O’Sullivan’s interest in narrative is purely pragmatic. She’s no neurologist-poet in the mode of Oliver Sacks but, rather, a globe-trotting Lisa Sanders: a briskly professional but secretly tenderhearted disease detective on a mission to dispel misconceptions that have become obstacles to cures. Her reports from the field are generally not encouraging. In Sweden, she crouches at the bedside of a young Yazidi girl who hasn’t moved in a year and a half. (“I was pretty sure I was going to cry,” she writes. “Sick children in particular upset me.”) But she disappoints her Swedish physician host by asking questions about the country’s attitudes toward refugees instead of probing the girl’s brain function — by all accounts perfectly normal.
In Colombia, she interviews girls stricken with convulsions, victims of an outbreak that began in 2014 and continues to spread, sometimes affecting entire high school classes. In Kazakhstan, she meets former residents of a now-defunct mining town who suffer from a sleeping sickness that renders them unconscious for days. The Colombians believe their symptoms stem from a contaminated HPV vaccine; the Kazakhs are sure they’ve been poisoned by the government in its effort to shutter their town.
When O’Sullivan ventures alternative explanations, she is forcefully rebuffed. “Could some of this have had a psychological cause?” she tentatively asks a Kazakh doctor who treated some sleeping sickness patients. “Could it have been a domino effect, where one person gets sick for some other reason, maybe even poison, which creates anxiety and it then snowballs?” “Niet,” comes the reply.
Whatever we choose to call it — conversion disorder, psychosomatic illness, F.N.D., or, in the case of large outbreaks, mass psychogenic illness — the taint of hysteria, of madness, lurks stubbornly beneath the label, obstructing understanding and blocking the path to recovery. In O’Sullivan’s view, this explains the lack of progress on Havana syndrome, the mystery disorder that, like a plot twist in a Jason Bourne movie, has struck scores of American diplomats and spies, beginning in Cuba in 2016.
Victims complained of hearing a strange noise before the onset of debilitating symptoms — headaches, nausea, dizziness, visual disturbances and memory loss — prompting American officials to speculate about enemy attacks via “sonic weapon.” And though dozens of prominent specialists have argued that the syndrome bears the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness, doctors working for the government have dismissed the idea as tantamount to calling victims malingerers or fakes. In August, The New York Times reported that the C.I.A.’s leading theory involves microwave energy beams and Russian agents.
O’Sullivan isn’t buying it. She devotes a chapter to the syndrome, methodically demolishing the sonic weapon theory as well as clinical papers that purport to document victims’ brain injuries. At the same time, she chronicles the fraught history of recent U.S.-Cuban relations, and the furor of hyperbolic statements about the disorder given by doctors and amplified by politicians. Hers is a risky move, an armchair analysis made, as she admits, without access to actual patients or classified intelligence. But here, as elsewhere in her book, O’Sullivan’s logic is, well, infectious.
“Havana syndrome was a powerful sociopolitical wave,” she points out. “Many people were caught up in it, including U.S. Embassy staff, politicians and doctors.” She goes on: “I cannot imagine how hard it would have been to resist developing symptoms in that setting, and how difficult it would have been to accept a mass psychogenic explanation with all the ‘experts’ disparaging it so.” Who’s to say Havana syndrome won’t yet turn out to be another striking instance of science “making up people”?