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The Sleeping Beauties

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This book, which examines the effects or mental trauma on the body, and calls for an end to the body-mind division, is provocative. Scientific research into somatic manifestations of trauma is still relatively new in Western mainstream medical culture.  I appreciated the author's consideration of indigenous and/or ethnic explanations and treatments of the episodes she describes. However, while a lot of the case studies presented here are argued well and with corroborating support, others are not. In the example of "Havana Syndrome," for one, the author ignores the large amount of scholarship on music and sound as a weapon. This book has me thinking, and I'll be interested to talk about it with other readers.
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Dr O'Sullivan discusses a plethora of mass functional illnesses, including resignation syndrome from Sweden, Havana syndrome, and several more individual cases.

This was a really interesting read about a subject I did not know too much about. The author did a good job of scouting interesting cases, some more well-known than others. She discusses the background, the disease itself, and what social factors may have caused them.

She also talks about the field of functional illnesses more generally in a clear and engaging manner. I appreciated that we got to go along on her investigation beside her, sharing in her changing thoughts and opinions as she learned more about the illnesses.

I did sometimes find her tone slightly unsympathetic toward the patients, which bothered me, but I think this added veracity to the account. Ultimately I found this an informative, interesting read.
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A BIG THANK YOU to Pantheon Books and NetGalley for the ARC of The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Dr. Suzanne O'Sullivan. In The Sleeping Beauties, Dr. O'Sullivan invites the reader to investigate the invisible inner workings of the mind. Case by case, the complex nature of the mind-body connection is revealed. ★★★★★

From the publisher: A riveting exploration of the phenomenon of psychosomatic disorders, mass hysteria, and other culture-bound syndromes occurring around the world. In Sweden, hundreds of refugee children fall asleep for months and years at a time. In upstate New York, teenage girls develop involuntary twitches and seizures that spread like a contagion. In the US Embassy in Cuba, employees experience headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises in the night. There are more than 200 officially listed culture-bound syndromes—specific sets of symptoms that exist in a particular culture—affecting people around the world. In The Sleeping Beauties, Dr. Suzanne O'Sullivan—a prize winning British neurologist—investigates psychosomatic disorders and mass hysteria, traveling the world to visit communities suffering from these so-called mystery illnesses. From a derelict post-Soviet mining town in Kazakhstan, to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, to the heart of the Maria Mountains in Colombia, O'Sullivan records the remarkable stories of culture-bound syndromes related by an array of people from all walks of life. She presents these curious and often distressing case studies of seeming mass hysteria with compassion and humanity, persuasively arguing that psychological suffering demands much greater respect and discussion than it's given at present. In attempting to understand the complexity of psychogenic illness, O'Sullivan has given us a book of both fascination and serious concern as these syndromes continue to proliferate around the globe.

I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

5 of 5 Stars
Pub Date 21 September 2021
#TheSleepingBeauties #NetGalley
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It's rare that I would gravitate towards a nonfiction work that focuses on illness, as I don't generally find this subgenre of nonfiction interesting. Maybe it has something to do with being raised in a healthcare family....

Anywho, the idea of this book - examining strange occurrences of inexplicable disease - sounded interesting to me, And it was, overall.

O'Sullivan has a very clear writing style and I didn't feel like I needed to be a doctor just to get through the text. She also did a good job making you care about the sufferers of these diseases, which likely helped me connect with the subject matter.

One thing that I didn't love was the semi-lobbyist nature of the text. O'Sullivan seems intent on helping the public to accept that functional illness is valid, and to advocate for those who suffer from it. This is a noble cause, don't get me wrong, but that not insignificant aspect of the book wasn't included in the descriptive material, which I found odd.
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With having a chronic illness myself, an illness that is still quite mysterious, I was very interested in this book. The author explores psychosomatic disorders.  She travels the world and interviews quite a view people with such a 'mystery' illness. 

I enjoyed her writing style and the way she incorparated the interviews. But even though every chapter was a different case, not every chapter could hold my attention.
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A wonderfully humane examination of the social impact on the psychological, of trauma manifested on the mind. While it does not have pat answers or explanations of all the conditions, it gives the reader a beautiful insight into how the mind can work in extreme conditions.
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Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced reading copy of this compassionate book that treats patients suffering from functional neurological disorders with respect. Dr. O'Sullivan emphasizes from the opening pages that the symptoms and suffering of people (frequently young women) with what have been called psychosomatic disorders are real, even if they are not pathological. 

Through a set of case studies of her own patients and patients and families from Sweden, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Colombia, and the United States, O'Sullivan describes how mass psychogenic illnesses--mass hysteria--have complex causes. These patients are not "fakers" buttheir maladies can't be understood through a search for pathogens and pathology, but through complex socio-cultural examination.
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Early in her book on outbreaks of mass psychosomatic illness around the world, neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan observes that “disease impresses people; illness with no evidence of disease does not. Psychological illness, psychosomatic and functional symptoms [that is, symptoms which indicate problems with how the nervous system is working] are the least respected of medical problems.” She proceeds to look at cases in various countries, including Sweden, Kazakhstan, the Miskito Coast of Central America, Columbia, (the US embassy in) Cuba, Guyana, and small-town USA. Many of these cases involve children and teenage girls, and most involve people on the periphery of the dominant culture: ethnic minorities and groups suspicious of the government or caught between two worlds, the traditional and the modern. 

