by Leora Skolkin-Smith

ISBN: 978-1-936558-18-6 * eISBN: 978-1-936558-19-3 * Paperback $15.00 * E-book $5.99

Publication: November 15, 2011

About the author  Leora’s website

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I’ve always had an uneasy relation to facts in my fiction. That is, I loved reading outside of fiction – really, anything in psychology, philosophy, and history – and I knew, at the same time, that I couldn’t write from a place that reimagined or reinvented the non-fiction universe of information. I could not imagine a character in 1940 Europe, for example, without growing intimidated with the actual history or questioning if I were being true to the experiences of the particular time. The writing climate in the last decade has grown more accustomed to memoir representing what once was expressed as a fictionalization of the writer’s personal journey through invented characters. And, it seems, many more books now express a confidence that a writer can penetrate the barriers of actual history with fiction and remain “true.” Still, I was more awed by the modernist work that preceded this era of writing and genre-bending because “modernism” allowed the writer to infuse the work with the personal, to invent a self and ask questions about the self in relation to everything around us, though it wasn’t autobiography or memoir. Fiction was more the “lie that told the truth,” as Picasso once said. Formal concerns yielded to psychological exploration and depth.

When I first thought about writing a book about mental illness, I knew well what I was up against. Memoirs are hugely part of our time, overflowing with stories of hospitalizations and recoveries, family therapy, family abuses. The  common list of traumas and psychological conflicts is immense. But I wanted to return to a time when we weren’t all so sure madness was solely a “mental illness” that could be alleviated with the right medicines and therapy. I also wanted to go back to the 1970’s before Prozac and other anti-depressants as anxiety-relievers could extinguish the general discomfort of being and non-being. Writers before us had approached the same issues of conflict and dark feelings in people but they weren’t exactly “issues” to be resolved through medical models of health, diagnoses, and treatments. Woolf, Genet, Joyce, Kafka, and so many other “modernists” tackled “mental illness” in their work, but they created less of a distinction between what was human and tragic, and what was “depressed,” ”psychotic,” or “abnormal.” “Complexes” and “hallucinatory delusions” were haunted parables of human yearning and experience. 

Hystera tells the story of a young woman in 1974, before the biological revolution in psychiatry, and I hope it will reach back into those dimensions I so admired in work before my time. A place where suffering and chaos were less circumscribed, and the experience of  “madness” could resonate as an extension of our universal, ineffable, and perpetually mysterious human existence.

The  novel begins by introducing us to a young woman, Lillian Weill:

Inside the locked ward on Payne Whitney’s fifth floor, Lilly stepped onto a steel platform. The examination room was harshly lit, the bulbs behind plastic squares on the ceiling, fluorescent and burning. The metal examining table sparked from too many electric darts and moonbeams.

It was an April evening in 1974. The city’s night lights streaming in from the window would have been enough to illuminate the room, Lilly thought. The arrows of the moon pierced her blue-jeaned legs.

“You’re a dark girl,” the nurse said. “You look a little like Patty Hearst. Lillian, is that your name?”

Lilly nodded, staring up at the large woman who confused her.

We soon learn that Lilly is experiencing a delusional presence of something unexplainable in her body:

Stretched out on the examination table, Lilly wondered again if there were an abnormality in her sex, a cyst there, a tumor – maybe she was pregnant.

Her boyfriend, Mitchell, was gone.

Lilly read about body delusions. She learned, too, after her father had come home from the hospital three years ago from his long coma, the extent to which a mind could reinvent its former world, house a whole alternate universe of worlds.

The book  unravels the mystery of why this hysterical symptom has appeared very slowly, taking us back into Lilly’s past and thrusting us forward:

Let the tears in my eyes tell them a story, she thought. She practiced her story: Her father got sick; her family are strangers. Her boyfriend Mitchell left her. She would leave out the practice of alchemy which was obsessing her. The alchemical symbols of trees and phalluses which were populating her imagination with images of fire from old Hebrew texts in the basement of her parent’s house. She feared the hospital staff would discover she was hallucinating the unnatural bulb between her thighs, that she was really delusional, if she mentioned alchemy. It would make them put her away. And she wanted to stay a few days in the hospital to rest. Because the building is nice. This hospital is for the people recovering from unrequited love affairs, she thought. But the delusional cases, where were they put? She wondered. She didn’t want to find out.


Lilly remembered lying supine on the trolley in the emergency room a few hours ago, and the apparatus, like a gas mask strapped onto her nose and mouth, delivered the fumes which forced her into cloudiness. It was all she remembered about her stomach being pumped, besides the brackish brown, sweet syrup the emergency physician handed her to drink. It made her convulse, and vomit. She remembered taking the Librium pills and drinking the pint of Johnnie Walker Red. Two hours earlier, before her roommate, Jane, brought her to the ER.

Like a sleepwalker guided by a seeing-eye dog; she let Jane take her arm. And then, Lilly plunged forward into a taxi, accepting Jane’s warm body against her. The whiskey felt good coursing through her system with the relief that she hadn’t consummated the suicide. She had a love disease of flammability; love was dangerous or yearning. Intimacy made her feel as though her bowels were crying out. Everything inside her was as fragile as the web a spider spins on a tree branch in the midst of a forest-fire. This is why she tried to die. She was burning up.


When she first discovered the bulb, it was like a dream, but she was awake when she found it. This was a few months ago.


She had pulled down her panties and the rounded bulb was nestled between her thighs. She thought, first, it was not a part of her but when she put her finger to touch it, it was her own labia swelling into the shape of a large teardrop.


Lilly looked back at this as the morning her world changed, the morning she fell apart, and her being, shifting in and out of reality, became so insensible, it ached.

Lost and then found in the corridors of a mental hospital,  amid a community of fellow patients and drifters, Lilly wanders into a fictional universe where “mental illness” isn’t narrowed down to a “condition” to be resolved. Hystera is a novel that asks the reader to take the risk of following Lilly as she moves desperately into flight and softy falls into the promise of a genuine “cure.”

"Hystera is a haunting, mesmerizing story of madness, longing and identity, set against one of the most fascinating times in NYC history. Skolkin-Smith's alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant."

– Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You

“In language with the wild power of accuracy, Hystera maps a path through the landscape of trauma and illness, the feverish news of the seventies, and a character’s own indelibly vivid imagery of alarm and comfort. An eye-opening novel.”

– Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, finalist for the National Book Award

"Leora Skolkin-Smith's new novel, Hystera, provides a very vivid sense of being in the head of someone having a psychotic breakdown, and is a powerfully useful reference book for dealing with the mental-health system. It also pungently evokes the gritty New York of the '70s."

– Robert Whitcomb, The Providence Journal

Read what others are saying here.

Winner: Global E-Book Awards
Finalist: International Book Awards,  Indie Excellence Awards