08: Asti Hustvedt
hysteria scholar

photos by Elena Mudd

Asti Hustvedt is an independent scholar who has written extensively on hysteria and literature, most notably Medical Muses, a study of three young female hysterics who shaped our early notions of psychology. She has a Ph.D in French literature from New York University, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Phi Betta Kappa Fellowship. She is the editor of The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France and has published many translations. She lives in New York City.

Elena Mudd is a New York based visual artist, specializing in photography and video.

Juliette Kessler is the daughter of Asti Hustvedt. She recently graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University and is now working as an actress. She and Sophia met while acting in a two-woman show together in the fall of 2014.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on September 28, 2016, in Asti's Manhattan apartment. Juliette Kessler witnessed and participated in the conversation, and Elena Mudd photographed and witnessed it.

SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.


ASTI: I am one of four girls —three sisters, no brothers— and I think that that was important in our identity formation. As adults, my sisters and I wonder if we would have sensed more gender oppression or more limited possibilities if there’d been a boy in the family, but my parents insist that that’s not true, and they loved having four girls. We came in two sets: my two older sisters are 18 months apart, and then there's a gap of four years, and then I was born, followed by my youngest sister 15 months later. Now it feels like we’re all the same age, but when we were growing up the age differences were significant.

There's a running joke in the family: my brother-in-law, who's the novelist Paul Auster, said at one point that the oldest daughter is a woman, the next is a man, the third —me— is a girl, and the youngest is a boy. The first born was a girl and my parents were thrilled, so when the second one came along and it was another girl, she might have internalized some parental disappointment and took on the role of a boy. Then, when I came along, I was a girl, and since they already had their "boy" I could [perform the role of] a girl. 


[both laugh]


ASTI: Then my younger sister was born, and she too became a "boy." So that’s one of those things we’ve latched onto that seems to explain quite a bit about the different…niches we each occupied in the family. For example, when my dad wanted help in the garage, he wouldn't ask me or my oldest sister, but the "boy" sisters! [laughs] They were good at sports and rode horses and were tough and had short hair. Siri and I were more traditionally girlish. But I was also deeply informed by Title IX, the ERA, which were very dominant while I was growing up. I was born in 1960, so that was second-wave feminism. My formative years were the 70s, and being a feminist felt like a big part of my identity. Pretty much everyone I knew, my friends and my parents' friends, embraced that. I grew up in the Midwest in a small college town, and I remember having…you know, that book Sisterhood is Powerful that had the fist inside the [Venus Symbol?]




ASTI: Well, I had a t-shirt with that sign on it, and it was my favorite shirt. Yet in my junior high school, the girls still had to do Home Ec, sewing and cooking, while the boys did shop, and that felt outrageously unfair. I remember my best friend and I were completely rebellious in those classes and did not take them seriously at all; it was a big joke. So my girlhood…at the same time I had this relatively traditional family, my father was a college professor, my mother, at least until I was eight or nine, was a stay-at-home mom, so it was a combination of gender conformity and rebellion against those expectations. My parents never discouraged that rebellion. I got in trouble at school for it, but not at home. Feminism was a very important part of my girlhood.


SOPHIA: Can you speak further about how the gender dynamics of you and your sisters have changed as you’ve matured?


ASTI: Well, I think it points to the fact that gender is never a simple expression of biology. My oldest sister and I both…she was a big influence on me and continues to be. She’s a novelist and a scholar, she got a PhD in English Literature and I’m also a writer, but not a novelist, and I got a PhD in French Literature. My two other sisters, the more “masculine-gendered” sisters, were, and in fact still are, serious horseback riders. They used to ride rodeo, girls from Minnesota, they went out west and competed in rodeos. I was in awe of them. They were also good at math and science. Now, one has her own business, and the other is an architect. Siri and I were both better in the humanities, so in a way those differences grew up with us. But when we were younger, we seemed more strongly-gendered in the tomboy versus the more girlish pursuits, if that makes sense.

SOPHIA: Siri is also a writer, and has created some work whose subject matter overlaps with yours. I know from your consistent comments that there’s a spirit of collaboration between you, but it’s one that’s also predicated, if you have a bunch of sisters that are very close in age, on kind of muddled ego boundaries, which can be difficult to manage, at least when you’re younger. 

To the extent that you’re comfortable, can you talk about sharing a lot of work with your sister and how your respective femininities kind of had to flush themselves out as you grew up?


ASTI: Well, we’re five and a half years apart, so as we were growing up that felt like a big difference, and she was very much my big, big sister. She was the one who brought feminist books into the house, and she was the first one of us to move to New York when she went to Columbia. I came to visit her, fell in love with the city, and then went to NYU. Maybe choosing French lit over English lit was a way for me to differentiate those “muddled ego boundaries." 

