The Sleeping Beauties
'In my view the best science writer around – a true descendant of Oliver Sacks.' – Sathnam Sanghera, author of The Boy with the Topknot
In Sweden, refugee children fall asleep for months and years at a time. In upstate New York, high school students develop contagious seizures. In the US Embassy in Cuba, employees complain of headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises in the night.
These disparate cases are some of the most remarkable diagnostic mysteries of the twenty-first century, as both doctors and scientists have struggled to explain them within the boundaries of medical science and – more crucially – to treat them. What unites them is that they are all examples of a particular type of psychosomatic illness: medical disorders that are influenced as much by the idiosyncratic aspects of individual cultures as they are by human biology.
Inspired by a poignant encounter with the sleeping refugee children of Sweden, Wellcome Prize-winning neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan travels the world to visit other communities who have also been subject to outbreaks of so-called ‘mystery’ illnesses.
From a derelict post-Soviet mining town in Kazakhstan, to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua via an oil town in Texas, to the heart of the Maria Mountains in Colombia, O’Sullivan hears remarkable stories from a fascinating array of people, and attempts to unravel their complex meaning while asking the question: who gets to define what is and what isn’t an illness?
Reminiscent of the work of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Grosz and Henry Marsh, The Sleeping Beauties is a moving and unforgettable scientific investigation with a very human face.
O’Sullivan’s beautifully written book interweaves the stories of those afflicted in this way around the world, in a travelogue of illness that is ultimately a travelogue of our own irrational, suggestible minds . . . It is a measure of how effective O’Sullivan 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 in the book.
Tom Whipple, The Times
O'Sullivan travels the world collecting fascinating stories of culture-bound syndromes, which she relays with nuance and sensitivity.
Alice Robb, New Statesman
By making social problems visible on the body, O’Sullivan believes, these conditions allow voiceless people to make
themselves heard. Perhaps this eloquent and convincing book will be the start of making people in authority listen, make change and help.
Katy Guest, Guardian