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Wish I Could Be There

3.31  ·  Rating details ·  348 Ratings  ·  84 Reviews
In addition to being the son of famous New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother of the distinguished playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, Allen Shawn is agoraphobic-he is afraid of both public spaces and isolation. Wish I Could Be There gracefully captures both of these extraordinary realities, blending memoir and scientific inquiry in an utterly engrossing quest to unde ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published February 1st 2007 by Penguin Group (USA) (first published 2007)
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May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An unusual book, beautifully written. Shawn became a full-blown agoraphobic as a young adult, and remains at the time of this book's writing a few years ago (his late 50s) terrified of open spaces, enclosed spaces, flying, and traveling, among other things. He examines his phobias from many angles, including family history, biology, evolution, and psychoanalysis. There isn't a moment of self-pity in the book--only a grief for lost experiences. At the same time Shawn persuasively argues that our ...more
Mar 16, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: yo-mind-is-bad
I was telling Jodi how I've recently become a shut-in and she recommended this book. Jodi isn't a big reader but she has dealt with her share of agoraphobia so I was all about checkin' it out.

Ummm . . . Jodi, did you actually read this book? The whole thing? The only reason I kept reading was because I didn't want to miss something worthwhile after all the time I had invested in it.

Guess what? There was no good part.

Shawn goes into great detail about the evolutionary explanations for phobias whi
I rarely rate books as amazing and I have critiques of this book. There are portions of this book that drag, but I highly recommend this book to anyone that has a friend/family member with phobias. As a person that struggles with bouts of agoraphobia, I can share that many of the descriptions are true to my experience. I'm going to encourage those closest to me to simply read the introduction and first chapter because there is plenty in that section alone.

Some quotes:

"I wanted to wriggle out of
This book is kind of an unholy union. Half of it is an interesting memoir about Allen Shawn's family, his life, and his phobias (and the intersections of the three). The other half is a relatively boring summary of neurological and psychological aspects of phobias.

The memoir part of it is, well, like I said: really interesting. Shawn's family background is fascinating. That's a little disingenuous, because I honestly think that almost anyone could write a good book about their family and childh
Sep 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs, read-in-2008
An odd, interesting little book about being agoraphobic. He tells about his family - both of his parents had phobias - talks some about what science knows about phobias, and describes how he lives with his phobias. I think of myself as agoraphobic because I find reasons not to go places, but I rarely have the somatic symptoms he does: difficulty breathing, blacking out, digestive problems. It's sobering to read his descriptions of his life. Despite it all he's a successful composer and teacher, ...more
Kathryn Jennex
Jun 14, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I enjoyed this book and definitely identified with it. Shawn has a great understanding of how and why anxiety works as it applies in the world as well as personally.
I read a few reviews which called the book "boring". Even the boom jacket uses the descriptor "droll" but I found if I read it in longer stretches I didn't notice. This memoir is much more of an academic study than a typical one.
Mar 08, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: the-brain, memoir, trauma
It is always helpful to understand others difficulties from their own mouths. I found this to be an interesting memoir and appreciate Allen's bravery in being willing to share his story with the world.
Jan 10, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Allen Shawn is smarter than most people on their best days. Despite his being a composer, the quality of the writing and the confidence of his stride into psychology and physiology does not resound with the frantic slaps of a fish out of water. To be honest he comes from a genetic pedigree where anything less would be suprisingly out of step with what we know of DNA transmission. This is the first author I encountered where he nearly successfully slipped Freud and psychoanalysis into my drink an ...more
Jan 25, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am certainly not an expert on neurology, psychology, psychiatry, genetics and other subjects. I'm sure other reviewers can employ intricate terminology to refute some of the scientific claims and correlations that this book makes. I was particularly interested in the subject of phobias and how Shawn has been affected by his agoraphobia. I had an upcoming audition for a role of a character who was deceived by doctors determined to "treat" him...when in fact they were actually trying to manipula ...more
Ben Babcock
To be honest, I bought this book more because it was in a bargain bin for $5 than because it looked interesting. Although I don't go out much, I've never considered myself agoraphobic so much as misanthropic. Nevertheless, there was something intriguing about the idea of a memoir/professional discussion of phobias.

