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Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life Hardcover – February 1, 2007

3.8 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1 edition (February 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670038423
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670038428
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,157,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This quick read gives an in depth look at the science behind fear and the realm of emotion, and acts as a memoir at the same time. I recommend this book to anyone who battles phobias, panic, anxiety, shyness, communication difficulty, autism, and any mental illness. The role of family is central, and definitely inspires deep thought about the reader's own experiences, even if very different from the author's. Most people can relate to at least some aspect of the author's account. It ends optomistically, offering new perspectives on phobias and fear as individuals, society and human beings.
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Format: Hardcover
In the foreword to Allen Shawn's "Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life," the author states that he has been afflicted with agoraphobia ("an abnormal fear of being in crowds, public places, or open areas, sometimes accompanied by anxiety attacks") throughout his adult life. When a friend suggested that he write a book about his struggles, the fifty-seven year old Shawn "balked at the idea of presenting this aspect of [himself] in print." The reader quickly senses the author's reluctance to lay his soul bare. Shawn states, "I have not attempted a memoir in a ... comprehensive sense." Therein lies the problem. Instead of letting us into his world and providing meaningful glimpses of his day-to-day life, Shawn keeps us at arm's length. Except in passing, he does not discuss his marriage or his children. Using stilted and formal language, he spends many pages discussing "the brain, the physiology of fear, the way we form habits of thought and behavior, [and] what Freud was trying to describe of the inner life of the mind...." For those not studying to be clinical psychologists, these passages are slow going. Even when Shawn reveals details about himself and his family background, he does so with such detachment that it is difficult to identify with his plight. This sentence says it all: "I have deliberately tried to make my own past into something of an abstraction so that the reader is encouraged to think about his or her own life." "Wish I Could Be There" provides an intellectual perspective into the evolution and biological roots of fear. However, it will disappoint those who prefer a livelier and more anecdotal approach.

Shawn is afraid of heights, traveling by water, open parks, fields, bridges, closed-in spaces, wide-open spaces, tunnels, elevators, and subways.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This very wise book does more than describe phobias and the phobic's world; it also clearly explains how all of us, as adults, are powerfully shaped by our childhoods and our upbringing, and how coming to terms with this takes many of us all of our adult life.

It is in parts purely reportorial (as when Mr. Shawn describes for us what it is to be in the throes of panic attacks); part analysis of the history of anxiety and phobia (almost scholarly in the approach and persuasion); and part biography, as it is heavily detailed in his memories of childhood. My Shawn is at times like a novice pilot guiding a 767 with only two-thirds of the flight manual (as when he describes his own crippling phobias); at times the careful, understanding analyst with a difficult patient; at times simply the dutiful reporter given a perplexing assignment; and at times the careful historian.

All in all, Mr Shawn approaches his own crippling phobias without even a suggestion of self-pity, often with the detachment of a good scientist, and always connects his own fears to the larger world: historically, culturally, and behaviorally. There is not a whit of solipsism here.

I'd recommend this book for anyone who copes with any fear or fears they believe, in some respects, to be irrational; or to anyone who simply wants to better know what it is like to be all too human.
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Format: Hardcover
Allen Shawn's book on phobias is often fascinating, sometimes hard going, and always written in laudably precise prose. Shawn's approach to the subject is two-fold. In several chapters he discusses the science of phobias. He writes, for example, about the various types of phobia, about the functioning of the brain, about how the brain responds to fear, about Darwin and Freud. Though a layman, Shawn has done a lot of research on the topic, and he is clearly a very smart guy. These chapters of the book were, for me, the boring bits, but I can easily imagine a more scientifically inclined reader enjoying them as much as the rest of the book.

Shawn also discusses the subject of phobias from a personal perspective. He is riddled with phobias himself--the fear of elevators and of tunnels, of closed spaces and open spaces and unfamiliar routes. Though he's managed to enjoy a successful career as a composer, his agoraphobia has significantly curtailed his activities. In exploring his life as a phobic, Shawn unpacks his childhood, subjecting his family's dynamics to dispassionate analysis. His was an unusual family.

Shawn's parents were themselves both neurotic. Many subjects were taboo in the home--the relationship of the meat on one's plate to its animal source, for example, his mother's mental health, human sexuality:

"Before I left for music camp at thirteen, my father told me that I might encounter an activity called masturbation while I was there, but he looked as if he might be about to commit suicide after our conversation.
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