The Sleeping Beauties – Suzanne O’Sullivan

Published by: Picador
Pages: 326
Date released: 01/04/2021
Date read: 10/04/2021

Suzanne O’Sullivan’s “The Sleeping Beauties” I an exploration of different aspects of psychosomatic disorders, mass hysteria, culture bound syndromes (a set of symptoms that exist only within a particular society), using as its starting point a particular case of more than 400 migrant children in Sweden who have fallen into a ‘waking coma’.

Before I get into my review on this book, I want to start by paying my respects to HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. I finished reading this the day after his passing, and as someone who has grown up with him as an ever constant, it is a solemn time for the country, and I felt I needed to acknowledge this.


Sleeping Beauties is the account of Suzanne O’Sullivan, neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. As someone who has been under the care of neurologists for the last three years, it’s no surprise why I was drawn to this book.

Suzanne sets out to discover the cause of a number of mystery illnesses in places ranging from the US to Sweden to Cuba and everywhere in between. We meet refugee children who fall asleep and stay asleep for years at a time; teenagers who develop contagious seizures; embassy members experiencing headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises.

All of these patients present physical challenges, but are their causes based on the physical or can they be traced to the psychological? Saying someone’s illness is psychological is not a way of saying “it’s all in your head”, and yet in the Western world especially, we often feel ignored by doctors if they say our problems are psychological, like we’re making it up. And as Suzanne finds out, this thought is not just focussed on the Western world. There seems to be this bizarre divide between physical and psychological conditions, much like physical and mental health.

There were a few moments I felt the book was a bit repetitive and too technical for the un-learned reader to fully understand, but overall, I found this is a fascinating, enlightening and informative book, often asking the question: who gets to define what is and isn’t an illness?

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