By telling aspects of his life through the lens of phobia, Allen Shawn engages in what is probably the most interesting part of the story: the cause of the phobia. Rather than attempti
Colleen Clark
Jan 13, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I have been aware of this book, this story for a while. I was prompted to borrow it from a library and read it now because Shawn has a new book entitled "Twin" and will be speaking at my local bookstore next week.

I thought it was insightful and provocative. Part of the interest is that his father was the 2nd editor of The New Yorker and was a legend in his time. He was editor from 1952-1987. Allen Shawn's older brother is the writer and actor of some note, Wally Shawn ("My Dinner with Andre"). A
May 22, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I am agoraphobic. The disease was diagnosed more than 25 years ago and my entire adult life has been a struggle to function in something approaching "normal." Sometimes I've done well, and at other times I've missed out on amazing opportunities because my own demons won't let me cross the threshold of my own home. My interest in Mr. Shawn's memoir should be fairly obvious.

Reading about how Shawn's phobias developed and how his family members had their own issues was enlightening, to say the lea
Nov 19, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Fun fact: this was written by the brother of Wallace Shawn (Vizzini in The Princess Bride). So now, while watching one of the most hilarious movies ever, I will have their depressing family drama in the background. Greaaaaat.

But seriously. This book was...not my favorite. It's part memoir, part philosophical/scientific discussion of phobias. The memoir sections felt abstract and impersonal, unless they concerned his twin sister Mary, in which case they were far TOO personal. I think most people
Mar 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Taylor by: Mechele Williams
You first have to realize this is not a self-help book. The author is not promising a cure from this book, but a relief of not being alone in the strange world of phobias. I'm not cured of mine, but I am relieved that I am not the only one that feels insane. With brief references (and history) of Sigmund Freud ever now and then, a few relevant poems by Emily Dickinson, and inspiring quotes before the start of each chapter, this book will be an all-time favorite of mine. Allen Shawn had an intere ...more
Mar 31, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a pretty dry account of various sources of panic and anxiety. The author goes really in depth into the physiological reasons until something that makes you feel crazy actually begins to look pretty simple and harmless. He also talks about genetics and childhood factors and some of the panic he's mastered in his own life.

Okay, I've read a little more into this and the second half is less dry (goes more into the author's personal life) and more compelling, so I am going to finish this one.
Notes from a phobic life, the subtitle of the book, is accurate. It really isn't a biography. It really isn't a memoir. It isn't even a book of philosophy. Shawn just assays himself like Montaigne, drawing deeply from his own life, and the result is smooth, interesting reading which is often Lewis Thomas-like. He is thoroughly and explicitly Darwinian and Freudian throughout, but I didn't hate him, which says a lot for his ability to bring the reader along. So four stars for enjoyment, ease, and ...more
Tamra Amato
Jan 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Allen Shaw's insight into his illness is remarkable. How his illness shaped his life and the ways he could shape his own life in spite of his illness is inspirational. So many suffering from agoraphobia don't know how to put their experience and symptoms into words. Allen Shawn's words hold the experience of agoraphobia in a clear glass shell so we can see the intense reality of living with this illness.

A must read for all doctors (not just psychiatrists). Without accurate knowledge of this illn
Jun 02, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
At the points in the novel where the author discusses his twin sister, I was appalled. Why did the author insist on using the word "retarded" and discuss his sister in such a manner?

