Excerpt from Katherine Howe, Conversion (2014)
Colleen, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the novel, is a senior student at a prestigious private school in Danvers, Massachusetts. More and more senior students, including Colleen's classmates Clara and Anjali, suddenly suffer from strange symptoms, and finally Colleen is also affected. While visiting her friend Emma, she all of a sudden experiences great pain and starts to talk backward. Believing that Emma has cast a spell on her and the other girls, Colleen informs the Department of Public Health, which has opened up a consultation van on the school grounds, about her suspicions.
"There's a condition," she said, keeping her voice calm and gentle, just like they'd probably told her to do in the serninar. "It's real, okay? It's a real illness. Nobody thinks you and your friends are faking. Everyone believes you are really suffering the symptoms you're suffering from, okay?"
"What condition?" I asked, waiting to hear some PR doublespeak. I glared at her, suspi-cious. For one thing, I knew I wasn't crazy. I certainly didin't think Clara was crazy. Some of the others, maybe. Anjali was definitely wound pretty tight.
But. I. Was not. Crazy.
"It's called conversion disorder," said Public Health Lady.
"Conversion disorder?" […]
"Conversion disorder," she explained, "happens when you are experiencing really serious, really unusual stress in your life. And your body doesn't know how to handle being under so much stress. so it 'converts' it" - here she did the finger air quotes thing on either side of her head - "into physical symptoms."
I gave her a dubious look. It sounded fake. It sounded like a polite way of saying they didn't actually understand what was happening. […]
"I can see why you'd feel judged, with a diagnosis like that," said Public Health Lady, leaning over to pat me on the knee. "But I assure you, this is real. The symptoms of converted stress can vary widely and be extremely debilitating. Verbal ties, hair falling out,
muscle weakness. fatigue. lt's a real disorder. lt can devastate otherwise perfectly normal, healthy peole."
"That doesn't make any sense at all," I insisted. "I'm not that stressed out. And even if I were, how would that make me talk backward? How would it make my friend vomit pins?"
"Oh, really. You're not?" she said mildy. "A high-pressure school environment. College admissions on the horizon. Graduation, lots of life changes. Sexuality, dating. Your friends falling sick all around you. A media firestorm. And aren't you in contention for valedictorian, and on the brink of missing it? I'd say you're under quite a lot of stress, wouldn't you?"
"Who told you that?" I shouted, struggling to my feet, nearly hitting my head on the roof of the van. "Who told you that I was missing it by a tenth?"
"It doesn't matter," Public Health Lady said resonably. "The point is, I think you're being too hard on yourself, Colleen. Conversion disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. And it's relatively easy to treat."
"Oh, yeah? If it's so easy, how come nobody's treating it?" I stood with my neck bent over, hands pressed to the van roof.
"We,ve only just settled on the diagnosis this afternoon. […] We're confident that this is the correct diagnosis. And the solution is a special kind of talk therapy, and in some cases, antidepressants. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Which is just a fancy way of learn-
ing to observe and modify your own behavior. It's easy, and you don't even have to lie on a couch. You'll see, Colleen. In a few months this will all be over."
MY certainty wavered. She sounded so sure of herself. If conversion disorder was real, then it wasn't our fault. Who's to say we couldn't be crazy and not know it? Maybe that was all being crazy was - not knowing we were crazy.
But deep inside me, where I stored all the secret truths that I didn't like to admit even to myself, where I kept my competition with my friends and my feelings about my body and the things I wanted to do to Spence and the things I dreamt of saying to my parents when I was angry at them and the arm-twisting I sometimes wanted to give Michael and Wheez, when I looked inside that secret box and tried to tell myself that Public Health Lady was
right, and I'd just lost my grip along with everyone elsem when I opened the lid and peered inside that secret box, I saw Emma's weirdly red, glowing eyes staring back at me.
I picked up my bag and flattened my mouth into a stern line.
"You're forgetting one thing," I said to her. […] "Danvers," I said, "changed its name in
1752. From Salem Village."
1 condition: an illness or a medical problem
1 she - here: the public health lady
5 PR: abbreviation for: public relations
5 doublespeak: language that can be understood in more than one way and that is used to trick or deceive people
7 wound pretty tight: tense and unable to relax
19 debilitating: schwächend
23/24 to vomit pins: Nadeln erbrechen
27 contention: competition
28 valedictorian: the student who has the highest marks in a particular group of students and who therefore gives a speech at the graduation ceremony
42 to waver: to start to become weak and unsteady
47 Spence: Colleen's boyfriend
48 Michael and Wheez: Colleen's brother and sister
Aus: Katherine Howe: Conversion. New York: Penguin 2014, pp. 329-332.
Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Howe.