While I was writing my dissertation (a part of it was on hysteria), she was writing her novel, What I Loved, which has a character named Violet who’s writing her dissertation on hysteria. Violet is not me, but as is true with most fiction, there are elements taken from real life. I felt flattered by that; I helped with some of the content in that. Siri’s usually my first reader; she reads and comments on my work, and I’ve done the same for her.

So much came not only from their exploitation, but also from their collaboration with male scientists in order to create material that is enormously important, and their contribution is not recognized.

SOPHIA: What women were influential to you, not only as you prepared to write Medical Muses but as you began to develop the interests that would motivate its creation?


ASTI: Well, certainly my subjects, the female hysterics, were deeply influential. The more immersed I became in their stories and the research, the closer I felt to them not just as material to support my perspective, but as women who contributed to science —who influenced the whole conception of hysteria, which is what Freud’s work and all of psychoanalysis is based on. So much came not only from their exploitation, but also from their collaboration with male scientists in order to create material that is enormously important, and their contribution is not recognized. I’m trying to think of who I read and studied with, and yikes, so many men!  While in Paris, I took a seminar taught by Julia Kristeva, so she was important to me. There was a school of French feminists who were essentialists in a way that never sat quite right with me. Who’s the woman that tried to break away from the phallus and started talking about how women’s labia rub against each other?

SOPHIA: It might be…Cixous? I don’t speak French, but she has écriture féminine


ASTI: Yes! Cixous and Irigaray. They were doing interesting things but I found it a little…I should probably go back to it. Then I read a lot of the men—LacanDerridaFoucault.  Foucault was extremely important to me in terms of a new paradigm, a lens through which to understand things. There were many female scholars I read who I feel indebted to: Elaine ShowalterMichelle PerrotJanet BeizerRuth HarrisAnne Harrington, among others. Judy Butler is one of those scholars who has fundamentally changed the way a see the world. I know the moment you leave, I’m going to be coming up with all these people...


[both laugh]


SOPHIA: You’ve credited your mother for sparking your interest in French studies, and of course the idea of the French woman runs very deep in American media and cultural history. Do you have anything to say about the history of your relationship to those images, and how they impacted your relationship to womanhood?


ASTI: I think I was in third grade when [my mother] started teaching French, so French, as well as Norwegian, was in our house in the form of books. RacineMolièreFlaubert—I remember the covers of those books, and wanting to be able to read them, which no doubt motivated me to take French. And then when I first went to Paris, I had that feeling, like I did when I first came to New York, maybe even more so, which is: “This is where I belong.” I identified with it, but then the longer I was there, the more American I felt, to be perfectly honest. It was kind of a reverse process. I still love Paris, but I sense my American-ness more strongly than I did when I was younger. 

One of the things about growing up in Minnesota, is that there was a real Puritanical streak to its feminism. I remember at a certain point in my adolescence, there was a bit of shame attached to the traditional trappings of femininity that I was drawn to, and then ashamed for being drawn to them. My friends and I kind of circumvented that by, if we wanted to wear high heels, they had to be vintage-y high heels, because otherwise we would have been accepting an oppressive, sexist symbol. 


SOPHIA: [laughs] 

If we wanted to wear high heels, they had to be vintage-y high heels, because otherwise we would have been accepting an oppressive, sexist symbol.

ASTI: If we wanted to paint our nails, it had to be in, you know, unconventional colors. In Paris, they weren’t Puritanical about any of that, and that felt kind of liberating. Not that it’s not complicated, because I think it continues to be complicated for young women here and in France. But growing up in the seventies, which was when I was an adolescent in Minnesota, if you weren’t wearing flat shoes and overalls, it felt as though you were selling out a bit. And I remember, it started even earlier…my mother did not let us have Barbie dolls. What she couldn’t stand were those feet. I think she was less upset about the body, the boobs, than she was about the feet that are permanently molded for high heels. And of course what that does to a kid is create a kind of desire for the forbidden, but then you’re a little ashamed of that desire. [laughs]


SOPHIA: My mom actually banned Barbies in my house, too, but then she told me just a couple of years ago, “I didn’t want you guys to have Barbies, but then your birthdays would come, and then people would just keep giving you Barbies as gifts. I didn’t know what they were giving you, and it was right in front of you, so I couldn’t like…”


ASTI: Take them away, yeah.


SOPHIA: She was powerless!


ASTI: It’s complicated. We [decided] the same thing when Juliette was born, that she’d have this completely gender-neutral upbringing, [but that was] at the time when [children are] really small and you can control it. I remember giving her…she had one of those big yellow Tonka trucks, and she immediately turned it into a bed for her teddy bear, putting him to sleep in it, and being like a little mommy, and I just…


[both laugh]


ASTI: And then when she was three or four she got a gift certificate to Toys “R” Us. We walk into the Toys “R” Us, and she goes right to the aisle that’s all lavender and pink and sparkles. She looks at me and she says, “Oh, Mommy, it’s so beautiful.” And I’m just like “ok…” you know… [laughs] And then you realize, in a way, it both matters and doesn’t matter, because she was a powerful, strong little girl who loved pink and sparkles.

