‘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.…

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