Allen Shawn

Wikipedia Information

Showing 1 - 1 of 1 annotations associated with Shawn, Allen

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


The author's mission is to investigate, understand, explain, describe, and puzzle over the nature of phobias -- his own, and that of other sufferers. Allen Shawn is a composer, pianist, and teacher, and is a member of a gifted family: his brother, Wallace Shawn, is a playwright and actor; his father was William Shawn, for many years editor of the New Yorker Magazine. As a musician and academic, Allen Shawn is "successful." And yet, his life is severely limited by agoraphobia, "a restriction of activities brought about by a fear of having panic symptoms in situations in which one is far from help or escape is perceived to be difficult" (13). The author interweaves sections that summarize his extensive readings on the fight-flight reaction, evolution, brain and mind, Freud's theories on phobia--with his personal history, especially as he believes it relates to his phobia.

Shawn's descriptions of how he experiences agoraphobia are vivid and informative, detailing the situations that trigger his physiologic symptoms of panic and disconnectedness: driving on unfamiliar roads, any kind of travel that is unfamiliar, walking across or on the edge of open spaces, traveling across long bridges, being in enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The agoraphobe, he writes, "feels at risk, as if at risk of sudden death or madness" (14). Shawn tells about what he must do in order to strike out on unfamiliar trips, that is, when he gathers up the courage to take them. He must venture up to the point where panic sets in, turn back, then on another occasion repeat the process but attempt to go further, pushing through the panic, until, one day, he can make the entire journey without turning back. Sometimes he never makes it to the desired goal.

The author points to several different factors that seem to predispose people to phobias: heredity, unconscious imitation of a phobic parent, upbringing. In his own case, in retrospect, his father showed symptoms of agoraphobia. Shawn discusses the underlying repression that was pervasive in his household -- his father carried on a long-term relationship with a woman while remaining married. Shawn's mother knew about the relationship from early on but any discussion of it was forbidden, even after it became common knowledge.

Perhaps more important in Allen Shawn's perception of repression is what happened to his twin sister, Mary, who was born with what is now considered to be autism, and mental retardation. Allen felt close to this girl, even though her behavior was unpredictable and baffling. When he was about eight years old, his parents sent her away to a special boarding school without warning Allen, or offering explanations. From then on he rarely saw her; 10 years later she was institutionalized. The family did not speak much about her and her "'exile' . . . added yet another layer of mystification to an already really mystifying atmosphere. It turned out that even in our temperate environment something extremely violent could occur" (177). Not long after that, Allen began to experience severe anxiety in certain situations.

View full annotation