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Wish I Could Be ThereReview - Wish I Could Be There
Notes from a Phobic Life
by Allen Shawn
Penguin, 2007
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H.
Jan 8th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 2)

Wish I Could Be There is the beautifully crafted handiwork of composer of music and writer Allen Shawn.  As traversed in incomplete autobiographic detail in the book, the path of Shawn's life has been strewn copiously with phobic concerns, prominently including agoraphobia, which have unpleasantly fomented intense personal anguish.  These psychological inner demons, in mesmerizing fashion, are conjured up for the reader through the medium of Shawn's brilliant writing ability.

As written, the book has a dual identity.  Shawn drifts back and forth between absorbingly recounting, in memoir like style, autobiographic bits and pieces of his phobic tormented life, while also making intellectually gritty attempts at plumbing some of the profundities of phobias with relatively esoteric, academic style discourses.

But phobias are immensely complex psychological phenomena, and particular critics may opine that Shawn is far more a masterful writer and source of knowledge regarding the details of his own life than an adept at probing the daunting complexities of phobias with academic type tools.  And indeed, for some at least, the book may have been even more engaging  of readers' interest if Shawn had focused more sharply on an autobiographic account of his psychological quirks, rather than hybridizing the book with extended musings, which may be perceived by some as being technically arid in nature and, at times, meandering in direction.

All persons intrigued by human psychology, however, will likely be raptly attentive to this fascinating book.  At the least, the autobiographic as well as technical directed information presented should be assistive to efforts to gingerly examine the prickly surface of phobias in search of better understanding of their psychologically highly nettlesome nature.

Twelve chapters comprise the structural mainstays of the book.  The chapters are bookended by a "foreword" and an "introduction" on one side, and by an "epilogue" and "selected readings" on the other.  In the foreword, Shawn explains that the book is not comprehensively a memoir.  And, in the introduction, the reader is informed that Shawn is (or has been) afflicted with a multitude of phobias.  As described by Shawn, a scroll written up with the phobias of Shawn, if unfolded, might stretch all the way to China.  In the chapters that follow, Shawn parcels out a number of autobiographic morsels which certainly should be adequate in amount to whet the appetite of readers hungry for real life information about phobias, albeit perhaps not enough to fully satiate the intellectual hunger of ravenously curious readers.

As the various chapters unwind, the reader is informed of particular incidents in the life of Shawn connected to his phobic concerns.

The variant of phobia known as agoraphobia is especially of concern to Shawn.  The task of fleshing out the bones of his agoraphobic concern starts in the book's introduction, where Shawn pithily describes an incident in which a seemingly innocuous car drive to a friend's house is truncated unhappily by the psychologically punishing sword of agoraphobia.

Over the course of the book, Shawn also reveals a good amount of information regarding persons attached importantly to his life.  In Chapter Two, for instance, Shawn exposes details relating to phobic quirks which infected the psyche of his father.  In Chapter Six, Shawn delves into his childhood, notably encompassing introspective comment with regard to his mentally impaired twin sister as well as his brother, mother and father.  Shawn returns to a discussion of his twin sister in Chapter Ten, where he describes his twin sister's departure from the family home, and the resultant emotional turmoil which engulfed him.  The subject of Shawn's twin sister is sewn further into the fabric of concluding Chapter Twelve, where Shawn movingly describes a visit to his twin sister, and a meeting with her psychiatrist (who explains to Shawn that his twin sister is autistic).

In the discussions which are bound to the autobiographic fragments populating the book, Shawn goes into theoretical details.  In his determined efforts to instructively dissect the very complicated psychological anatomy of phobias, Shawn further displays a rather strong penchant for drawing on pertinent psychological insights contributed by Freud.  An intellectual attraction to Freud is actually embedded fairly deeply in the book.  The scientific work of Darwin likewise garners the attention of Shawn.  Particularly, in Chapter Three, Shawn endeavors to add edifying perspective to behavioral phenomena by retracing some of the limbs of such phenomena to their roots.  This quest takes Shawn along an intellectual trail leading to Darwin's scientific work.

Scientific research is ongoing, regarding phobias.  To Shawn's very considerable credit, his informative and insightful account of how phobias have sorely and persistently tugged and pulled at his emotions and behaviors may be helpfully conducive to moving such research in a forward direction.  Psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, behavioral therapists, and neurophysiologists are among the professional groups who may be engrossed by Shawn's animating descriptions of his phobic malaise.

© 2008 Leo  Uzych

Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.


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