Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: MONKEY MIND: A MEMOIR OF ANXIETY by Daniel Smith

Monkey Mind:  A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith
Simon & Schuster, July 3, 2012        ISBN 978-1-4391-7730-3 (Hardcover)

Mental illness is a serious, grave topic. Yet, if you are a person with a mental illness, it is a prerogative, a right, and a survival mechanism to find the humor in your condition. In Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith lays out, in painfully vivid yet highly hilarious detail, his experience as a person who has an anxiety disorder.  He tells the reader at the beginning of Chapter 2.,

“This is no recovery memoir, let me warn you now.”

Smith bravely and deftly explores his own life, and examines the genetic, psychological and environmental components of his anxiety disorder.  As far as the genetic factor, Smith merely has to look only as far as his mother Marilyn, who has panic disorder.  As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH),  panic disorder is “an anxiety disorder and is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms which are called panic attacks.   “Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger.”   In Smith’s words,

“…what do you do if your greatest fear is of being afraid?”

Without revealing the confluence of events which led Smith’s mother Marilyn to learn to live with and to accept her panic disorder,  I can say that she chose, of all professions, to become a therapist.  Was it a comfort for a boy with anxiety to have a mother who was a therapist?  Eh, not so much. 

Smith probes deep into his childhood to find “the” event to get to the origin of his anxiety.  Certainly there are, as he says, “clues,” but even knowing about these psychologically and environmentally impacting issues cannot  prevent his anxiety.  At 16, he loses his virginity in such a way as would traumatize any young person.  He spends the rest of high school in utter distress, and Marilyn and his father decide that Smith needs medication and therapy.  These are like a small gauze pad on a gunshot wound to the abdomen.  Anxiety is like the monster in any horror film which keeps rising from the dead, no matter how many ways and times you kill it. 

Smith’s memoir continues through his college years, and his first job as a “fact-checker at a major American magazine.”    These second and third “Episodes” of Smith’s book are equally fascinating and riveting because Daniel Smith, truly, is a brilliant writer.  He cites Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote The Concept of Anxiety in 1844); Franz Kafka, who had a deep-seated fear of appearing physically and mentally repulsive, i.e. social anxiety);  and Philip Roth, who, like Smith, uses his middle-class secular Jewish upbringing as a well for self-loathing and irreverent humor.

Anxiety is not usually a funny subject, but I guffawed and laughed and giggled all the way through Monkey Mind.  Smith seamlessly intertwines serious and  incredible critical analysis of his own anxiety disorder, and anxiety in general, with side-splitting humor.  Smith has great intelligence, great heart, and, although I don’t wish to worry him, a great future ahead of him as a book writer.