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Allen Shawn was born to write a book about phobias. An agoraphobic who struggles with an all-encompassing “fear of the marketplace,” he’s terrified by things both concrete and abstract—heights, water, tunnels, elevators, open spaces, closed spaces, and isolation—and he rarely strays from the small liberal-arts school where he teaches music. His literary pedigree is unimpeachable; the son of longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother of playwright-actor Wallace Shawn, the author grew up around the likes of J.D. Salinger and Truman Capote. Shawn should have absorbed a formidable writer’s resources through osmosis, so why is his memoir often so meek? For a biography of fear, Wish I Could Be There is a fairly brave book: Shawn’s unabashed recounting of the myriad personal triggers that led him into his unusual, anxious life is captivating. Psychodrama is in no short supply—Shawn’s autistic twin sister was institutionalized, and his polyamorous father maintained another family with his mother’s knowledge, causing much repressed humiliation. “Would I have become agoraphobic…[w]ithout our remarkable pileup of family secrets?” Shawn wonders, but he doesn’t blanch when digging deep into that pile to explore his initiation into sex and Freudian notions of his sister as his “first love.” In fact, in its determined excavation of the reasons why he cannot board an airplane or drive through the Holland Tunnel without an accompanying panic attack, Wish I Could Be There is Shawn’s extended self-psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, like much psychoanalysis, Shawn’s book bores as much as it fascinates. Too often it degenerates into pedestrian, footnote-free dissections of Freud, neuroscience, and humankind’s cognitive evolution. Perhaps because of the peculiar anatomy of Shawn’s melancholy—it takes him 27 years and two tries to drive from Vermont to Delaware to visit his institutionalized twin—little of his pontificating rises above armchair psychology. Shawn’s disorganized pseudophilosophy, which amounts to little more than a random academic’s thoughts about intellectual giants working outside his field, has a stifling, medieval air. If one wants to revisit the Oedipus complex, Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, not Shawn, should be the guide; when Shawn takes up the animal brain, Darwin’s The Origin of Species seems more relevant. Here, the sins of the father are indeed visited upon the son; Wish I Could Be There is precious, overacademic, and square—the perfect caricature of the New Yorker’s worst drawing-room prose. “The degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling,” Shawn writes. True—and he should write about himself more often, as his stirring biography, undiluted by distracting explications of the amygdala, makes one hell of a story. But Shawn chooses to leave much of himself out of much of the book, making his “own past into something of an abstraction so that the reader is encouraged to think about his or her own life.” His logic is sound, but it handicaps his narrative. Shawn has invested much of himself in Wish I Could Be There. Even so, readers will probably wish he was there more often.