Letters from Siri Hustvedt to Emily Dickinson


You say you felt a cleaving in your mind. Me too. You say you tried to match it. Me too. You say you could not make it fit. Well, I’m not sure how I feel about this part.

I question your claim that you could not make it fit. Do you mean that you could not match the two different parts of your brain? And why do they have to match, anyway? The two parts of your brain can be different and they still would both be you. Maybe they do not have to fit. My body does one thing and my mind another- does that mean they are not both me?

Or perhaps you’re talking about your present self versus your previous self? I have experience with that too. Once I started shaking, I became the Shaking Woman. At first I thought the Shaking Woman was outside me, an invader hijacking my body. I thought that in those moments, I was not me. But the Shaking Woman is me when I shook. After the fact, I acknowledge that was me as well. And perhaps this was true even before I shook. The Shaking Woman was inside me all along. If she comes from within me, how can she be external to my identity? How can I call her an invader?

I do not have to make it fit: if the Shaking Woman comes from within me, I do not need to reconcile her existence with my identity as I see it. Because I just know she fits, in the same way I know you do too.




Dear Emily,

Charlotte Perkins (who you know I absolutely adore!) had once said in her short story The Yellow Wallpaper “It’s as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.” Charlotte, as always, is inevitably right. My life hinges on uncertainty. It’s the only thing that I’m certain of. One minute yes I’m absolutely sure, and sure as hell, the next minute I’ve been wrong this whole time! Which, when you think about it, is only natural really, since names for diagnosis’ change so often with our perception, and science is only a piece of the puzzle. We shift. Jenga is not so much an analogy but a rhythmic waltz played with the boards of our perception of health. Yes, it’s a disease, no it’s not. Maybe you’re ill and maybe you’re just faking it or maybe you can change your mind if you just try hard enough. Can pain go away with the thought of simply willing it away? Can you change yourself to a doctors whim because they tell you that you’re ill, that you exhibit X, Y, and Z? Who knows. But it’s probably best if we don’t. If a doctor has to convince us thoroughly, if there’s some visceral separation of our own morals from theirs, we may need to reconfigure some conclusions. For example, today, more women’s heart attacks go undiagnosed because they exhibit different symptoms from men. The same goes for stomach and respiratory issues, ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety disorders and depression. Time changes, perceptions change, and even our symptoms vary. The diagnosis of yesterday is the prognosis of today. The body electric, the tremors oscillating, the slope eternally shaking…pinball machine’s become all too relatable, it’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it?   

Speaking of, then there’s Lewis Carroll, I mean Charles Dodgson, (but we all have our pen names for a reason.) I was amazed, in my earliest travels I never heard his struggle with migraines referred to as a disease. But my God! All those bright, horrible flashes, the spiraling room and strange little men. The lightening bolts and the fracturing, it’s been going on for ages! And so many women suffer from this, especially. Obviously it has gained a more robust status since 1982, to say the least, but it’s still not treated enough. When you think about it, the aural migraines, the shaking, the shrinking of dear Alice, well it all seems connected somehow. Like Keats and Yates and Thoreau; transcendentalists, automatic writing, divinity gleamed, are all different names for the same thing. How do we really know anything? If a young woman today collapses from a migraine or a heart condition,  if I shake from seizures or anxiety, the question isn’t even which one is it, but what isn’t it?

Virginia Woolf is the manic depressive, the bipolar, the anxious, the insane.  She is all these things and she is none, she is half of them, and also ten more other different ones. She herself said “my depression is a harassed feeling. I’m looking; but that’s not it- that’s not it. What is it, and shall I die before I find it?” I have to think, especially in the vein of hysteria and its reputation in the medical field, isn’t this what all women think at one point or another when trying to get help from a doctor? In the metaphorical sense, of course. Let’s say its your knee; fractured, bruised, sprained, amputee, or simply broken. Or your heart; tachycardia, weak heart, clotting, aneurism, asthma. There’s a world of I don’t feel well or somethings wrong or somethings different and it persists and persists and persists despite the neat little names, cumulating to a simple I don’t know or I I can’t be sure. It isn’t the thing with feathers, but the blur of ethers that says, sometimes I am peaks and sometimes I am valleys, but neither are my true nature. In this aspect, its vitally important I say I am a shaking woman, (to describe whatever the hell is going on, that is) because women’s health is such a difficult topic, such a stigmatized one at times. We used to tell housewives to practice smiling in the mirror when they were in the throws of grief. To say I am uncertain despite extensive research is to say a definitive truth. To say I don’t know myself, no one truly can, I am inside my own body so I know something first hand. Yet those who diagnose me, they’re always convinced of something else, of my own misgivings, my own hysteria, or misunderstanding.  Is this then the real fault? If so,  I hope to advocate, whether something has a name or not, that it retains a certain validity, a validity that isn’t always afforded to women in relation to the self.

Still, maybe I should have started this letter differently. Maybe I should have started it “Dear Emily, is this a world of Virginia’s that we should stop trying to label and perhaps start trying to listen to instead?” I often wonder…and even here you say it the best, (and darling, you do always say it best.) “In the short life that lasts only within an hour- so little is within our power.” This is true for so much of women’s history in many more ways than I wish.

But for a moment, there is also hope. (Your favorite subject alongside death, I know. )You write, I write, Charlotte and Woolf, on and on. We’re all trying. Researching and studying and feeling and above all, trying to let them know this; in paving a path for our uncertainty, in giving it a tangibleness, in giving all the shaking women back a history of their own nerves, we find something. We find the place where the patient in question starts to retain self, retain answers, retain a road to discovery, and above all, retain a a certain power that finally brings us all closer on some level to understanding of the sempiternally undefinable self.

Apologies about my driving, time travel is sometimes like that. All the best with your gardening. Do try to get out of the house more often!


Dear Dickinson,

              Sorry to disturb you from your grave knowing full well that you will never receive my letter, but I have something important to discuss. As I have written before, the importance of dreams shows a reality that is unfulfilled in real life. They manifest to show hidden desires and complications. “A sick neck served as the perfect dream image of my symptom: From the chin up, I was my familiar self. From the neck down, I was a shuddering stranger.” Dreams is important to the reality of a person’s life since it allows repressed memories to come back into the surface of one’s mind. I believe that the dream is trying to convey that I am projecting my terminal illness as my father’s terminal illness and embodying the illness to my body. In your poems, you write and express your thoughts about the unreliability of life and death and the translucent barrier between dreams and reality. I wonder about meeting you face to face to discuss the meanings of the relationship between reality and dreams and relating them to find more about the root of my terminal illness and the importance (or distinction) between the two. All this research to find the truth and I am getting nowhere.





Dear Emily,

Your works have been an inspiration of mine, a creative outlet where the shoes I’m told to stand in actually fit. Reading you work and seeing the world through your eyes feels so familiar. “One need not be a chamber to be haunted” is one of the most relatable lines I have ever read. Our bodies are often our most fearful confinements. It’s the only thing we can never truly escape. I feel as though in both our works we share with the world our very disassociative natures. “A division among systems of ideas and functions that constitute the personality.” We are no fixed people. You are not just Emily Dickinson just as I am not simply Siri Hustvedt. We are so much more, consumed by both the bad and good which is what makes us, us.



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