INTERVIEW: Alice Hattrick, Author of Ill Feelings

Interview by Morgan Baker

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Cover of Book "Ill Feelings" by Alice Hattrick. Cover is blue with no artwork.

When Alice Hattrick was young, their mother was often incapacitated by illness — and was for years ignored and dismissed by doctors. At about age 10, Hattrick started to feel ill, too.

According to the Center for Disease Control, myaligic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a serious, long-term illness that affects many body systems, often causing severe fatigue and sleep problems. People with ME/CFS are often not able to do their usual activities and, at times, are confined to bed. This condition may worsen after heightened activity, a symptom is called post-exertional malaise (PEM). Other symptoms include problems with thinking and concentrating, pain, and dizziness.

Hattrick’s book, Ill Feelings, out now with The Feminist Press, is a hybrid of sorts. It is labeled as a memoir, focusing on Hattrick and their mother’s episodes with ME/CFS, but it also weaves in medical and historical information.

Ill Feelings tells the story of how women are often labeled “hysterical” and waved off by the (mostly male) medical profession. Hattrick places their illness in a historical context with other women — like the writers Virginia Woolf and Alice James — and their struggle to be taken seriously by doctors.

The book’s genesis comes from a series of conversations Hattrick had with their mother during a demanding few years in which she retired and became a caretaker for her own aging parents until their death — Hattrick’s mother’s life became upended and she ultimately relapsed because she’d been working so hard.

Ill Feelings is the London-based author’s first book. Hattrick’s criticism and interviews have appeared in publications such as frieze magazine, ArtReview, and The White Review. Hattrick is co-producer of Access Docs for Artists, a resource for disabled and/or chronically ill artists, curators, and writers, made in collaboration with artists Leah Clements and Lizzy Rose. In 2016, they were shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize.

Here is our conversation with Hattrick about the memoir, Ill Feelings.

Author Alice Hattrick has short white hair and is wearing a red sweater.


Morgan Baker: I’d love to talk to you a bit about the life of the book. I’m curious to know what drove you to write it as a kind of hybrid — with memoir, historical, and medical components.

Alice Hattrick: I started to really tune into the language she (Mum) was using to describe her feelings, her symptoms. It was a kind of emotional and metaphorical language. She was trying to communicate an experience to me rather than describe her symptoms in the medical way. She spoke of her experience as a computer crashing.

I found it interesting to see the difference between how she was communicating with medical people — more mechanical — and the language she used with me.

MB: When you’re a kid, the responsibility of taking care of that kid falls on your parents, and it’s overwhelming to them, and then as they grow up, they have to take control of it.

AH:  Five years ago, I could see how overwhelming it was for her. She had stacks of paper on the dining room table. She had to organize all the files of her medical history which stretches back to the 1990s. I wasn’t living with her, but I was seeing her a lot. I had to counsel her through it as she doesn’t have a partner.

She said things about when I was a child and she was in her 30s. It was overwhelming looking after me, and also fight for my care, and then fight for her own legitimacy.

The more I looked into it, the more gendered it all struck me. She was labeled a kind of hysterical mother and that she was infecting me with her hysteria. They were using this language at the time, in the early 1990s.

MB: Are you saying she was treated differently because of her gender?

AH: Yes. And mine, because I was a female child. Our symptoms weren’t even that similar. They were just all unexplained, and that was the common thing.

What I’m trying to get to is the language was what started the journey of writing the book. It was almost like we were too verbal. We had too much language for our feelings, and that was untrustworthy. They were using this word, hysteria, to describe us in the 90s. I think it was more telling that they were suspicious of our language, and that we talked to each other and that we could communicate with each seemed suspicious to a medical professional.

MB: They just thought you were going and creating trouble for no reason?

AH: Yes, I think so. These are accusation that are also very gendered. Being dramatic is something my grandparents said to my mom. “you know, she’s so dramatic.” When that’s not true. It’s just that she was trying to tell them something they didn’t want to hear.

It was just we don’t want to hear these female voices and these female experiences. This is a problem, rather than something to be listened do. It still is a lot of people’s experience if you say how you’re feeling or try and communicate that verbally.

So, my mom had all these documents that indicated all that. I wanted to find out what is the bigger history or picture. I wanted to try to understand why did this happen to us? We weren’t the only people that this happened to.

There’s no singular definition of either of those terms. There’s lots and lots of different diagnostic criteria for them. But there is no singular biomarker and because there’s no singular biomarker, it’s very difficult to figure out how to research treatments.

MB: How old were you when you started having symptoms?

AH: I was diagnosed when I was ten, but my mom says I had symptoms from when I could speak.

MB: That’s a long time to be sick. How do you weave it into your life? How do you look to the future?

AH: There’s definitely been times when it has affected me more than others. And there have been times when I haven’t really had any problems. Looking back, it’s fluctuated a lot. It’s not necessarily day to day, but during periods of time.

