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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, Thoughtful, Inspirational
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,...
Published on February 21, 2007 by Jessilynn Almstead

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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "I have been dragging a ball and chain everywhere I go."
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...
Published on February 11, 2008 by E. Bukowsky


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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, Thoughtful, Inspirational, February 21, 2007
This review is from: Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life (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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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "I have been dragging a ball and chain everywhere I go.", February 11, 2008
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. He forces himself to travel, in spite of the anticipatory anxiety that he endures before each trip and his exhaustion when the excursion is over. During panic attacks, he has one or more of these symptoms: nausea, a tightening of the muscles, breathlessness, a raised heart rate, and a feeling of intense isolation. His is "a circumscribed world," but he has managed to enjoy romantic relationships and a fulfilling life as a musician and teacher. There may be a genetic component to Shawn's problems, since his father, William Shawn (who edited "The New Yorker Magazine" for thirty-five years) was phobic and his mother had emotional problems that plagued her for years. In addition, Shawn has always felt deeply saddened about the plight of his twin sister, Mary, who is mentally disabled lives in an institution. His experiences growing up in a family "with many invisible barriers" and secrets (including a hidden affair that his father conducted with a colleague for more than forty years) may have contributed to his troubles.

If you enjoy first person accounts of individuals who courageously confront mental illness, I recommend the superb "The Center Cannot Hold" by Elyn Saks. Ms. Saks's story is amazing and well-written, but what makes it outstanding is her unflinching honesty, clarity, and personal approach to her subject. "Wish I Could Be There" may too clinical and dry for most laymen.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thank you, Allen Shawn., June 3, 2007
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This review is from: Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life (Hardcover)
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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Often fascinating, and very lucid, January 20, 2008
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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."

Also unmentioned was the fact that Shawn's father (William Shawn, who was the editor of the New Yorker for 35 years) was living a double life, carrying on a long-term relationship with another woman, whose existence was known to his wife but not his children. That so many subjects were off-limits, and that a great secret was being kept by the parents, put an emotional strain on the family. Shawn was also scarred by his early separation from his twin sister, Mary, who was autistic (a modern diagnosis of her developmental problems) and was institutionalized at the age of eight. (Shawn's older brother is the actor Wallace Shawn.)

Shawn's discussion of his parent's neuroses and the impact they had on his family, so lucidly discussed, makes for riveting reading. Here, for example, is a description of how his mother's need to control events was sometimes manifested:

"She couldn't and didn't drive, and she shared my father's need to direct every turn a driver should make while taking her somewhere. On the occasions when we traveled as a family in a rented car with a driver, she held the map and dictated every move. A drive to Lincoln Center was planned almost like a military campaign. A taxi driver would be addressed with the utmost courtesy but in a manner appropriate for someone who didn't speak English, did not know the city well, and was hard of hearing. Neither of my parents would ever have dreamed of stating the destination at the outset of the drive. The exact route was doled out slowly, and the final destination always saved for last. 'Thank you. Now, we want to go down FIFTH AVENUE to the EIGHTY-FIFTH STREET TRANSVERSE...and then across to...COLUMBUS.'"

I should add that Shawn's account is utterly devoid of rancor: he is not out to blame his parents for his own problems. In exploring the roots of his phobias he is laying bare the strange environment in which they were nurtured, but his approach is analytical. He could almost be an anthropologist describing the habits of test subjects. The result is a very interesting read.

-- Debra Hamel
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wish I Could Be There, November 28, 2007
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This review is from: Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life (Hardcover)
I found this book to be excellent, mostly because I suffer from the same condition. I was looking for answers to my own experiences and found them in this book. It clarifies many of the same symptoms, thoughts and feelings, and gives one the feeling that this suffering is not mine alone. Thank you, Allen Shawn, for writing this book and making others feels a whole lot better.
Connie Wilkins
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dry and depressingly humorless., February 2, 2008
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I have been agoraphobic in the past, and I have grappled on occasion with many of the same issues as the author and like another reviewer, I had very high hopes for this book. But I couldn't stomach it. For me, it was absolutely, utterly, hopelessly bleak. Reading it brought back feelings of panic I put behind myself years ago. I bought the book under the misapprehension that I might find something redeeming, or at least humorous- maybe, in the challenges that phobics face. I could not have been more wrong! Mr. Shawn has my sympathy, but I wish I had not read this book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary insight into the phobic life, November 5, 2007
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This review is from: Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life (Hardcover)
If you've ever been touched with even the mildest phobia, you'll understand the hell of Allen Shawn's inner life. Everything is frightening. Even the simplest decisions must be considered for the thousand different pathways that the mind can imagine arising. Nothing is simple: everything is complex. Even home is a dangerous place.

Shawn's father was William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker for many years. Dad also had a mistress for the last 35 years, an arrangement his wife knew of and apparently accepted to some extent. The elder Shawn was well known for his phobias and eccentricities.

Allen can't find a cure for his legion phobias, though it is apparent he has valiantly tried. In the process, he has learned just about everything there is to know about phobias. He mixes his expert knowledge with his own life experiences. It is a compelling tale and you can, unfortunately, fell all too well Shawn's pain at having to say so often "Wish I could be there". Shawn wants to be there, whether it's the performances at his children's school or of his own compositions, but he can't make it. His phobias keep him from getting from here to there.

The person who has never experienced agortaphobia, anxiety or panic disorder may not be able to appreciate Shawn's experience and knowledge. For those who have even the mildest experience, Shawn's experiences touch home.

Shawn, in a way, sums it all up in one line: "[t]he agoraphobic predicament seems to be that one cannot easily move forward in the world without knowing already what lies ahead".

