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The Not Returning Part of It’

Maxim Gorky wrote of Chekhov that “in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself.” The persona that emerges from Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, Allen Shawn’s book about his life as a phobic, produces a similar effect. Shawn’s writing generates an atmosphere of almost palpable authenticity; one reads the book in a kind of trance of trust, certain that the writer is incapable of pretense and falseness. To learn that he grew up in a household ruled by pretense and falseness is to hear the shoe drop. Yes, of course. Those who have been lied to are especially prone to compulsive truth-telling.

Allen Shawn was born into one of those postwar upper-middle-class families where nothing is what it seems. The parents were Jewish—but not really Jewish. The mother was depressed—but always cheerful. A daughter (Allen’s twin) was autistic—but not acknowledged to be, and then sent away. The marriage was troubled (the husband had a mistress)—but appearances were kept up. If the family habit of lying gave Allen Shawn his taste for truth, it had less desirable consequences as well. “The secrecy itself and the atmosphere it created are surely relevant to the evolution of my phobias,” Shawn writes in a passage about his father’s double life (of which he didn’t learn until he was almost thirty) and its sometimes comical complexities: “It wasn’t uncommon for him to eat, or at least, attend four or even five meals a day to accommodate all the important people in his life.”

The father, as the reader must know, was William Shawn, the late legendary editor of The New Yorker, whose own phobias are part of the legend. When Allen Shawn writes of what he calls his father’s “additional partner,” he is letting out no family secret. The secret was let out by the partner herself, Lillian Ross, in 1998, when she published a memoir, Here But Not Here. The book came as a shock to many people who had known William Shawn. Shawn guarded his privacy as if it were his most precious possession, and Ross’s heedless chronicle of their forty-year-long affair (with photographs to buttress her words in case anyone doubted them) seemed an especially brutal violation of trust. Today, fourteen years after Shawn’s death, the book reads differently. The waters have closed and Shawn has entered the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead. Ross’s revelations about Shawn’s intimate life that seemed distasteful when he was freshly dead now seem merely—interesting. They will be gathered by Shawn’s biographers and pasted into some corner of the collage of found scraps that constitutes biographical portraiture. Most important, perhaps, they freed Allen Shawn to speak of the family secret that gave his childhood its phobia-inviting unease. Here is his problem:

I don’t like heights. I don’t like being on the water. I am upset by walking across parking lots or open parks or fields where there are no buildings. I tend to avoid bridges, unless they are on a small scale. I respond poorly to stretches of vastness but do equally badly when I am closed in, as I am severely claustrophobic. When I go to a theater, I sit on the aisle. I am petrified of tunnels, making most train travel as well as many drives difficult. I don’t take subways. I avoid elevators as much as possible. I experience glassed-in spaces as toxic, and I find it very difficult to adjust to being in buildings in which the windows don’t open…. When I am invited to a new house or apartment or to an event of any kind, my first reaction is to worry about its location…. The degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling.

The last sentence underscores Allen Shawn’s capacity for detachment. Indeed, his whole book reads as if it were written by a gifted and humane doctor studying a patient who happens to be himself. “What precisely is the matter?” he asks. Shawn suffers from agoraphobia, which is a “more global” condition than simple phobia. (Among the examples he uses to illustrate simple phobia is a woman who was afraid of chicken legs. “Every time she was asked to a party she had to call up and ask, ‘You’re not serving chicken legs, are you?’ The one time she went to a party and there were chicken parts for dinner, she had a huge reaction. She had to be taken to the emergency room.”) Agoraphobia is “a restriction of activities brought about by a fear of having panic symptoms in situations in which one is far from help or escape is perceived to be difficult.” Allen Shawn’s agoraphobia has kept him from going to many places he wanted to go, some of which he even started out for but was unable to reach before panic set in. However, it has not set him back in his career as a composer, pianist, and college professor and may even have been—as it was for his father—a kind of gift.

People who suffer from phobias seem to suffer from a disorder of the imagination. They are afraid when there is nothing to be afraid of. Or is there? As Allen Shawn points out, the world is a dangerous place, disaster may strike at any moment. The phobic isn’t crazy to think that a stretch of lonely road makes him vulnerable to attack. When the horror of death sweeps over a phobic and overwhelms him, he is surely only facing what the rest of us irrationally deny. The almost uncanny rapport that William Shawn was able to establish with his writers derived from his agoraphobia, Allen Shawn believes: “Had he been an inveterate traveler, a doer, or a true extrovert, he would have become too jaded and worldly to maintain the striking innocence and almost infinite receptivity that made him capable of listening so raptly and carefully to what writers had to say.”