When I was young – 10,11,12, I was affected quite badly, but then as I got a bit older into my teenage years, I don’t think it bothered me so much. In my early twenties I seemed kind of okay. But then in my early thirties, my mom relapses. But then I also kind of relapse in a sense and I get this diagnosis of fibromyalgia, which is more pain – chronic pain.

MB: You started to write the book at the same time?

AH: Yes. That’s a lot to handle. There was a reason to do it. I didn’t have one before. I was going through the process of having to manage my own diagnoses and my own therapy. My mom always managed when I was a child. She was the one sending the letters and organizing stuff or trying to get help from different people. Then I had to obviously do it myself as an adult.

 I hadn’t had a need to interact with the medical profession for a quite a long time. I had all these terrible experiences as a child, so I stayed clear of everything. But now I had to. So, when I got the diagnosis of fibromyalgia, I thought this is interesting. Maybe this is it.

All these diagnoses are also linked to a mood disorder, and you are always being told that. If you get your mood stabilized, if you can be less depressed, then you wouldn’t be in so much pain.

We know more about how to treat certain things than we do what causes them. We’re always working out how to manage things rather than how to work out what it is.

MB: So you started writing the book when you about 30. When did it get published? You did it very fast.

AH: I was working on the subject, but not writing the book if that makes sense. I was interested in all these things and I was researching.

MB: Is that why you incorporated the history of all these different women?

AH: Exactly. The reason to include these other voices was because I was thinking about it as more of a collective. I was bringing up these historical figures in order to bring them into the contemporary experience.

I was starting with this idea of language and this idea of my mom speaking this strange language around her. I wanted to see what other people had written and how the women had verbalized their feelings. And I’m really interested in private literature, like diaries and letters, communicating with people close to you in an unofficial way.

A lot of what’s in the book in terms of those literary kind of women, like Virginia Woolf and Alice James.

For 150 years, we’ve all been having very similar experiences. If you’re white and middle class and have access to health care, this is what happens to you.

Our experiences haven’t changed that much, so I wanted to explore that and also explain how it happened in my mum’s life as a case study and how it’s happening with other people, and it’s always been happening.

Then I turned to the science. That was a later addition.

MB: So how do you define your book?

AH: I think it’s like an essay. I think it is a hybrid. It probably has too much stuff, but I didn’t want it just be literary or just scientific. I wanted it to be all these things. But I didn’t want to just be literary or just scientific. I wanted it to be all of these things, how the medical science and medical men – how everything they do interacts with our lives and affects our lives.

MB: When did you write the book?

AH: I sold it in 2019 and had a year to properly finish it. I not only had more time, I could be at home. I was at home all the time. I had to be home all the time, so I had more energy. I felt a lot better physically.

MB: So, you wrote a lot of this during the pandemic and included that in the book?

AH: It was obvious from the very beginning [of COVID] that anyone who gets this virus is going to feel ill for quite a long time afterwards. It’s going to have longer time consequences. I was seeing how like ME/CFS action groups were trying to raise awareness… There is the potential for long-COVID following an epidemic. So, this became an important part of the story.

MB: What kind of reception or feedback have you got since the book was released in 2021?

AH: It’s been interesting – from people who were looking for someone to voice their experience. It’s very important to a small number of people who have been through similar things and have had their own experience corroborated or legitimized. It’s been really moving to hear that has happened.

MB: Why does it take a book or a play for people to understand what you’re going through?

AH: It does legitimize something. It’s not just one person saying something to you. I don’t know why, we as human beings, question anything that comes out of each other’s mouth. It’s like, oh that can’t be true. But if you put it in an artifact of some kind, it has legitimacy

MB: It also goes back to how the medical profession and her family reacted to her, putting in on her being dramatic.

AH: It was just so strange. Because why do you seek attention for something that no one even believes is real… If you’re not male, then it must be made up. Or you must be wrong about it. You must have been mistaken. I have a friend with similar diagnosis, and she won’t go to the doctor unless she’s with her male partner.

MB: In the book you talk about hope and pain. How do you maintain hope when you’re feeling not-so-great?

AH: I think it’s really difficult. It can’t lie within yourself, or within your body. We need relief from the societal problems rather than from our ill feelings.

MB: What’s the most important takeaway from Ill Feelings you want people to pay attention to?

AH: You might feel like you’re the only person that this thing is happening to, but there is a bigger picture and your own personal experience is completely affected by a whole long history of injustices.


Meet the Contributor

Headshot: Morgan BakerMorgan Baker is an essayist and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, The Brevity Nonfiction Blog, Cognoscenti, The Bark, Motherwell, and multiple alumni magazines and anthologies. She teaches at Emerson College and is the Managing Editor at where she has published both essays and feature pieces. After a year in Hawaii, she is back in Cambridge with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs and she is revising her memoir about her empty nest. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, or her website.

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