This is clearly a specialty book that will not appeal to everyone. But for those who have had a phobic experience, lived with or known someone who is phobic, it is interesting and worthwhile.

Jerry
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nicely Done., March 12, 2007
This review is from: Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life (Hardcover)
Allen Shawn, who suffers from panic and phobias gives us an insiders view. His father most likely did also, and to cope, he structured his life where he went from home to office, office to home without having to deal with open spaces or Nature which triggered his anxiety. Shawn is taking a closer look at what makes those people with heightened anxiety tick. It indeed is their physiology but what else? I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anybody who suffers from anxiety or panic.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confronting the Fears of a Fearful Life, July 20, 2007
This review is from: Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life (Hardcover)
It is a scary world out there, and we are rightly concerned to drive carefully, use our seatbelts, avoid dangerous neighborhoods after dark, and refrain from picking up snakes before herpetological identification. Some anxiety is good for us; the person who has no worries just isn't paying enough attention. Composer Allen Shawn, however, has more than his share. He gets terrified if he is in an enclosed space, and then he gets terrified if he is somewhere in the wide outdoors. He has trouble negotiating bridges and tunnels or driving on any unfamiliar road, and he cannot ride on a subway. When he tries such adventures, he has numerous physical symptoms. His breath gets short, his vision blanks out, he gets confused and agitated, his muscles get tight, and he has to try to get out of what his mind and body are telling him is his dangerous situation. "I'm working on this 'agorophobia' problem," he writes in _Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life_ (Viking), and part of his work was surely this volume itself. It is composed of his layman's research into the most recent science of phobias, as well as nods to the interpretations by Freud and others, but is best as a memoir concentrating on his family and upbringing, and the effects upon him of his own phobias and theirs.

Shawn was the son of the famous editor of _The New Yorker_, William Shawn, and his wife Cecille who had been a reporter in Chicago, both of whom had phobias but of less degree than he has. The family kept quiet about its Jewish background and about the father's long term affair with another writer. They also said little about the author's twin sister Mary who was institutionalized at age eight and remains so, for mental retardation now diagnosed as autism. Shawn tries to understand this peculiar upbringing, full of love, concern, intellectualization, and concealment. "Would I have become agoraphobic without my mother's ... deeply conflicted response to my growth and independence? ... without a retarded twin sister who was sent away? Without our remarkable pileup of family secrets?" The questions mount, and of course the assistance they give in understanding is merely from being asked, since they can never be satisfactorily answered. Shawn piles up documentation of scientific thinking about fear. "The fear response is something admirable. Those of us who are subject to its misfiring shouldn't blame the response itself. Every single ingredient in it is the result of millennia of adaptations that helped us to survive." His descriptions of panic are indeed scary, but his intellectual understanding of it does not help: "I remain dumbfounded at how automatic, instantaneous, and severe my reactions are, not to mention how trivial the triggers can be."

Shawn understands the condition in general, and the specifics of his own case, and such intellectualizations help, but they do not take the condition away. In a book full of literary allusions, he quotes Robert Burton from almost five centuries ago, who wrote that for such terrors, "counsel can do little good: you may as well bid him that... is wounded not to feel pain." Shawn's life remains circumscribed by his illness. He is an internationally renowned composer, but cannot get to performances of his own work. He cannot make himself attend such necessities as family funerals. He cannot go to elevated levels of buildings for appointments or for parties. It is hard to see a bright sides of such a condition, but he can find at least some. He got anxiety from being in groups, but found that if he took the leadership of the group, or conducted it, or gave a speech, he was at least in a role that would cause some anxiety in anyone, and his anxiety was at least more explicable. His insistence on avoiding newness and danger does not affect his musical compositions, because he is disappointed if a new piece doesn't break some new ground, and was complimented when a critic said of a piece that it had unexpected twists and turns. The unexpected is fine in his music, but he does not want it in his daily life. It is interesting, too, that he is "as able to cope with normal nervousness as the next person". A job interview or a concert performance produces anticipatory anxiety that he can deal with by taking a deep breath and plunging in. He can sometimes muster the courage to do so even against the madness-tinged anxiety he describes here, and to have researched and written a book like this one surely was a courageous act for someone who likes routine and who lists as a main difficulty his inability to "move forward in the world without knowing already what lies ahead." With good humor and curiosity, he has presented a mystifying and crippling condition without self-pity and with an invitation to consider that his abnormalities may help us appreciate our own lives, which may be closer to normal (whatever that is) but are still not far from his own.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Being Entirely Honest With Oneself Is A Good Exercise" S. Freud, October 7, 2007
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It seems to me that the writing of this very honest memoir must have been a therapeutic exercise for author Alan Shawn as well as offering insight to those wishing to understand anxiety and phobias. Mr. Shawn attempts to relate Freudian theories into the schemes of his life to explain the neurosis that afflict him. Although I have always had difficulty swallowing Freud's explanations for such behaviors, Shawn certainly makes a strong case of explaining how his family dynamics and perhaps genetic predisposition created the perfect storm in his own life. In fact, the most compelling part of the book are his personal notes, rather than his interpretations of Freud's psychologocal theories. I immensely enjoyed the stories of his parents, his siblings, and his family life which not only possessed great insight but were rather entertaining as well. His candid writing style and honest description could make even the sanest person relate. After all, we are all afflicted with some degree of anxiety and in Shawn's case, although heightened, it becomes understandable as he sheds light into his innermost thoughts and openly shares his journey towards acceptance and some degree of control.
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Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life
Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life by Allen Shawn (Hardcover - February 1, 2007)
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