From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The author's rampant agoraphobia and compensatory claustrophobia leave him terrified of almost any unfamiliar space, including highways, fields, elevators, bridges, tunnels, heights and airplanes; a walk down a country lane leaves him panting and paralyzed with fear. In this absorbing memoir, Shawn—a composer, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother of actor Wallace Shawn—approaches his panics from several angles. He explores the neurophysiology of phobic fear as an exaggerated, partly hereditary version of the innate human response to environmental threats. But he also offers a heavily Freudian account of his own panics, linking them to his parents' overprotectiveness and the resulting psychosexual and oedipal conflicts he suppressed from childhood onward. The latter perspective informs his vivid portraits of his family life; his brilliant, conflicted father, who suffered from similar phobias; and his autistic twin sister. Drawing on the writings of fellow agoraphobes like Emily Dickinson and Blaise Pascal, Shawn makes his fear of vast, exposed spaces a metaphor for humanity's existential predicament, an inchoate realization that "our brief life span is surrounded on all sides by nothingness." The result is both a lucid explication of psychopathology and a deeply felt evocation of a "pain in the soul." (Feb. 7)
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*Starred Review* A composer, pianist, teacher, and author of a book about Arnold Schoenberg, Shawn is plagued by agoraphobia. Afraid of both open and enclosed spaces, and new places, his fears wreak havoc in his life. Shawn has always tried to conceal these inconvenient phobias, but now, in a deeply personal and brilliantly analytical performance, he explains what it feels like to experience these incapacities, delineates the physiological processes involved, and considers how fear, a survival mechanism, becomes a handicap. Shawn creates elegant metaphors and memorable analogies as he explicates the workings of the brain and offers fresh and provocative readings of Darwin and Freud. And then there is the memoir aspect of his probing inquiry. Allen is twin to a mentally disabled sister and the brother of actor and playwright Wallace. Their father was famed New Yorker editor William Shawn, a man of as many phobias as accomplishments whose longtime extramarital affair with colleague Lillian Ross cast a pall over his family. In assessing his complex legacy, Shawn anchors his simultaneously disquieting and affirming study of phobias to real life and uncloaks many essential facets of the human condition. Donna Seaman
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