I absolutely love how it happens in your book, because it’s very, like, you’ve got some pretty big players in terms of, like, the men that are on—that you tell in the fringes, so you’ve got, like, Freud, but he’s not really talked about that much, and people like that. And so it’s just so awesome to see this happening and these voices kind of being amplified now, like, in some cases hundreds of years after their deaths.
KB: Yeah, it’s such a joy to be able to be a part of that, but also in the moment, it felt like a necessity, as if I could just grasp who these women were, like, if I could somehow move past how their stories had been framed and written about by men and discover who they were, I’d be able to understand this part of myself that was experiencing symptoms that were new to me. Of course that didn’t happen, but it was such a push and a desire in writing the book to reach that conclusion.
EC: And to go back to your parts of the book, so just before you said that you kind of were writing those parts, those memoir parts, as they were happening to you, and I was going to ask you when you decided to write about those things, but perhaps a better question is actually, when did you know you wanted to make those writings public? Like, when you, when did you know you wanted to publish these kind of accounts of your illness progressing?
KB: So I never concretely made a decision that this work I was writing daily as I was experiencing it was going to become a book. I was, during that time I was approached by someone to submit to a journal about essay writing, so I kind of pulled together a little piece of what I was working on to submit there, and that wasn’t picked up. And so I thought, oh, I’ll approach Meanjin with it, see what they think, and they accepted it and published it, and from there NewSouth approached me and wanted to look at the book, which was an immense surprise, and the process kind of unfolded when they picked it up, that I’d never really made the decision to send it out—that it was, kind of, out of my hands in a way—of course I didn’t have to send it out, but when a publisher asks, like, ‘oh, I’d like to look at it, I’d been rejected so many times for the previous manuscript that nobody was interested in, that I was, like, okay! And then it became a book, and then I had to kind of think through the mix of joy at it becoming a book, and then the idea of being a book means people will read it! (LAUGHS).
EC: And one thing that is maybe not a fair distinction for me to make, but something that for me I felt really strongly when I was reading this book, was this is this is a writer writing about their illness, as opposed to a person with illness writing a book. So it’s very much, like, you know, the whole, the writer’s process and the descriptions of your illness, they’re really super intertwined. I think it makes it kind of a different book to somebody who might have had something happened to them, like, the kind of illness you’re experiencing, that they then decided to write a book, about if that makes sense.
KB: Yeah, I’m so happy to hear that, because that was so important to me, throughout the entire process, especially as this is my first book, and I would love to continue to write books, and I wanted to be seen as a whole person whose identity revolves around being a writer as well as living with this particular illness, and so I wanted that to be clear, that was deeply important to me—perhaps more important than feeling as though revealing details about myself were in the book. At the end of the day that didn’t bother me so much. There was nothing that I originally wrote as I was writing the book that I took out for personal reasons. I kept it all in, because I felt like it painted the picture of what I was experiencing and what I was living at that time.
EC: Absolutely, and that is because you do talk about in the book a little bit about your, you know, the kind of anxiety that hangs in your peripheral vision, when you’re going to release a book like this, like, when it is going to become a product in the world that people can buy, that they’re going to know all these things about you, and I’m really glad to hear that you didn’t edit things out for that reason, because as I said when you were reading, like, it’s extremely harrowing and extremely beautiful, but it is this kind of, you know, it’s this account of a period in a person’s life that is so detailed, and it it’s so real, I suppose—well, it is real.
KB: Thank you. I think I do this with all of my writing, actually, in that when I’m writing it my mentality is, it’s just you, nobody is reading it, write what you want to write, which always ends up being my own subjective truth, and my own subjective experience of the world. And I always say to myself, I’m having these conversation with myself as I’m writing, (LAUGHS), that you can cut, take anything you’re uncomfortable with out later, but the bits I think I would have been uncomfortable with, once they’re on the page and sitting with the other parts, it all feels complete and I can’t take anything out.
EC: That’s really nice. I think that’s actually really, really fabulous writing advice is, you know, writing what your subjective truth is, and writing what you want to write, it’s always going to be better than writing what you think you should be writing. Like, I don’t think, you know, I talk to an author every month for First Book Club, and I don’t think anyone’s like, oh, I just wrote this book because I thought people would like it. Like, I don’t think anyone’s ever said that!
KB: Not out loud, no.
Yeah, of course, I don’t think we could do it for someone else. I think writing is such an intimate act, that it’s where we can truly put down on the page what we want, because the rest of our life, going to work and trying to create a semblance of an income is often for other people as much as for ourselves and it’s writing where we can be free in that way.
EC: Um, so one of my favourite things about this book is how you balance those aspects of memoir with the more academic stuff, without compromising the tone of your writing, which is really intimate actually, I’ve just stolen your word there. What’s your approach to…
KB: Keep it.
EC: What’s your approach to blending that kind of personal reflection with research that’s often pretty heavy, and pretty, as I said before, academic?
