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Parsing panic

Wish I Could Be There Notes From a Phobic Life Allen Shawn Viking: 268 pp., $24.95

February 04, 2007|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

WHAT is composer Allen Shawn afraid of? Lots of things, he tells us in his new book: "[A] scroll upon which I had written my phobias ... might stretch all the way to China." He dislikes heights, bridges, tunnels, subways, elevators, walking across parking lots and traveling on water. He's terrified by both wide-open and enclosed spaces.

Describing an attempt to drive down an unfamiliar dirt road in "Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life," Shawn vividly delineates his panicky reaction: His breath gets short, his vision dims, his voice constricts, his muscles clench and he eventually turns the car around. The essential problem is that the road is isolated; he can't see any houses, mailboxes or driveways suggesting a human presence.

Shawn has agoraphobia, sometimes incorrectly defined as simply "the fear of open spaces." More properly, he explains, it is "a restriction of activities brought about by fear of having panic symptoms in situations in which one is far from help or escape is perceived to be difficult." Agoraphobics, in other words, are afraid of fear itself.

Attempting to account for that central terror, Shawn has written a bifurcated book that uneasily mingles a mishmash of scientific material with personal recollections of his famous family. Substantial stretches of the text are decidedly dull, as he rehashes Darwin's observations on the physical expression of emotions or Freud's case study of a phobic child, neither of which deserves the space it gets. Even when he's conveying some fairly juicy tidbits about his father, legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, and the damage inflicted by his dad's long-term affair with journalist Lillian Ross (who is never referred to by name), the author adopts a strangely distanced tone that's at once revealing and irritating.

He may well be echoing the impassive delivery of his father, who once characterized the double life he led for four decades as "not recommended." Cecille Lyon Shawn knew that her husband was spending much of his time with Ross and the latter's adopted son in their home 10 blocks from the Shawn family apartment, but she insisted that this be kept secret from Allen and his older brother, Wallace. (The brothers didn't learn the truth until they were in their 30s.)

The author's portrait of his childhood depicts an atmosphere of seething anxiety and emotions that were vented only on safe subjects like politics. Both parents appear to have been nearly as phobic as he is, though in those days no one acknowledged that it was rather peculiar never to take the subway and to travel by rented car with a driver to whom they gave minutely detailed instruction about the route.

The chapters about his family are the book's best, simply because the material is so inherently fascinating. William Shawn's affair was one of two major family troubles swept under the rug to fester; the other was the mental illness of Allen's twin sister, Mary, who was institutionalized when she was 8.

Her psychiatrist today identifies Mary's condition as autism, a disorder that includes "a need to have the world conform to [her] demands." But in the 1950s, she was called "retarded," and her "exile" suggested to her twin that "one could be turned out of the house for being too difficult to understand ... too wild." Allen Shawn, described in a report card at age 6 as "always eager to try out a new experience," became a tense, fearful teenager whose apprehensions blossomed into full-fledged agoraphobia shortly after he began to live on his own.

Shawn writes about these fraught years with eloquence and grace, frankly assessing the effect of living in an environment in which so much was off limits for discussion or acknowledgment. Commendably, he refuses to blame his parents. "Whatever happened to me happened in dialogue with me," he writes. "In the end we are alone with the responsibility of coping with our lives." It's an insight that would greatly benefit many whiny memoirists. Still, Shawn's effort to be objective has its downside. Just as he movingly recounts a reunion with Mary or a painful bout of terror, he awkwardly inserts scientific information about autism or wanders into vague philosophical questions about whether phobias are "holdovers from ancient times" that will disappear through evolution.

In fact, Shawn explains in the foreword, his book is "about a search for understanding the origins of the quirks of personality we all have, the flaws inherent in being human." He adds, "By putting my own worst foot forward, as it were, I mean to challenge our assumptions about what a normal person is."

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