Author: Katerina Bryant
Publisher: NewSouth Publishing
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 While it is now an outdated term, Bryant argues that ‘its legacy remains when women enter the waiting room… sick women are still told by medical professionals and bystanders alike how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.