KB: I find it really difficult in one way, because the work can feel jumpy in transitioning—from a craft perspective—from research to memoir, and I’m still navigating that space of honing my craft where it doesn’t jump, and over-rely on techniques, I think, of saying, ‘I come to this work, or I read here’—which I probably shouldn’t say aloud, because now if anyone picks up the book they’ll be able to spot it and roll their eyes… (EC LAUGHS) but in terms of content… my own daily experiences, and writing them, are never as compelling to me as what I’m reading and learning, and especially within an archive, is just such a treasure hunt and joy, that that always needs to be in the work for me. That is the most compelling part of it. And so I’ve always been trying to navigate those two spaces, but I felt at the beginning of my writing journey, I was encouraged to stick more to memoir than research within memoir as a hybrid memoir, because that was where my greatest skillset was, I was able to write daily life better than I could write research—and I suppose I’m lucky, I’m stubborn in a way and I like to read, and talk about what I’m reading, because that had to be a part of the book for me.
EC: I’m glad that you’re stubborn too, because some of the, some of my favourite part of the book of where you kind of, you sort of dip in and out of a of a personal anecdote or a personal reflection and into the archives, so I love the bit where you’re in France and you decide to visit a painting of one of the hysterical women that you write about, that was probably one of my favourite bits of the book, where you go up into the archives, and they’re kind of confused as to why you’re there, but it was just, it was so evocative and, you know, I felt like, I felt like I was kind of there in your brain with you as you were, as you were looking at that painting.
KB: Oh, thank you, that was such an interesting experience, and when I kind of look back at that chapter, I can sense that room, it kind of slanted and was full of varnished wood and it just made me think I was in a ship. That’s the kind sensation I get whenever I think through that part of the book, even though now, because I wrote the book and it was printed a little while ago now, but the release was delayed, so there are parts of the book, parts my own memories that I’ve written about and then forgotten. But looking at the book sensations still kind of come about.
EC: So as well as your little moments of kind of personal reflection throughout this book, there are also some really key narrative non-fiction works that you reference throughout, that keep coming back. Can you tell me a bit about those books, and why you chose them and why you felt so connected to them?
KB: So is that, like, Susan Sontag’s work?
(BOTH LAUGH) And I think The Shaking Woman was another one that you, that you mentioned a few times.
KB: Yes, definitely they were both key works—women writing about their own lived experience. With The Shaking Woman, I read that book before I started writing my own, and just when I was at the very beginning of diagnosis. And she writes a lot about what I eventually would be diagnosed with, it was my mum who gave me that book as a kind of… a beacon, during the time, so it felt very natural for it to weave throughout my own story, it was such a touchstone for me. And then of course Illness as Metaphor was so interesting, not just because of the ideas around all illness as being a metaphor and a narrative arc, but also with my own particular illness, there is a theory that the symptoms themselves are manifestations of stress, and once the person understands that stress, the illness will resolve itself. So it was a particular interesting work for me to touch on. Yet of course, for my experience, my illness was and is not a metaphor, so any amount of self-reflection in the world will not make it go away. So her thoughts were key for me as well in digesting what was happening.
EC: Some of the parts where you’re writing about the psychiatrists and medical people you have interactions with I found so frustrating, because, you know, saying things like, even if something is ‘in your head’, the symptoms are still real, like, you can’t, you know, it doesn’t change how it’s affecting your life—and that, as you said at the very start, being between psychiatry, and as you said at the very start, you were you were kind of put in this space between psychiatry and neurology, and that those parts where you’re talking about the distinction between mind and brain, I found very frustrating to read—on your behalf, of course.
KB: (LAUGHS) Yeah, I’m so interested and frustrated, it’s a tension I suppose, within me, of the distinction we made between mind and brain, and then also brain and body. And how that has affected the creation of the medical establishment, and how we section off different symptoms to different specialists, and what that means for individuals. I write in the book that it has taken me a while to digest some of the things I should be angry about, because as they were happening I was just so hoping for clarity and respect, and I was so tired and worn down and unwell that I didn’t realise that the least expensive part of my diagnosis journey was getting a CT scan where they looked at my brain, but once I was in the realm of psychiatry, it was prohibitively expensive. And that’s not how it should be, at least in my opinion.
EC: Absolutely not, and it’s, I just find this…tendency to view both the brain and the body as these kind of mechanical objects that need to be repaired and fuelled and maintained, rather than kind of respecting the whole, you know, the body and the brain and the mind has been kind of interlinked, which it is, that was really—it was really interesting to read, but also again, I was just so frustrated on your behalf, reading, reading those parts.
KB: Thank you, I appreciate it. (BOTH LAUGH).
EC: So, kind of on that note, 2020 has turned out to be quite a big year for books about women’s illness, and chronic pain and mental illness, as well. Why do you think we’re seeing more books of these nature coming out each year? So of course there was your book, and then we had Kylie Maslen’s book, and there were a couple of other ones about chronic pain and things like that, that I can’t quite remember right now, but it’s definitely, gladly, something that’s coming up as a topic in the public realm more often.
KB: This is such a hard question, because…the truth is, I don’t know why we’re seeing more of these stories now, because they’ve always been happening.
