on March 15, 2012
Sarah Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, writer, blogger, and podcast host. As well, she has a one-woman show, titled appropriately "Agorafabulous!" She is also agoraphobic, and if you have a hard time putting those facts together in one person, so do I.
I am agoraphobic, but I prefer alternate terms such as "recovering agoraphobic" or, even better, anxiety disorder. Early in the book, Benincasa defines agoraphobia: "agora" from the Greek for market place; "phobia" from the Greek for fear. It is indeed a fear of the market place, of crowds. But it becomes fear of fear. If you have a panic attack, say, driving a car, you aren't about to drive a car again for fear of that heart-pounding, breathless fight-or-flight reaction, the sure conviction that you're dying. "Fear built on fear," she writes, "begets all kinds of little falsehoods."
Benincasa lists the things that, at her worst, she was afraid of: leaving home, having a wet head, driving, being a passenger in a car, New York City, Lincoln and Holland tunnels, flying (Oh, do I know that one!), taking the bus or subway, vomiting, sex, being pregnant, having an abortion, and God. She reached her low point in her senior year in college when she was literally afraid to leave her bed, foregoing needs for food and personal hygiene (take that one where you will). Through parental intervention, therapy and meds, she clawed her way back to a normal life, though she followed several blind alleys before she ends up finding her life work--as a comedian. It's the classic story: you have to reach the low point before you can begin to recover.
Much of the book is devoted to her recovery and the blind alleys: a commune run by an enraged spiritual guru, a stint at a community-service oriented college in North Carolina, a teaching spell in Texas, a try at graduate school. Recover she does, and I am happy for her, though she admits late in the book that anxiety can rear its ugly head at any time you don't expect it. What I had a problem with in this book is attitude, though it's a strange thing for an agoraphobic to have and a most natural one for a stand-up comedian. It's not the constant use of the F-word--or maybe it is; after all I'm of a far different generation. But more than that, she turns this debilitating condition into the subject of comedy. That works well for her, but not for the misunderstood thousands of people in our society who suffer from various forms of anxiety and are often told by well-meaning family, friends and colleagues: "Get over it." The book jacket describes the content as "hilarious" and I find that a poor choice of words. Anxiety is rarely hilarious.
Near the end of the book, Benincas gets into a conversation with a New York cabbie who had a panic attack the day before. He thought he was dying of a heart attack and went to the emergency rooom. He wanted reassurance that the doctors were right, and Benincasa talked to him about the fear, the voices in your head, the shame, "about recovery, management, setback. And pills." She thinks she convinced him that panic attacks were real and the doctors has diagnosed him correctly. It's her moment of compassion, and I applaud her for it.
If someone ever tells you they can't drive on the highway, go up an escalator or walk across a huge empty parking lot alone, listen to them. Their fears are very real. I know, because those are some of the things I don't do to this day. Like Benincasa, I'm very lucky. My anxiety was never as severe as hers, though at one point I had a hard time leaving home. Through therapy, education, a few meds, and a lot of good luck, I've conquered most of it. I live a full happy life, with occasional reminders. But I never joke about anxiety--or agoraphobia.
by Judy Alter
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
on February 15, 2012
The Good Stuff
The description of the history of Sicily will have you laughing your ass off
A self deprecating honest look at life with a mental illness in a hopeful yet extremely hilarious way - this to me is hugely important and should be required readings for those dealing with these types of issues - things will get better no matter what
Doesn't blame her illness on anyone and doesn't go go all self-pity about it - just honest, straight to the point and did I mention OMG hilarious
Love the blender recipes
Her stories about her trip to Sicily as a teen, her boss at the Blessed Sanctuary and her trip to Planned Parenthood will have you laughing and cringing at the same time
Impressed with her bravery to come out with some very personal stories
She doesn't hold back with her recovery - she makes you know it was very slow, painful and it never completely went away but she can live and most importantly laugh at it which is incredibly healthy in my humble opinion
The Not So Good Stuff
I had a hard time with the jump from chapter to chapter - left me a little disorientated at first (only lasts for a sec though)
The many mentions of the bowl of pee grossed me out
You will snort out loud on the bus and people will stare (why oh why can I not learn that reading funny/sad books on the bus is not a good idea for someone who wants to be ignored during commute)
"The island was independent for, oh, six seconds, at which point the Kingdom of Aragon (not Aragorn, the foxiest dude in the Lord of the Rings) kindly stepped in."
"HELLO. ARE YOU THE DOCTOR?" he asked in the loud, slow voice that Americans reserve for non-English speakers (as if screaming in a foreigner's face is going to increase his or her comprehension of our mongrel tongue.)