SOPHIA: You seem to be attracted to a certain “darkness” in concepts of femininity. I’m thinking of not only your work on hysteria, but what you’ve edited in The Decadent Reader, which claims to “celebrate decline, aestheticized decay, take pleasure in perversion,” and cover “sadists, murderers, transvestites, fetishists, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, and hysterics.” Can you speak about this further?


ASTI: I ended up in late-19th-century France, and it’s a period obsessed with decline, death, decay…I think what I’m often interested in is when various structures, paradigms, and systems of thought collide. One system is crumbling, so cracks open up, and something else emerges out of that. It’s those transitions of power, which are often fought out on female bodies, that I’m interested in. So for the decadents, female bodies became this site of decay and decline but also for [newness] —it was represented as both that which is most natural and most artificial. So that’s where I often find myself. Hysteria became the perfect example for this kind of tension, because once again, it’s the female body that’s constituted as dark and inexplicable, something that the dominant paradigm —whether it’s religion or, at that moment, science, can’t quite figure out. They try to co-opt it, understand it, explain it, shed light on it, but it’s also the site of resistance to that co-opting power.


SOPHIA: From my perspective, Medical Muses was written to give due attention to a subject that you don’t feel had received it in the past, or perhaps had in falsified or harmful ways. But you didn’t set out to make any particular moral assertion, for example, about hysteria in that time period. Your book ends kind of ambiguously, and I know a lot of these issues are still mysterious to you. What concepts and events from all of your research do you still think about?


ASTI: When I began the book, I thought I knew what I was going to do, and that my conclusions would not be ambiguous at all. But as I read and researched, my initial plan derailed and the project became much more nuanced. While the hysterics I write about were exploited by sexist doctors, I believe that they were not merely passive victims but also active participants, and collaborators in the production of a disease. What I find really interesting about hysteria is that it points to a giant problem in the mind-body paradigm that we're still trapped in, but that doesn’t quite work. We still want to categorize something as real or not real, biological or psychological, which just doesn’t fit. So I’ve continued to work on topics that point to the inadequacy of that understanding. 

Right now I’ve been working on female mediums at the turn of the century, when most mediums were women. In fact, even today, 95% of mediums are women. They’re still around, and while I don't [believe that] what they’re doing as supernatural, or their epistemology —which is that they’re communicating with the dead, that they have these powers— I’m very interested in the fact that they are women, that what they are doing, defies science, and that science wants to dismiss them as either frauds or psychiatric cases. For all of its misogyny, the 19th century medical model of hysteria understood hysteria as something genuine, that it wasn’t merely women faking symptoms in order to get attention. So hysteria, which complicates the real/not real binary, continues to be important for me. Much of what I investigate, I continue to see through the model of hysteria. 

Female bodies became this site of decay and decline but also for [newness] —it was represented as both that which is most natural and most artificial. 


SOPHIA: You make the point that one of [Jean-Martin] Charcot's main contributions to medicine was providing a language of hysteria, which allowed women of the 19th century and beyond to articulate their distress within the oppressions of society. Can you speak about preexisting or potential languages by which modern women can articulate their distress in the contemporary media landscape?


ASTI: I think there are a lot of contemporary incarnations of hysteria. We live in a time that is less overtly oppressive than the 19th century, but that has new forms of oppression. Eating disorders are an example of that. If hysteria was, at least in part, a physical illustration of actual social conditions, with symptoms that included feeling strangled, suffocated, blind and mute, and also a rebellion against those norms expressed in chaotic convulsions and overtly sexual behavior, anorexia might be understood, at least in part, as young women responding to social pressure not to take up too much space, and binge eating as a rebellion against that social pressure. Every culture has certain symptoms available to it to express distress, and give us a vocabulary to articulate what's wrong. 

Depression is another one.  I wasn’t even aware of the fact that depression is much more prevalent in women than in men, which might be explained, in part, because women are more apt to seek help for problems. Conversion disorder, a psychiatric illness that looks a lot like 19th century hysteria, with symptoms of paralysis, blindness, and other serious neurological deficits that have no organic basis —much more common in women than in men. There’s an English medical historian, Edward Shorter, who writes about “symptom pools,” and I think he's right. Today, people often go to the doctor because they feel anxious, depressed, tired, or achy, while in the 19th century people sought medical treatment for a different set of symptoms. Shorter also makes the argument that as neurology got more sophisticated in its imaging, symptoms became more subjective. So if you go to the doctor and you’re tired all the time, that's a subjective symptom. If you go to the doctor and your leg is paralyzed, no one will suspect a psychiatric condition…it's a harder symptom to produce today. Yet, during the 19th century, doctor’s offices were full of people who were inexplicably paralyzed.

