The Complexities of Who We are and Where We Came From | Review of “The Sorrows of An American” by Siri Hustvedt (2008) Henry Holt Books

Sitting patiently on the shelf waiting for me to read and review has been a copy of Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American. I had been hearing about this book for a while and when I picked it up, I found myself engrossed by it. It has a definite non-linear plot and can be a bit of a challenge to read. But doing so it enlightened my reader’s mind somewhat. Now can I talk about a non-linear plot effectively here in my simple blog?

Page 1

My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, I’ve come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn’t. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they don’t always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” Sarah squinted or kept her eyes closed most of the time because she was afraid of the light would blind her. I think we all have ghosts inside us, and it’s better when they speak when they don’t. After my father died, I couldn’t talk to him in person anymore, but I didn’t stop seeing him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. Any yet it was what my father hadn’t said that took over my life for a while  – what he hadn’t told us. It turned out that he wasn’t the only person who had kept secrets. On January sixth, four days after his funereal, Inga and I came across the letter in his study.

So what happens when our healers are hurt themselves? What happens when the people whom we turn for answers have their own questions that need responses? There is a malaise that Hustvedt has tapped into here with this story about analyst Erik Davidsen. He and his sister are clearing out their father’s papers and they find a note which implicates their father in a mysterious death. While trying to discover the meaning of the note, Davidsen must also deal not only with his thoughts and desires, but with the complex and in many cases disturbing situations of the people around him. The complexities sometimes overwhelm him.

Page 86-87

There is no clear border between remembering and imagining. When I listen to a patient, I am not reconstructing the “facts” of a case history but listening for patterns, strains of feeling, and associations that may move us out of painful repetitions and into an articulated understanding. As Inga said, we make our narratives, and those created stories can’t be separated from the culture in which we live. there are times, however, when fantasy, delusion or outright lies parade as autobiography, and it’s necessary to make some nominal distinction between fact and fiction. Doubt is an uncomfortable feeling that can quickly become suspicion, and under the intimate circumstances of psychotherapy, it may be nothing short of dangerous. I began to feel this uncertainty with Ms. L in April, and I recognize now that it marked a turn not only in her, but in me.

For almost six months, the pretty, well-dressed Ms. L. had sat tensely in her chair, knees locked together, eyes lowered as she revealed a life of privilege, money, and neglect: her parents’ divorce when she was two, her mother’s serial boyfriends, her mother’s long trips with them to houses and apartments in Aspen, Paris, the south of France, her mother’s breakups, bouts of weeping, drinking, and shopping. Ms. L.’s serial nurses and nannies, her father’s detested second wife and two children, his infrequent calls and sporadic gift-giving, the two hated boarding schools, her suicide attempts, her hospitalizations, her three weeks at a repugnant college, her abandoned lovers, both men and women, all repellent human beings, her abandoned therapists, all incompetent, the classes she started and then quit do the professors’ stupidity, her lost friends, her lost jobs, her periods of blankness and feelings of unreality, her grandiose daydreaming, her rages. The people in Ms. L.’s life fell into two camps only: angels and devils, and the former could quickly be transformed into the latter. “I came to you,” she had said early on, “because I heard you’re the best. ” I had said that words like best and worst aren’t applicable to psychotherapy, that it is work done together, but Ms. L. wanted a genius, a divine mother/father/doctor/friend. When I pointed this out to her, she smiled and said sweetly, “I think you can help me, that’s all.” Her idealization of me didn’t last. She began to ricochet from one extreme to the other, as I bounced from hero to villain, I felt increasingly fragile and hurt. It was difficult to keep my balance, but worse, she sometimes had a hard time separating the two of us, and her confusion began to cause me acute discomfort.

Hustvedt has done an interesting piece of literature here. She has captured the spirit of malaise in the post- 9/11 and post-immigrant experience of North America we all feel today. Not a simple read for sure but certainly one that should be read over and over again.

Page 168

That night, I woke with a fever and the dim sensation that I had been working to pry open a huge metal box with my fingernails, a troubling dream-remnant that infected the unfamiliar, darkened room. A couple of seconds lapsed before I understood where I was. Then I hauled my aching body to the bathroom, downed a couple of Tylenol, and gulped lukewarm water from the tap. For a while I shivered in the too-short bed, and then, somewhere between full wakefulness and sleep, I listened to my own internal voice as if it didn’t quite belong to me anymore and watched the metamorphosis of colors and forms in that strange theater behind closed eyelids. The hallucinatory content of the next hour was probably caused by a combination of the virus or infection inside me and the fact that I had been rereading parts of my father’s memoir before going to bed. I dozed, then woke, then, nearly asleep again, I saw an amputee clomping down a long corridor on his stumps. the image forced me awake and I sat up in bed, my heart beating, the dwarfed figure burning in my mind. As my fear subsided, I understood that I had seen some half-conscious version of my grandfather’s brother, David, the family’s oldest son, born after Ingeborg, the dead baby girl my grandfather said had been buried in a cigar box.

The Sorrows of An American by Siri Hustvedt is a complex book but one that brilliantly describes the uneasiness that many of us feel this days. Not a book that needs to be rushed through being read but one that should be reread and pondered over and over again.

Siri Hustvedt’s webpage

Link to MacMillan Publisher’s page for “The Sorrows of An American”

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