Review of“Sleeping Beauties”

Alwyn Lau
6 min readDec 28, 2023

Picked up this book — O’Sullivan, Suzanne. The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness. Pantheon, 2021. — to kill time (whilst at a cafe waiting for a fren), didn’t expect it to be a relatively good page-turner.

O’Sullivan is a neurologist who investigated some cases of strange illnesses which inflict numerous people within a community. Strange because the symptoms, whilst severe and often terrible-sounding, can’t be explained by normal medicine and the usual tests don’t show anything ‘wrong’ with the patients.

These cases include:

1. Hundreds of children of asylum-seeking families in Sweden who sleep for months and (some) even years; no sign of physical illness, the kids just don’t and can’t wake up. This is known as resignation syndrome.

Resignation syndrom among children of asylum-seeking families in Sweden

2. Miskito, an indigenous tribe from the Mosquito Coast (between Nicaragua and Honduras); 43 ppl struck by tremors, difficulty breathing, trance-like states and convulsions.

The tribe called this condition the ‘grisi siknis’ (or crazy sickness). The disorder involves visual hallucinations and eroticism (I think Malaysians call these ‘love potions’?) and is believed to be caused by a spirit. The following paragraph also brings to mind stuff from the New Testament Gospels, right?

“Convulsions, foaming at the mouth, crazy behaviour, ripping off their clothes, running manically, hyperventilating, and breaking and eating glass were the symptoms and signs most consistently mentioned.” (p.40)

3. People from two towns in Kazakhstan who suffered a kind of “sleeping sickness” where victims would sleep (or black out) for days, but which also included presentations like uncontrollable laughter, maniacal running around, hallucinations, convulsions, etc.

4. The Hmong refugees in the States who died in their sleep in the 70s’ and 80s’ for no identifiable reason, incl some men (appearing to be in good health but) who went to bed one night and never woke up.

5. U.S. diplomats in Cuba who fell ill in 2017 with similar symptoms like headaches, earache, hearing impairment, dizziness, tinnitus, unsteadiness, visual disturbance, memory problems, difficulty concentrating and fatigue. Within 6 months there were 17 cases, all of which were eventually attributed to a “sonic attack”.

This is Havana syndrome, or an example of mass psychogenic illness.

6. Girls in El Carmen, a town in Colombia, who fainted and had convulsions (2019-ish). Girls in Le Roy, New York, 2012, twitching, stuttering and convulsing (which involved famous investigator Erin Brokovich urging that the cause must’ve been due to poisoning from a toxic spill nearby).

The above don’t exhaust the examples and stories O’Sullivan presented, all of which heart-breaking and tragic. If nothing else, I’m even more convinced now about how fragile our psyches, minds and bodies are to our society, communities, environment, etc.

The case of a relatively healthy and successful woman, Karin, who was diagnosed with “broken-heart syndrome” surely applies to anyone of us working in high-stress jobs.

“The doctors told her that stress had caused acute heart failure, a condition referred to in medical circles as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscles become suddenly weakened…Typical triggers are bereavement, serious illness or accident, violent arguments, intense fear or financial loss” (p.108)

O’Sullivan discussed Karin’s case as part of her argument that often such ‘mystery’ illnesses happen because of the trauma and pain that particular communities are going through (eg, asylum-seekers, ppl dislocated from a town they love, diplomats working on the frontlines of a war-torn country, etc.).

So, what’s O’Sullivan’s key takeaway from these weird and sad stories?

It’s that sometimes, when a group of ppl have undergone a certain amount of stress, their brains will do what she calls “predictive coding” and, in a sense, translate, embody and express their pain to the world.

“Like learning a language, we interiorize illness templates; we code them in our brains and then express them physically when triggered to do so.” (p.53)

She explains the “sleeping beauties”, convulsions, and so on as something individual brains have been programmed to do via mimicry, story-telling and shared trauma. These illnesses are socially patterned behaviours, usually reflective of the society in which they appear instead of individual pathology.

“Illness is a socially patterned behaviour, far more than people realize. How a person interprets and reacts to bodily changes depends on trends within society, their knowledge, their education, their access to information and their past experience of disease. Personal and societal role models create expectations of health and ill health that are coded in neural substrates. Our brains are wired through experience to respond in a certain way to certain provocation. It is an unconscious process.” (p.51)

Long and short, in the presence of tensions and stress (esp within a high-strung and close-knit group) the patients’ brains (often independently of the individuals themselves) produced manifestations of ‘sickness’ in accordance with the expectations of said community. In such cases, because the problem came from within the community, the “cure” involves readjustment or even leaving the environment.

In the case of the asylum-seekers in Sweden, the sleeping children’s only recovered after their families had been offered asylum and some hope restored to their lives. It’s almost as if the brains of the children, upon finding out they can stay in Sweden, turn back online, ending the slumber and getting them to resume their normal lives.

With the Miskito tribe, O’Sullivan says that labelling the ‘grisi siknis’ as a demonic curse helped to take away the problem from the afflicted girl and, instead, externalise it elsewhere; then with rituals and community support, the girl can be cured.

Put another way, the girls behaved in these bizarre ways as an unconscious expression of their powerlessness and vulnerability; the community hears these cries for help and converge to help them.

Does O’Sullivan’s perspective provide an exhaustive explanation for these cases?

Well, she declares herself to be a hard-core atheist believing only in scientific explanations, but she also says she’s appreciative of the spiritualities and non-Western narratives some communities have. Plus, it’s clear she remains very open to other views as long as they help.

I wonder if she would be open to the idea that supernatural entities can afflict people and even communities with conditions beyond anything even her views can explain?

One of the people she interviewed said of a patient, “She was a small girl, but she got so strong it took seven men to hold her down. I saw her pry up the wooden floorboards with just her fingers. Just her fingers!” (p.40)

Assuming there is no intention to deceive by the interviewee, how does O’Sullivan’s social-neuro influence theory explain such superhuman strength? Also, whilst the connection between sleeping for months and longing for asylum seems evident, it’s less clear how claiming that breaking and eating glass, convulsing and foaming at the mouth (p.40) is “a means of expressing distress” actually helps or adds to the discussion substantially. I mean, sure, but so what?

Also, if a spiritual remedy actually cured the girl, maybe that’s some warrant for paying more attention to the problem as a, uh, spiritual one too? i.e. that supernatural entities (contradicting O’Sullivan’s atheism) may have been involved?

Anyway, finishing the book, I’m glad O’Sullivan’s thesis lends credence to my own short article on mass hysteria a few years ago. I was commenting on the Pengkalan Chepa mass hysteria case which, true to the ‘template’, involved a) young girls b) a high-tension environment (school!) and c) hallucinations of a dark figure (which is jet-fuel for story-telling and mimicry).

Mass hysteria in a school in Kota Bahru, Malaysia (2017)

I think in most of these cases, the patients/victims simply need a huge long break (from the institution, from their circumstances, etc.) and “exorcisms” aren’t required — but sometimes…who knows?



Alwyn Lau

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.