This memoir reads more like a dry report written by a first year college student who relies far too heavily on Freud quotes. Some points were interesting and gave me insight as a psych student, but it was mediocre at best. I was thrilled when I picked up this book, thinking it would be an insightful memoir. I didn't
Apr 13, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Allen goes back to examine his life, complete with phobias. Everything is stripped away and he is able to put together what it meant to let his twin sister go into an institution at age eight. (and he feared that he might be taken away as well) His father let a double life with another partner, but Allen didn't know it growing up. Still, he knew that something was "off" in his family. His mother held him close, and didn't want him to grow up. Allen comes to terms with these aspects of his life a ...more
Jul 09, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, bio
I found this book at a used book store, and thought it would be an interesting read because there is a history of specific phobias and panic attacks in family members . I applaud Shawn for his attempts to make sense of the phobias in his and his parents' lives, but unfortunately this book was extremely slow in places. I found the parts about his experiences extremely interesting and enlightening, but the scientific jargon and explanations were dull and uninteresting to me. I do feel I got a lot ...more
Carol Peters
3 1/2 stars.

I read it for two reasons: 1) I admired William Shawn, the author's father; 2) I once suffered from panic attacks.

The author lives a desperately constrained life. His phobias are enormous. I'm glad I'm not around him since I get contact freakouts from seriously anxious people.

He's researched the topic, tried to understand the physiological, psychological, & personal aspects. I didn't learn a lot, but I thought a lot while reading.

A worthwhile read.
Rachel Nobel Fields
Feb 22, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone with an anxiety disorder; anyone curious about anxiety disorders
Shelves: non-fiction
This is the kind of book where the writer explores a broader phenomenon (in this case, anxiety and phobia) through the lens of personal experience. Unfortunately I wasn't as interested in the writer's personal experience as I was in the sections where he explores broader issues like the origins of anxiety disorders and phobias; those sections I found really fascinating and I would like to read more about that.
Sep 10, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had mixed feelings about this book. How does one write an engaging memoir about an agoraphobic life? His descriptions of his family are beautifully written but the chapters on how the brain works reminded me of a college psych textbook. I kept reading because I was hoping for more of that brilliant writing, and in the end I was rewarded. I think it was brave of him to write this book and I also think his story is quite sad.
A good writer, and gave some interesting descriptions of his family (his father was the eminent editor of the New Yorker, William Shawn), but there is only so much self-analysis that an innocent bystander can bear to read. Also overly long summary of Freudian theory. I just couldn't get quite as fascinated by the inner workings of the author's psyche as he seems to be. Still, I gained some interesting insights into the nature of phobias.
Oct 25, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in - or who suffer from - anxiety/worry/panic
I am enjoying this book very much. I am interested in anxiety/worry/panic, and especially in its origins - and Allen Shawn writes descriptions of the anxiety state with verisimilitude. As I have suspected - and as is verified in this book and other memoirs I have read, such a Family Romance by John Lanchester - an important cause of anxiety is learned suppression of emotions. I'll write more about this book when I'm finished.
Jul 12, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: phobics
This was a comprehensive study of phobias and how they impact the author's daily life. Shawn was the son of the long-time New Yorker editor and fraternal twin to a severely autistic sister. He makes an interesting correlation between his connection/ separation from Mary his twin and his own agoraphobia. I was reading this for my master's project and although I only got one or two ideas it was a fascinating read.
Jun 18, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was fascinating to me because I wanted to have a better understanding of phobias. The parts of it dealing with cutting-edge brain research were heavy going, but his life story and that of his famous family more than made up for it. His struggle to understand his condition was brave and insightful. Well worth reading.
Aug 02, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, philosophy
Allen Shawn, Wallace's Brother, is a composer, a professor and a remarkably phobic individual. This memoir, and marvelous forensic account of one's own illnesses, is witty, provocative, sad and truly moving. Allen Shawn has his family in his genes and the result is a mystery of nurture and nature. Well written, abosrbing, this story stays with you.
Good short book written by a music professor who also has several phobias. Not an extensive examination of cause and effect but more of a personal description of his life and the possible reasons for his anxieties. The author is the son of William Shawn, beloved editor of The New Yorker for 35 years.
Jan 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: a-good-one-yes
I couldn't quit reading it. While most of my family have been introverts who find excuses to not get out much. We still do an occasional outing with friends and such. All but my sister that is, she sounds so much like Allen in this book.He has helped me gain some extra sympathy for her. The other phobias mention run through my bloodline too. I loved this book.
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