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THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan book review

  • Written by  Lucy Kehoe
  • Published in Books
THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan book review
21 May
2021
by Suzanne O’Sullivan • Picador

History is peppered with reports of mysterious illnesses: dancing plagues, fainting fits and nuns who won’t stop meowing. We might consider them oddities of the past but, as Suzanne O’Sullivan explores in The Sleeping Beauties, strange sicknesses continue to haunt modern communities. Take the shadowy grisi siknis that grips the Miskito tribe of Nicaragua. Those affected experience initially innocuous symptoms such as headaches and dizziness that then spiral into irrational behaviour, convulsions and hallucinations. The illness is unique to the Miskito Coast. The cause? Unknown. 

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These modern mysteries make more sense to O’Sullivan, a consultant neurologist. To her, they’re functional neurological disorders that play out on a community scale. Previous labels, such as psychosomatic disorders or hysteria, hint at Western medicine’s inability to fully understand these odd phenomena. But O’Sullivan has made a career exploring the ways in which our minds can have an impact on our physical health and The Sleeping Beauties puts the environmental and cultural experience of victims in the spotlight. We meet afflicted communities and uncover the links that help to pinpoint a diagnosis. Travelling with O’Sullivan, we’re asked to reconsider our definition of illness and recognise that bodily dysfunction can be rooted in emotional disturbance – physical symptoms produced, likely subconsciously, as a reaction to an external environmental, cultural or social pressure.

From young refugees denied asylum in Sweden who fall into unresponsive slumbers to a strange sleeping sickness that gripped the inhabitants of the declining Kazak mining town Krasnogorsk, each case study peels back the rigid framework of modern medicine and demands that we reframe our understanding of what is and isn’t illness. This is a progressive book that doesn’t hold back on criticising the dogged diagnostic obsessions of Western medicine. O’Sullivan leaves us with a warning that suffering is first and foremost an emotional state: to alienate our understanding of it from wider cultural and environmental forces risks missing clues that could lead to a cure for the patient’s pain. In short, sometimes illness really is ‘all in the mind’ – but its impacts can still be devastatingly physical.

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