Synopses & Reviews
A droll, inquisitive, and poignant memoir of agoraphobia from a member of one of New York's premier literary families.
Allen Shawn is afraid of heights, water, fields, parking lots, tunnels, and unknown roads. He avoids taking subways, using elevators, or crossing bridges. In short, he is afraid of both closed and open spaces and of any form of isolation. Yet this is a memoir of enormous bravery.
Shawn grew up in a lively but mysterious world. He is the son of the famous, longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother to the brilliant playwright and actor Wallace Shawn. His twin sister is autistic, and when they were eight years old, she was put in a home. Though it was kept from him until he was in his thirties, his father led a double life that introduced strict taboos to his household. Shawn examines these influences, his father's and mother's phobias, and his own struggle with agoraphobia with generosity, wit, and insight, attempting to decipher the psychological and biological puzzles that have plagued him for so long.
Interwoven with both Freudian psychology and cutting-edge brain research, Shawn has written a profound examination of familial love and the universal struggle to face our demons.
"The author's rampant agoraphobia and compensatory claustrophobia leave him terrified of almost any unfamiliar space, including highways, fields, elevators, bridges, tunnels, heights and airplanes; a walk down a country lane leaves him panting and paralyzed with fear. In this absorbing memoir, Shawn a composer, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother of actor Wallace Shawn approaches his panics from several angles. He explores the neurophysiology of phobic fear as an exaggerated, partly hereditary version of the innate human response to environmental threats. But he also offers a heavily Freudian account of his own panics, linking them to his parents' overprotectiveness and the resulting psychosexual and oedipal conflicts he suppressed from childhood onward. The latter perspective informs his vivid portraits of his family life; his brilliant, conflicted father, who suffered from similar phobias; and his autistic twin sister. Drawing on the writings of fellow agoraphobes like Emily Dickinson and Blaise Pascal, Shawn makes his fear of vast, exposed spaces a metaphor for humanity's existential predicament, an inchoate realization that 'our brief life span is surrounded on all sides by nothingness.' The result is both a lucid explication of psychopathology and a deeply felt evocation of a 'pain in the soul.'" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"As a person with autism, I can really relate to the constant panic and anxiety the author suffers. Many of his experiences with panic attacks were similar to mine. This book will provide great insights for people who have panic attacks and for the people who live with them."
Temple Grandin, Author of Animals in Translation and Thinking in Pictures
"Shawn anchors his simultaneously disquieting and affirming study of phobias to real life and uncloaks many essential facets of the human condition." Booklist
"Shawn is highly attuned to the complexity of phobias causes and their manifestations, and views his own affliction as in many ways beneficial." New Yorker
"A harrowing, essential book about the force of fear gone wild in one person's mind and body."
"Remarkable. A brave, eccentric, and utterly compelling book that's as revelatory and candid as anything ever written by Joan Didion, and as humane and scientifically fascinating as any one of Oliver Sacks's case studies."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times*
"A vividly written combination of memoir and scientific inquiry."
-The New Yorker
In this memoir of enormous bravery, a member of one of New York's premier literary families delivers a droll, inquisitive, and poignant examination of his life with agoraphobia.
In addition to being the son of famous New Yorker
editor William Shawn and brother of the distinguished playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, Allen Shawn is agoraphobic-he is afraid of both public spaces and isolation. Wish I Could Be There
gracefully captures both of these extraordinary realities, blending memoir and scientific inquiry in an utterly engrossing quest to understand the mysteries of the human mind. Droll, probing, and honest, Shawn explores the many ways we all become who we are, whether through upbringing, genes, or our own choices, creating "an eloquent meditation upon the mysteries of personality and family"* and the struggle to face one's demons.
About the Author
Allen Shawn is on the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.