The Anatomy of Fear

The Anatomy of Fear

In his memoir Wish I Could Be There, Allen Shawn movingly details a life crippled by phobias.


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.

His son also finds hints of mental problems in his mother (the phobic autobiographer, sharper than a serpent’s tooth!)–she too avoided subways and tunnels. She had an outsized fear of weather and of bad things happening to her children. There was a nervousness to her before the world that Allen deems quasi-phobic. Indeed, part of Allen’s story is about escaping her sometimes smothering grasp. Mary, who has been diagnosed as autistic, also appears to be a piece in the puzzle of Allen’s condition. Phobias apparently sometimes run in families with autism.

The home Allen grew up in was not normal, agreed (whose is?). It had, as he says, “an across the board policy of secrecy.” His father elevated discretion to a credo. He also, as has been written elsewhere, led a double private life, raising a second family with the writer Lillian Ross. He kept a second phone line for her calls and would sometimes duck out for a second dinner without explanation. Allen recounts this material in a flat, unemotional voice without using anyone’s name, as if his father’s blue pencil was reaching up from the grave. At work, as at home, William Shawn put up a lot of barriers. The New Yorker that he edited seems in retrospect the product of an agoraphobic–those closed columns of print, the rectangular ads that boxed them in, the absence of author identifications–is it a coincidence that this remarkable magazine was designed like a vault?

Certainly one can imagine all this making for a difficult childhood–it would explain why Allen might be a bit distant or self-aware or creative (all of which his prose suggests he is). But of course his childhood did not “make” him phobic, as he recognizes. He turns to medicine and psychology to extend his inquiry, from the existential idea that phobias are a response to our cosmic insignificance to neurology’s diagnosis that they are nothing but the accidental triggering of neurochemicals at an inappropriate time, at least partially genetic in origin. He hopes that if phobias don’t possess a mental logic, they at least possess a physical logic. Among the ideas that Shawn produces, the one that best jibes with my experience is the following: We phobics are some sort of evolutionary oddity, Pleistocene humans in the Holocene, ready to defend against long-extinct threats. “In that case neurotic anxieties would be no more than endowments from ancient times that had outlived their utility,” Shawn posits. There is at least something comforting in thinking that we are not simply ridiculous.

But in the end it is a phobic’s life properly recorded that is perforce most interesting, rather than a phobic’s research about his disease. And the veteran phobic reader comes to recognize that our story is almost as codified as a coming-out: First are the early inclinations that you may be different, followed by unacknowledged early avoidance behavior and then finally the event that triggers full-blown separation from the majority. For Shawn that moment came when he was 17. Before then he was symptomatic, possibly because Mary had been sent off to an institution without his being given an adequate explanation. He already had a “terror of death” that woke him up in the middle of the night and left him yearning for light. He was not comfortable on subways. But the phobia was still feeling its way to the surface. Then he was stuck in two elevators in succession in New York. On a transatlantic liner he took soon after (he already avoided airplanes), he had “a panic attack almost every day.” In a flash the world was changing. “The beautiful streets of Paris suddenly began to look tenebrous and menacing,” he writes. Another elevator closed on him there and wouldn’t open, the coup de grâce to his normality.

Things got worse. Soon after, William Shawn had a heart attack. Allen’s mother asked him to stay abroad so as not to frighten his father. This unleashed further panic attacks–a lifetime of trying to get free from domineering parents had become the ordeal of trying to reunite with them. He made the trip by airplane only with the help of a sedative. Phobia had carried the day. He can no longer take airplanes or the subway; rooms with sealed windows spin, meadows terrify. The nice times, the normal times, the spontaneous times–the travel, the freedom–are over. Something–his mind, his genes, chance–called him to a tighter, narrower life. Born, to paraphrase Job, as milk, he was now curdled like cheese. (Cheese, of course, has its merits–Shawn had a long marriage to the writer Jamaica Kincaid and raised two children; he has a girlfriend now and an active creative life.)

In the foreword, Shawn describes the form of his book–part scientific and cultural history, part memoir–as a “spiral or…like the overlapping connected folds of a brain.” It reminds me more of a trick phobics use to stay sane. By constantly crossing and crisscrossing the same mental ground, we center ourselves. Puzzles are calming–you can identify the borderline phobics on an airplane by who is boring a hole through his acrostic–and this book has a bit of the shape of one. The book also has a noteworthy therapeutic aspect–one senses Shawn is writing to lessen his symptoms. Wish I Could Be There is an attempt at exorcism.

In one regard, at least, it succeeds. At book’s end, he manages after countless rehearsals and two retreats to drive the few hundred miles from Bennington to a psychiatric institution in Delaware–New Jersey is his Rubicon–to see Mary for the first time in twenty-seven years. He is helped on the journey by a phobia specialist who advises: “Don’t think your way into right action; act your way into right thinking.” The meeting with his twin sister is touching and nutritive for the composer: One senses that Shawn wouldn’t mind trading his angst-ridden existence for the softer tones that she hears. Being phobic is, among other things, enormously tiring. Shawn ends: “I had made an important step toward reconnecting with her. I had also made a step toward reconnecting with the fundamental truths of my life and toward finding the source of the ‘piercing scream’ I seem always to hear when there is nothing around to shield me from it.”

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