In its affectionate perspicacity, Allen Shawn’s portrait of his father brings to mind Edmund Gosse’s portrait of Philip Gosse in Father and Son. It will give enormous pleasure to those who knew William Shawn and felt that Ross’s memoir failed to do justice to his sensibility. Writing of the double life, Allen pauses to quietly remark, “It was only double viewed from the outside, of course. To him it was just his life.” This capacity for entering into the subjectivity of another (the word “empathy” doesn’t convey the difficulty and generosity) separates Wish I Could Be There from the usual accusatory memoir of troubled childhood. Allen Shawn writes of his father not as the callous agent of his sufferings but as a fellow sufferer, to be no less tenderly treated by the attending narrator-physician than he treats himself. He writes of his father’s adultery not as a transgression but as an attempt to cure a loneliness so extreme that no one woman could fill it.

It is known that William Shawn had a troubled relationship with the physical world—that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or to hear about diseases and operations; that he wore warm clothes when the weather was in the 90s; that he was afraid of germs (he “wasn’t someone who would taste something from someone else’s plate”); that he had many of the phobias his son was to acquire. Allen Shawn doesn’t so much add to this picture as render it without the usual subtle contempt.

Shawn writes about his mother with similar affection and compassion. Cecille Shawn had been a reporter at the Chicago Daily News, a lively, “ripely attractive girl,” when she and William Shawn met, in the 1920s. “They were intellectual equals, with my mother being the tougher, more practical, and more experienced of the two,” he writes. But after marriage Cecille abandoned her career and, over time, succumbed to an unacknowledged depression. The death of her first baby and a later miscarriage, the husband’s affair, and the daughter’s mental impairment all contributed to a gradual sad diminishment. In a passage about his mother’s face, Allen’s metaphoric point is almost too obvious:

Like many women of her day, I suppose, she considered putting on makeup before seeing anyone to be practically a religious commandment. She called this colorful mask her face, as in “I need to put my face on.” When I was small, I was fascinated by the sophisticated and wonderfully hard-boiled look her features had when unadorned. To me, this highly intelligent, older-looking, more complex face was her real one, and I used to try to encourage her to leave off the makeup once in a while. She wouldn’t.

She couldn’t. The Shawns needed to deny harsh realities and paper over unpleasant ones. It was evidently not pleasant to be Jewish. “Being Jewish was also a matter for some distant uneasiness, at least enough for it to be fun for my brother to begin a dining table discussion, ‘Well, we Jews…’” (The mischievous brother is Wallace Shawn, the playwright and actor, who is five years older than Allen and was a kindly, protective presence throughout Allen’s childhood.) On the matter of the family’s Jewphobia, Allen Shawn cannot resist a dig at his father: “When a minister friend of my brother’s visited the house and said a prayer at Thanksgiving dinner, he was deeply moved, but it is hard to picture him being as moved if the friend had been a rabbi.”

Sex was another difficult subject. Shawn is very funny about his father’s attempt to provide sex education:

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…I know now that he must have been afraid of handling it the wrong way and scarring me for life. He was incapable of saying, “I have done this myself”; it had to be “we” or “it” or “one” (“It’s perfectly normal…”). In an effort to be tactful, he managed to imply that the concept of masturbation was sure to be new to me. This reinforced my shame about pleasures already taken.

Wish I Could Be There is an oddly structured book. The autobiographical writing is interspersed with chapters—that have some of the flavor of school reports—on the clues that evolutionary biology, brain anatomy, and Freudian psychology, among other disciplines, might offer to the enigma of phobia. But the clues remain clues, the enigma remains an enigma, and as we read we notice that the book is circling back on itself rather than moving forward. Allen Shawn acknowledges his nonlinear approach with his subtitle “Notes on a Phobic Life.” But the subtitle may be more than a disclaimer—the double meaning of the word “notes” (fittingly enough) may point to a musical model for the book’s organization. Like the recapitulations of themes in music, Shawn’s obsessive returns to already dealt with subjects have a quality of intentionality, even of inevitability.

The subject that he returns to most often and that comes closer than anything else to answering the question “What precisely is the matter?” is Mary, his autistic twin, whose strange nature and disruptive behavior became too painful for the parents, and who was put in a home at the age of eight. “I often wonder what would have happened to her if she had been born into the—then rare—type of family that could have more resourcefully incorporated her into their routine,” Shawn writes. But, more to the point of his book, what would have happened to him?

Mary’s “exile” demonstrated that one could be turned out of the house for being too difficult to handle or understand, for being too inefficient mentally, or for being too wild. This added yet another layer of mystification to an already fairly mystifying atmosphere.