"I imagine several generations of my father's Celtic ancestors consulted the same shaman whenever young Arthywolgen was possessed by the tree-spirits or little Domnighailag expressed an interest in Christianity,"
"I prayed for forgiveness, but to the Virgin Mary, not God. I figured she'd be more sympathetic to the whole unplanned pregnancy thing, especially since she and I both knew I wasn't carrying any messiah. And I'd always had a sneaking suspicion it was Joseph who knocked her up, anyway, and the Archangel Gabriel thing was a less secular version of the stork story."
Who Should/Shouldn't Read
Definitely not for those sensitive about religion or bodily functions- if that is you - do not pick up the book (but your world will be sadder for it)
Anyone who has or is suffering from a mental illness - especially agoraphobia - this is a must
Quite frankly other than those who are sensitive or serious about religion - you will get something from this (At the very least a good chuckle)
I received this from Williman Morrow in exchange for an honest review
"Agorafabulous" by Sara Benincasa is partly based on her one-woman show of the same name, and basically chronicles her battle with agoraphobia and debilitating fear, ultimately helping the author recover and find her true calling in the world--to be a stand-up comedian.
The book opens up with a typical tale from the author's life: She is eighteen years old and present on a school trip to Sicily. Suddenly, during a class trip to the beach, Benincasa is inundated with panic attacks and unable to leave the gas station bathroom, even as the two teachers outside will her to come out (which she does, and immediately falls to the ground, gets injured, and is driven by the school bus to the Sicilian hospital, all the while her class mates hate her for ruining their class trip). The way the author recounts this, is simultaneously sad and hilarious--as are much of the stories in this book.
This first story is followed by more chronologically-included train-wreck like tales from the author's life: her nervous breakdown while a student at Boston's Emerson College, her fascination with smoothies following an eating disorder, her job at a spiritual sanctuary with a sketchy boss, her stint as a teacher at an artsy Texas high school that doesn't require college degrees, her move to New York, her relationships, and ultimately her recovery.
It's a fun read, and you get the impression the author definitely has a talent for comedic writing. While on the surface things appear nice and breezy, it's interesting to realize that beneath all of the author's jokes and entertaining stories are some deep issues such as: mental breakdowns, agoraphobia, depression, eating disorders, some unhealthy relationships, and ultimately the search for an authentic self (for the author, it just happens to be deciding to become a stand-up comedian rather than a teacher). Thus this memoir caters to both: readers looking for a comedy-inspired memoir, and readers looking for some substance underneath.
Sara Benincasa says her first recognized panic attack occurred when she was eleven. As a teen, she became the centerfold for antidepressants and anti-anxiety drug usage. Still she matriculates at Emerson College until she cannot journey from her bedroom to the bathroom to pee. Her parents welcome her back to their New Jersey nest. She sees a psychiatrist and obtains new drugs. Sara slowly readapts to the world with stops in Asheville, Texas and finally New York; a place in which the majority of the population are crazier than she is.
This is profound yet jocular memoir that pulls no punches when Ms. Benincasa provides her avoidance techniques to never leave a safe bedroom such as pissing into a breakfast bowl. With help from her family and friends, she found some healing knowing they cared for her and tried the myriad of self-help guru books that never quite got her off the ledge. However, she found her muse in stand-up comedy in which she uses her agoraphobia incidents as a humorous healer. Mindful of "Make 'em Laugh" from Singin' In The rain, her credo is "that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them" and do almost anything. This includes using a bathroom and walking on a stage to get the audience to "laugh at your awful shit ..., you can officially call yourself a comedian" and a super self-help author.
on February 16, 2012
What Sara Benincasa does in this book is recount what I assume are the more interesting part of her life, mostly how she overcame a crippling disorder, but also her brief time as a teacher and earliest entry into stand-up comedy. She makes no attempt at covering up embarrassing details about things struggling with her agoraphobia caused her to do, including a fear of going into the bathroom, struggles with eating, wanting to die, sexual guilt, and other self-destructive behaviors. If her goal in writing this book was to give hope or inspiration to people with similar disorders, I think she has succeeded. With the help of friends and family, she made the way from a seemingly directionless young adulthood to her dream of going to Columbia University, and then into entertainment. It is no surprise to me that her background is in writing, because her writing style is colorful, to the point, and entertaining. I was a little disappointed with the book's brevity (though I am sure a lot of readers actually prefer shorter books), because it does feel like there are many interesting and funny stories from her life left untold. However, if that means more books are to come, then I will be pleased to read them.