KB: And women have, in particular, have always been navigating these fraught experiences within medical institutions. And I think, while we’re perhaps seeing more voices come out speaking about it, I can’t see the reality of living with chronic illness and chronic mental illness as improving. So I think we’re in that really uncomfortable I-don’t-know answer territory, but I’m so glad to see these stories, because reading about other people’s experiences, like my own and unlike my own, allow me to understand who I am, understand the shape of my illness, and understand the life I want to live. So while I’m perplexed, I’m immensely grateful.
EC: It’s such a nice thing, I am of ‘the kingdom of the well’, as Susan Sontag would say, but for me, reading books like these is, it’s just, like, a priceless kind of thing to be able to do to understand what other people go through, because when you’re not used to going through hospitals, and going to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists, it’s, it’s really hard to understand the, like, the weight of that. And as you did say before, like, it’s totally exhausting not being able to know what’s going on in your body and in your brain, and a book like yours is so great because it is it is such an intimate look at this whole process, and kind of, you know, as I said before it’s a writer’s book about illness, and you kind of get even closer in that way.
KB: Yeah, and I think we learn not only about ourselves and the person who’s writing, but as you said, the systems we live within. Before this experience of this illness for me, I didn’t really understand how flawed our healthcare system is within Australia, because we speak of it as we are so grateful not to live somewhere like America, where insurance is so much harder to navigate. But our system is immensely flawed, and we cannot know that it is flawed without experiencing it ourself, or listening to other people’s experience. And if we can’t know it we can’t agitate for change.
EC: Absolutely. I’m going to totally change track with my next question.
KB: All right!
EC: Um, so you and I were both on the Editorial Committee at Voiceworks magazine, and I wanted to know how your experience of being involved with something like Voiceworks, which is a, it’s a literary magazine like Kill Your Darlings in a way, how did that impact your writing life, and this book as well, of course?
KB: It’s an interesting question about, I suppose, the sense of community. I was working with Voiceworks as an interstate editor, as I live in South Australia, and it’s kind of, the experience hinted to me about the size of the literary community within Australia, and the passion and care that young people take in their own writing was so evident when reading submissions, and that too is true of the Editorial Committee who volunteered their time, so I think it synced me in with the idea of community and how community is such a strength of the literary sector. Of course with strength there is also weakness, because that means we all have such passion and love for what we do, that people can be financially exploited throughout the industry. But at the time, the editor, Elizabeth Flux, was so, such an advocate for writers being paid for their work.
KB: That that was a wonderful learning experience too, to learn from her, and take on those values myself. So it was really helpful in being keyed into those conversations and just basking in the warmth of everybody’s shared passion.
EC: That’s really nice. And I don’t have anything to add to that, apart from I totally agree with you about Liz, sort of, instilling that sense of value in in your work and, like, saying don’t work for free, writers shouldn’t work for free, because they are absolutely shouldn’t, like, what you have to offer is completely worth something, and remuneration specifically.
KB: Yeah, exactly, and especially seeing the push to write about lived experience, which is valued to be heard, but not always financially valued, and thinking about the ramifications of what we ask for when we ask for people to write about their lived experience, and what it means to see that on page, and how should we treat those works with not only financial remuneration, but editorial care, which is actually something I think Kill Your Darlings does beautifully. Not to plug you guys too much on your own podcast!
EC: Oh, please do! (BOTH LAUGH) No, we love that. I think I’ve got time for just one more question, so I’m going to ask one for the people who have already read the book—if people read your book and love it, what do you think they should read next?
KB: Ooh, that’s a good question. My brain is flooding with titles, and it’s hard when people become more than books from the shelf, but you begin to know the people behind them too, and you don’t want to leave. Anyone out I think starting with a collection like growing up disabled in Australia is a wonderful place to start, because you can get a wide range of generous and fiercely intelligent voices, and then pursue further from there, and I’m a big fan of anything Carly Findlay does and she’s the editor of that collection. Of course I love Fiona Wright’s work, but I’m sure if you’ve read my book you’ve read both of hers, both her non-fiction books. And a little bit of a left-field suggestion, just that I know not a lot of people who I’ve come across have read her work, and I absolutely adore it, is Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold. It’s a memoir of her experience living with schizophrenia and going to school and becoming a law professor who advocates against the use of physical and chemical restraints in psychiatric care, and it’s such a beautifully written book that also has such a strong political message, that I wholeheartedly believe in.
EC: Those are excellent suggestions. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, I love this book so much, and I am actually, it’s one of the books that I’ve read recently where I’m biding my time to reread it, like I’ve got to forget enough that the reread’s going to be satisfying. And yeah, it’s just really excellent. So if you haven’t read the book yet, please go out and get a copy, and thank you so much Katerina.
KB: Thanks Ellen!
AC: That was the October First Book Club edition of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. We’ll be back soon, but while you’re waiting, you should drop in on the KYD website for new commentary, criticism, memoir, interviews and reviews. If you’re in a position to, please consider supporting KYD by becoming a member. You’ll receive exclusive access to members-only content as well as heaps of perks and discounts, while also supporting independent Australian publishing. Thanks for joining us, see you next time.