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In Sweden, hundreds of refugee children fall into a state that resembles sleep for months or years at a time. In Le Roy, a town in upstate New York, teenage girls develop involuntary twitches and seizures that spread like a contagion. In the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, employees experience headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises during the night. These are only a few of the many suspected culture-bound psychosomatic syndromes—specific sets of symptoms that exist in a particular culture or environment—that affect people throughout the world.
In The Sleeping Beauties, Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan—an award-winning Irish neurologist—investigates psychosomatic disorders, 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 María Mountains in Colombia, O’Sullivan records the remarkable stories of syndromes related to her by people from all walks of life. Riveting and often distressing, these case studies are recounted with compassion and humanity.
In examining the complexity of psychogenic illness, O’Sullivan has written a book of both fascination and serious concern as these syndromes continue to proliferate around the globe.
About the Author
SUZANNE O’SULLIVAN is an Irish neurologist working in Britain. Her first book, Is It All in Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness, won the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize and the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. She lives in London.
“At once poignant, surprising and sometimes horrifying . . . Empathic . . . Dr. O’Sullivan uncovers these complex mechanisms while painting a picture of psychosomatic suffering that removes its associated stigma . . . Radical . . . The Sleeping Beauties offers a brilliant, nuanced and thoughtful look at the lived experience of illness while asking important questions about the relationship between body and mind. Dr. O’Sullivan’s rich prose weaves a tapestry as hauntingly beautiful as it is scientifically valid.”
—Wall Street Journal
"Fascinating and provocative . . . [O'Sullivan is ] a globe-trotting Lisa Sanders: a briskly professional but secretly tenderhearted disease detective on a mission to dispel misconceptions that have become obstacles to cures . . . O’Sullivan’s logic is, well, infectious."
—New York Times
“In my view the best science writer around—a true descendant of Oliver Sacks.”
—Sathnam Sanghera, author of The Boy with the Topknot
“A gripping international journey . . . O’Sullivan has written a medical page-turner that makes a compelling argument for a holistic approach to health care.”
“Fascinating . . . O’Sullivan delivers a razor-sharp study of illnesses that often cannot be explained in traditional medical terms . . . As O’Sullivan masterfully narrates these cases, she movingly allows the subjects to tell their owns stories, too. Fans of Oliver Sacks, take note.”
“O’Sullivan keenly explains illness templates that are coded in our brains by our sociocultural environment . . . A fascinating view of mind that mingles culture with biology, creating a richly embroidered, albeit difficult, world.”
“Suzanne O’Sullivan’s beautifully written book interweaves the stories of those afflicted in this way in a travelogue of illness that is ultimately a travelogue of our own irrational, suggestible minds . . . It is a measure of how effective she is at describing the dilemmas and difficulties of treating psychosomatic conditions that, by the end, a visit to a witch doctor begins to feel like the most sensible medical intervention.”
“O’Sullivan travels the world collecting fascinating stories of culture-bound syndromes, which she relays with nuance and sensitivity.”
“O’Sullivan doesn’t offer easy answers. She just shows us, with wonderful compassion and the minimum of judgment, the ways in which people across the world have manifested symptoms that have helped them through—or beyond—painful situations . . . It is, in every sense, mind-blowing.”
—The Sunday Telegraph
“To compare any book to an Oliver Sacks book is unfair, but this one lives up to it—not because it is alluringly freakish but because it is so compassionate and so driven by deep curiosity about the human psyche. I finished The Sleeping Beauties feeling thrillingly unsettled and wishing there was more.”
—James McConnachie, The Sunday Times
“Powerful . . . This is a startling and empathetic investigation into the power of the mind, the contagiousness of fear, and the consequences of hopelessness.”