While the hysterics I write about were exploited by sexist doctors, I believe that they were not merely passive victims but also active participants, and collaborators in the production of a disease.

SOPHIA: When I was working with Juliette, I remember her telling me about how she was a “rebellious child.” What were your expectations about both yourself as a mother and then the process of raising kids that surprised you?


ASTI: It’s interesting that that’s her understanding. I would say that she was mostly very easy, except for a short-lived period at the end of 8th grade…[laughs] Like I said from early on, I did not want her to feel stifled by any kinds of gendered expectations. I remember there was a certain moment – she was right at the age where you can go shopping with friends alone, and she came home with this t-shirt that said [laughs], it was just this awful t-shirt that said, in big gold letters, “This is why I’m hot.” You know, one of those.


[both laugh]


ASTI: And I remember having this moment, thinking, “Okay, I don’t want her to feel the shame that I remember feeling as an adolescent in my somewhat Puritanical world.” But I also wanted to talk about why that shirt might be interpreted in a certain way. I think we just had a conversation about it, which probably succeeded in shaming her, to be perfectly honest.


JULIETTE, from upstairs: It did, by the way!


[all laugh]


JULIETTE: Thank you, thanks for telling that story.


ASTI: Sorry! Sorry! [laughing] It was just…it felt like the kind of shirt that needed to [initiate] a conversation about what the world expects of young women. But at the same time, as far as I remember, I always wanted to encourage her to feel proud of her sexuality and her body. She could wear anything short, or tight —that was never an issue. It was that particular phrase that bothered me, that it somehow reduced her to what she looked like.


JULIETTE: I’ll never forget in sixth grade, there’s this one girl who came into the Halloween party wearing one of those store-bought, kind of sexy costumes, and I remember turning to my mom and saying, “Wow, Mom, doesn’t ‘blah blah blah’ look like a slut?”


ASTI: And what was my response?


JULIETTE: “We don’t use that word in this house. I think she looks beautiful and we do not body-shame or slut-shame in this house.” I was so ashamed. Not in a bad way, in a good way.

ASTI: I acknowledge that this stuff is complicated. To be perfectly honest, I find those Halloween costumes sort of revolting. But I also understand the desire of those young girls to wear them. So I think I tried to never be uptight about sexuality, and at the same time that t-shirt…


[all laugh]


SOPHIA: You’re in very close proximity to the controversy and suffering that surrounded Emma Sulkowicz’s performance, “Carry That Weight,” because of your husband’s involvement. Can you speak about your experience of the performance and its social, cultural and political ramifications?


ASTI: Well, I think that on every level, her piece is brilliant. I think that it is an extraordinary piece of art, and a powerful piece of social activism. I love the fact that she transformed something that is normally kept in a kind of private and somewhat shameful realm and took that mattress —a symbol of the private— and made it public. So long before the lawsuit, I was a big supporter of the piece.  And if anything, the lawsuit has only strengthened my conviction that it is an important work of art and an important protest, one that threatens the status quo, so the backlash has been vicious. And I think the fact that it has hit a nerve on college campuses across the country, even internationally, that women are coming forward, shows that she has successfully changed the conversation. And I think that’s an amazing thing. Not many artists achieve that in a lifetime, and she did it before she graduated from college.  

SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


ASTI: I’m not a big essentialist when it comes to women. I like the fact that the category is expanding– for example, how Barnard is now admitting people who identify as women —I think that’s a good thing that women can do for each other.  

It’s hard, at this particular moment, to get a question like that and not to think about Donald Trump. I think a little bit like everybody —most people, many people— I’m just bewildered by how he’s gotten this far. And after kind of spending too much time dismissing him as embarrassing but inconsequential, we clearly have to take him seriously, because the fact that he is where he is, and he has such a surprising number of followers, means that his particular brand of sexism and misogyny is alive and well. It’s hard. 

I haven’t always been a huge fan of Clinton because she’s not progressive enough for me, and at the same time, I’ve watched what’s been happening to her through [a patriarchal lens], and it’s horrifying. So I think it’s very important for women, for everyone, to see that. Just the fact that now on social media people are more aware of how often women are interrupted, is important. It seems like a petty thing in the scheme of Donald Trump's raging vileness, but it’s one of those specific things that points to a much bigger problem. During the debate she was interrupted I think 90 times? This happens to women all the time, and we’re not even aware of it. 

Like the way that Emma took something that happens all the time and brought it into the public arena so that people might reconsider their own experiences, or that of their roommates, sisters, cousins, or any other woman, this grim election has shed light on sexism in its most blatant and insidious forms. So I would say voting is extremely important. Voting for the candidate who supports reproductive rights and equal pay for women would be a good place to start. Knocking on doors if that’s what it takes.

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