Primitive electrodes applied to the brain. Blood-sucking leeches placed on genitals. Frigid ice baths and strong purgatives. Torments you'd...

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“98 Reasons for Being”
by Clare Dudman
Viking, 342 pp., $25.95

Primitive electrodes applied to the brain. Blood-sucking leeches placed on genitals. Frigid ice baths and strong purgatives.

Torments you’d inflict only on your worst enemy? In the alternately compelling and tedious new Claire Dudman novel, “98 Reasons for Being,” they are standard prescriptions in a Frankfurt, Germany, asylum circa 1853, applied by a caring doctor to a deeply withdrawn young woman he hopes to cure.

The doctor is based on a real person: Heinrich Hoffman, now known less for his asylum innovations than for the morbid “Struwwelpeter” (“Shockheaded Peter”) fables he wrote to amuse his own troubled son.

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Those rhymes are scattered throughout the book, as are news stories and other documents related to 19th-century mental treatments. Essentially, the book’s main theme is the birth of the “talking cure” (later codified by Sigmund Freud), and the quest for a more scientific, humane cure for madness.

The committed, frustrated and domestically unhappy Hoffman and his favored patient, Hannah (a Jew mislabeled a nymphomaniac), are by far the most interesting figures here. And Hannah’s illness, as sensuous interior mono-

logues reveal, has likely been ignited by something quite basic: her fraught love affair with a rich gentile suitor, who seduced and abandoned her.

It takes Hoffman a long time to realize this, via unorthodox sessions nearly as therapeutic for him as for his patient.

Dudman fleshes out the story with the toil, thoughts and sexual intrigues of other patients and asylum employees. But the mind wanders when Hoffmann and Hannah aren’t central. Although scrupulously researched and informative, “98 Reasons For Being” just doesn’t give readers enough reasons to stay enthralled.

Misha Berson is the theater critic for The Seattle Times