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.


This is a well-written, erudite memoir that provides the reader with a powerful description of phobia, the suffering and shame that accompany it, the mystery of its origins, and the kinds of treatments that may help but usually do not eradicate the symptoms. I found particularly interesting all the sections that are personal history. The author's discussion of his relationship with his sister; the void left and his repressed fear of abandonment after she was removed from the household; and his late-in-life attempt to visit her in the institution, are insightful and moving. Shawn's wide-ranging reading to provide background for his memoir are impressive and many readers will find his explorations of the mind, evolution, and physiology useful (there is a list of selected readings at the end of the book).

One gap in Shawn's research is the role of what Jackie Orr calls "psychopower"-"technologies of power and techniques of knowledge developed by a normalizing society to regulate the psychological life, health, and disorders of individuals and entire populations" -- in managing and constructing panic disorders -see Jackie Orr, Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006) p. 11. That work, however, probably appeared too late for Shawn to include in his book. Shawn does challenge the reader to rethink the concept of normality, so one suspects he would be receptive to Orr's critique. And like Orr, the author found that engaging in the book project in and of itself mitigated his symptoms.


Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York



Page Count