Drawing mostly on anthropology, social psychology, and philosophy, the author makes a strong case for the ways in which society and culture shape illness and the means by which extreme symptoms, which can’t be attributed to physical pathology, communicate important messages about conflicts within a group or culture. O’Sullivan says mass hysteria/conversion disorder/psychosomatic or neurological disorder—the phenomenon goes by a variety of interchangeable names—are as “real” as disease in which there is discernible abnormality in the body. She rightly rejects Cartesian mind-body dualism, pointing out that “mind” is a function of the brain, that it too is created from biology and is “not an intangible independent entity.” However, she does not explain how the minds/brains of groups of people actually create illness—that is, how problems with the functioning of their nervous systems cause mass hysteria. There is vague, unsatisfying mention of neural circuitry and of patients paying too much attention to the “white noise” of their bodies, misinterpreting that noise, perseverating on symptoms observed and reinforcing their misinterpretations. It is not clear how all this ties in with the mass events that O’Sullivan is interested in. Noticeably lacking is a discussion of the mechanisms of social contagion. Also absent are footnotes and sources.

While I found <i><b>The Sleeping Beauties</i></b> an interesting and stimulating read, it was not a wholly satisfying one. Thank you to Net Galley and the publisher for providing me with a digital ARC.
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An extremely interesting book about psychosomatic (i.e. functional) diseases. The most important thing you learn is that a psychosomatic disease is a real disease. A person that faints when stressed or anxious even if her blood pressure doesn't drop significantly isn't faking. It's something to be taken seriously and treated, just not as if the cause was organic.

In this book we learn about many functional diseases from all over the world. The sheer pleasure of finding out why two small towns in Kazakhstan were struck by an epidemic of sleeping sickness or why immigrant children in Sweden are entering pseudo-comas is enough to make this a fast paced read. But there is much more too. We get the common sense of Suzanne O'Sullivan's opinions and explanations, something refreshing and much needed in this climate of radical opinions.

The only thing that could distract you in this otherwise excellent book are some of the author's personal recollections which a few times seem gratuitous and artificially inserted.
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This book is very clever in toeing a thin line between being a 'popular science' one and an academic monograph.  It's very readable, you can generally get a grip on quite complex psychological issues, and – with the Fortean aspects to many of the cases here – you can read about strange medical goings-on, and what the author demands in the way of major changes before we can all understand them when they arise again.  That said, the book is far from perfect, introducing a stumbling-block to my satisfaction I'll get to a bit later.

Those cases, then.  We start with children of refugees and immigrants, who seem to have involuntarily gone on strike at the idea of being sent back.  It's an incompletely understood syndrome, but our neurologist guide is fairly sure it can't be all blamed on something internal, with so many chances of parental influence and just the fact of past traumas all being potential causes.  She says the whole environment must be an unmeasurable factor – and the fact all of these children are confined to their beds in Sweden and nowhere else is just one further intrigue.

Next we're in a Nicaraguan community in Texas, to chat with people who know first-hand of 'grisi siknis', something else that defies categorisation.  Is it really a 'crazy sickness' brought on by the devil, and/or leprechauns, and/or incubi/succubi, or is there a firm medical cause – or is it a cultural thing whereby certain teenagers feel the need to act up to get attention and a kind of erotic kick?  But why is it confined to one region?  And how can a medically-trained person tally their experience to the evidence that only shamanic rituals and ideas can cure it?

A surprisingly good turn into travel writing takes us to a pair of villages in Kazakhstan, where a sleeping sickness had killed the places off, although here the writing not only balances travelogue with neuro-psychological science but also adds in something of the investigative, and the conclusion is something best for the reader to find and think about.  But this chapter is where the issue I have with all this starts to really show itself.  Each of the three cases here not only get discussed in turn, but what we learn with the second is reflected back on the first, and what feels new and definitive to the third gets applied to the previous pair, and so on.  

Now, this is not as repetitive as you might expect it to be, but it forces a false, "watch me investigate this!" journalese on to things.  Our author knows what she thinks is right and wrong about the issues with the Swedish girls of the title, and of course she has a solution for all the cases – she wouldn't be writing such a book about things if she didn't – but boy she's going to pad it out and leave every case hanging, deferring things as much as seemingly possible.

I liked the cases and what they have to say about our world, from the Colombian girls you might think ill due to the national history of violence – except the malady was in no way national – to embassy workers for the USA newly installed in Havana, and cases of media hysteria prolonging what was once called actual hysteria in up-state New York.  Singular people are seen to blow their medical problems up so greatly in their own mind it easily transfers to paralysing degrees in their body.  All this, the Fortean side, is wonderfully explained and diagnosed and re-categorised, and this is probably the best writing from the best author to so do.  That definitive feel has still earnt this volume a high mark, as you'll have seen, but in lengthening the whole affair on the page greatly, and in prevaricating so often, I don't see either the layman or the academic really served as well as they should by such obfuscation.
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I absolutely love this book full of medical mysteries.  It was informative and exactly my cup of tea.  This book will appeal to even fiction readers.
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