Allen Shawn, son of the great New Yorker editor William Shawn, teaches music at Bennington College and is an authority on Schoenberg. He is also agoraphobic. Because of his phobia, first felt in his teens, he can only drive familiar roads; when he wants to walk across an open field, it can take him hours; he is afraid of parking lots, bridges and heights.
In this affecting memoir, Shawn chronicles forty years of life with the monkey in his brain, a personal history of constricted throats and racing hearts. He also goes further, trying to wrest some sense out of this irrational and dramatic mental miscue. For this larger goal, Shawn draws on not just memoir but psychology–everyone from Freud to behaviorists to evolutionary psychologists–as well as neuroscience. He asks not just why but how. Shawn–paradox–covers a great deal of ground in these pages. But for me what touches most is the memoir aspect of Wish I Could Be There. The title is telling: Phobias are never just private torments; they are social disasters. Poor Allen, if only he could come. Shawn movingly details the distorting effect of phobias, the way the phobic strives simultaneously to maintain normality and avoid setting off the trip-switch in his brain. He takes along pills and paper bags to control his breathing when he travels. “All this would be funny were it not sad,” Shawn writes in his introduction. But it is sad, and Wish I Could Be There conveys that. Shawn is a gentle, affable writer. Despite setbacks he pushes on, reminding me what he has been made to give up. The relationship that torments Shawn most is with his twin sister, Mary, his best friend from early childhood who, institutionalized since they were children, might as well live on another planet.
An estimated 19 million Americans are phobic, and Shawn’s agoraphobia is just one of the hundreds of phobias that we, inventive creatures that we are, experience, from siderophobia (fear of the stars) to eisotrophobia (fear of looking in the mirror) to phobophobia (fear of fearfulness). Phobias are themselves silent and invisible. They reveal themselves only under a triggering condition, when they show up as panic attacks. In a panic attack the sufferer can’t breathe and fears passing out. He is certain that if not allowed out of the situation he will die. And yet it is all in his or her mind: There is nothing going on. The phobic lives in a Bruegel painting: He suffers while all around him others are untouched. Phobia is not intense worrying or heightened anxiety; it is a kind of insanity that lurks in your mind and seizes you. Despite claims to the contrary, my own experience is that there is no cure.
Phobias are not off the rack but custom made. I was for a time phobic about snow. I knew someone who couldn’t stand the noise from a radiator. By now Shawn’s phobia is ornate and general. It has annexed aspects of claustrophobia too–he is afraid of elevators, planes and subways. Phobias crave explanation. What every phobic really wants to know first is, Why me? Shawn is no exception, seeking in the internal life of his family the origin of “the guardrails, barriers and restrictions that have warped my life.” “Reconstructing my hemming in is not simple,” he notes. Shawn believes his father was an undiagnosed phobic. He remembers “the strange, sad, and doom-laden expression on [his] face when our family car passed through a deserted mountainous area or an expanse of empty land, as if the shadow of death were passing over him.” The famous New Yorker editor could not take automatic elevators, and he found comfort from repeating his actions.