To avoid Mary’s “punishment,” Allen cultivated the role of the preternaturally “good” child, who never gave trouble and was always reasonable and agreeable—a role that he has carried into adult life, and into his literary persona. But he believes that there is “something false” about this persona and that “my better, darker music represents something truer about me; it is way ahead of the rest of me,” he writes. “In music I could be wild, aggressive, irreverent, and unpredictable; in life I shunned behavior that would remind me of the chaos of Mary’s mind.”

It is as his twin that Mary casts her deepest shadow on Allen’s life. He records his memory of being in a crib parallel to hers, rocking in time to her rocking. He knows how unlikely such an early memory is, but cannot shake its force. He writes of Mary as his first love, and associates the experience of sleeping next to her in infancy with adult sexual happiness. He writes of the “grief, loneliness, guilt, bewilderment, rage, disillusionment, shock, the sense of having been betrayed by my parents, and, perhaps, also relief” he felt when Mary disappeared. Finally, in a stunning tour de force of interpretation, he draws a parallel between her autism and his agoraphobia:

I can’t help noticing that she, like me, is subject to “attacks,” lives within a fixed routine, resists even minute changes from what she expects, is extremely limited in her ability to travel. She is institutionalized, I am out here, “free” and “functioning”; yet I have managed to build some invisible walls around myself. I have remained her “twin,” finding ways to make my life parallel to hers.

Shawn writes of a recent journey he forced himself to make to Mary’s institution in Delaware. He started out once and had to turn back. When he tried again a week later, he woke up dizzy and nauseated, and did his laundry. Finally he got on the road, and repeatedly felt an impulse, “coming with the force of the cargo in the hold of a ship lurching to the opposite side of the boat,” to turn back. He managed to reach the motel where he had booked a room to break the trip—and where something extraordinary happened to him:

I had an unexpected mental image, like a waking dream. I saw Mary before me, and I slapped her. “How could you put me through this?” I was yelling. “How could you?” In my imagination she burst into tears, baffled, and said my name, and said, “What are you doing, Allen? That’s not nice, Allen,” and I cried, and she cried….

The author of the waking dream was clearly Allen’s wild, aggressive, irreverent, unpredictable self—and this self is not absent from the book that the nice self is writing. The “good” self set out to write a book about his phobias and phobia in general, but the “bad” self ensured that the book would defy the conventions of its genre and become a “better, darker” thing. As Allen Shawn circles his mysterious putative subject, he is drawn to the mysteries that everyone who thinks bumps up against. When he writes about the death anxiety he experienced as a child—lying terrified in the dark at the thought that “there was no help, that my parents could not help me, and that there was no escape from the fact of it, not even some special hint of a way out that might just apply to me”—he is hardly describing thinking exclusive to phobics. Many—perhaps most—normal children and adolescents are terrified, if not traumatized, by the idea of mortality. Shawn returns to the subject in a poetic passage that suddenly and for no apparent reason floats into a late chapter, and takes on the weight of a vatic message:

Life’s unknowns are often knowable; many can be rehearsed or at least imagined. But death is surrounded by an infinite fog on an ocean without end. It is perhaps simplistic to say it, but one can understand death only in terms of its opposite, life. For me, it was always the not returning part of it that made me start up in the dark, suffocating. Yet after my father, who had never even ridden on an airplane, disappeared into that fog, it began to take on other meanings, and I began to dimly see that the not returning part of it is there with us all along, inside us, from the moment we appear into the bewildering new stimuli of the world, even from the moment we start to form out of the fertilized ovum. Now that my mother is gone, it is clearer still. There is only forward motion, and there always was only forward motion. There was never any turning back.

When Allen finally reaches his sister at her institution, he feels “an indefinable emotion, essential, yet as colorless as water” and “a sense of wholeness, a kind of relaxation response.” Mary no longer has “the almost porcelain prettiness and look of utter normality” she had as a child. She is a middle-aged woman who has been medicated for a long time and has an atmosphere of abnormality. But “being with her locates the source of a strange feeling I carry around with me everywhere. I wouldn’t be myself without her.” Moreover, “she exudes an essence of personality uncannily reminiscent of my father’s and brother’s.” Allen’s own essence, as it wafts out of his book, has a similar uncanny evocativeness. The editor, the playwright, and the essayist are bound by a thread of—what? Is the word “innocence”? Allen uses it to describe his father’s capacity for listening to writers, in opposition to the word “jaded.” The writing of both Wallace and Allen Shawn has, as the conversation of William Shawn had, a rare quality of cleanness—as if it came from a spring rather than from the stale pool of received ideas that most talk and writing comes from. Such purity would be chastening were it not accompanied by a playfulness that takes away the sting and puts in a kind of good word for us all.

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