Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 24, December 2012—Trans / Queer Issue)

Addie Tsai
the self-same body/the self-other body (thoughts on hysteria)

For the past five years, my most focused creative occupation has been a kind of investigation of hysteria—in the world, in the history of psychoanalysis, and ultimately of my own hysteria, which acts as a kind of intersection of the three. It’s an occupation born out of a relationship I had with the novel Frankenstein, also born from my most fraught romantic and collaborative relationship. From that tragic end, I experienced a rebirth and shed the narcissistic narrative I came from, and began a new relationship to my creative self. From my research and exploration of Frankenstein, I co-conceived Victor Frankenstein, a dance theater production of the novel's narrative with a contemporary ballet choreographer, Dominic Walsh. It was a conception formed from the psychological underpinnings and archetypes that informed Shelley’s world, both personally and through the world of her novel.

I initially began my work with hysteria from a purely intellectual lens, but closely related to the psychological identities that defined the other women in my family. But, as I excavated more and more of the complex terrain of hysteria, Freud, Lacan, Charcot, and others, I began to question my own investment in the subject. I’d recently finished a memoir on my relationship to my twin, particularly from some fraught experiences we were each involved with as adolescents, so I’d already learned I would need to answer the question: where was I in this? I couldn’t merely diagnose and sift through the materials of my family’s unconscious; where were mine?


The most significant and illuminating text I have since discovered is called Mad Men & Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria. It’s written by the feminist theorist Juliet Mitchell. The text is so thick and layered that I haven’t even begun to conquer its contents, but I see it as the central tome to my work. What makes Juliet Mitchell so crucial for me is that she analyzes hysteria from the frame of the sibling relationship:

The sibling relationship is important because, unlike the parental relationship, it is our first social relationship. On the advent of a younger sibling or the awareness of the difference of an older sibling (or sibling substitute) the subject is displaced, deposed, and without the place that was hers or his: she/he must change utterly in relation to both the rest of the family and the outside world.

If the child is an older girl, she is urged to become a ‘little mother,’ a boy to become a ‘bigger brother.’ (The asymmetry is noticeable here.)

For both, however, murder is in the air.

The wish to kill the father (part of the Oedipus complex) who possesses the mother and with her is responsible for the usurper, is secondary to the need to eliminate he/she who has stepped into one’s place and has exiled one from oneself.

Another baby replaces the baby one was until this moment.

A craving for love together with a love/hatred of excessive proximity construct a fragile psyche. If the child is a younger or only child, its mother’s inevitable withdrawal evokes fantasies of other babies and often a sense of guilt for their assumed death.

But the child is also excited by the discovery of someone like itself, so replicas of the subject are also wanted. Many create imaginary twins who wishfully enact their replication. It is the love/hate ambivalence which comes into play in relation to siblings that characterizes hysteria.

The primal scene is a perfect image for an ordinary absence of the subject at the very place where he comes into being—

We are not present at our own conception.

Hysteria protests this displacement, this absence of the subject.


From Juliet Mitchell’s work with siblings, I came up with a title for my current work on hysteria:

i long for you // to disappear:
notes on hysteria.

A close secondary work that’s been most crucial for my project on hysteria revolves around Lacan’s Mirror Stage theory. A contemporary theorist—Kaja Silverman—breaks it down:

Somewhere between the ages of six and eighteen months, we have been told, the typical infant is held up to a mirror by a parent or caretaker and encouraged to identify with its reflection. This identification creates something that did not previously exist: a self. But since the child is sunk in “nursling dependence” and is little more than a disorganized mass of motor responses, this identification is impossible to sustain.

As soon as the mirror asserts its exteriority, the infant self begins to disintegrate. Only by overcoming the otherness of its newly emergent rival can the child reassemble the pieces.

We do not have an “identity” because we are constantly changing, but we also do not break into a million pieces because each of our “shapes” resembles the other.


And although these and many other texts on hysteria have been illuminating and validating in some way, I am a bit rebellious and defiant. I write this book to understand my relationship as an identical twin, both my longing and my rage towards twinning and towards my twin, but I also write this book towards the untreated exploration of twinning in regards to ego, mirroring, identity, and the self in psychoanalysis. Juliet Mitchell claims we are not present at our own conception. But what if, through another self, an other body, we are? Lacan claims the mirror is a child’s rival, until it recognizes what looks back from the mirror is a reflection of its own body, but what if there is a third image, and that is the image of a person, your twin, who walks the world as you walk, with your face, your body, your voice? How does one reconcile the distinction between ego and that other body, which belongs to a wholly different being than you?


I want to be freed of twinning and of doubling, I want to be freed of the threat that my sister could replace me, or worse, that through her actions to become as close to me as possible, she could remove the distinctions between our bodies, our psyches, our voices, our selves until they blur. This is a world that looks on the twinned body as a voyeur, it is hard enough. But if, from one twin or the other, there is a desire to enact what is exoticized, what other recourse do I have to build a safety around my own physical resemblance?

Between longing and rage exists my own hysteria. These are my inquiries.


This video is an exploration of the rage I feel towards the differing behaviors we each have towards our twinning, and the rage and devastation I feel towards her, but it is also addressing a sadness and compassion for our twinned selves that were compromised through a familial structure of narcissism and abandonment. How does one express the grief, rage, anxiety, longing, and yes, hysteria between souls that are too alike to be united?