Daniel Smith’s grandfather once advised him, if he had to write a book, he should “at least have the decency to start it with a man and a woman making love.”
Countless readers may be lost because of Grandpa.
Smith attempts to follow the advice but instead opens Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety not with a man and a woman in a state of rapture, but two lesbians and a 16-year-old virgin entwined in awkward thrusts.
It is wonderfully written and a genuinely funny account, but also a rather horrifying sexual train wreck.
And this is the story by which Smith intends to lure us into reading 209 more pages about his life. Not everyone will. Pity, because beyond its crass opening, this is a startlingly compelling book about a young man with a chronic and crippling anxiety disorder.
Smith traces his anxiety first to the loss of his virginity in less-than-ideal circumstances, and then to growing up with a similarly anxious mother. Although prone to “projectile weeping” and calling his mother frequently in a panic, he is able to function somewhat normally — getting good grades, holding down jobs — but this anxiety causes unrelenting psychic torment. Medication, therapy and breathing exercises help, but do not cure. “This is no recovery memoir, let me warn you now,” Smith writes. Instead, it’s a window into what clinical anxiety is like, how fear can flood the body without reason, and turn the simplest tasks — say choosing between barbecue sauce and ketchup at a restaurant — into paralyzing agony.
“The brain is good at pleasure; it likes orgasms, glucose, and companionship. But it is exceptional at fear. If the brain wasn’t a first-class fear-monger, if it wasn’t always ready and poised to pound on the alarm bells, then a threat to the organism might end the whole game before there was any chance to experience pleasure. In evolutionary terms, fear trumps all else.”
For those who suffer similarly, the book is a paper (or electronic) hand to hold, a sympathetic companion on a road dense with land mines. For those whose demons don’t demand prescriptions, it’s an account that will make your own life seem normal, and that’s always worth $25 and a couple hours.
Unfortunately, the book’s message is somewhat undermined by the short time span it covers. First, Smith has a bad sexual encounter. Then, Smith has a bad college encounter. Then Smith has a bad job encounter, in which he becomes a fact-checker for The Atlantic, writes a controversial article about shock therapy and is sued for libel. All this happens by the age of 23. It’s reminiscent of Joyce Maynard’s famous New York Times article called “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” This book is “A 23-Year-Old Looks Back on Anxiety.” It begs for more seasoning, the wisdom of age.
In the end, we have to forgive the publisher for rushing it to print 30 or 40 years too early, because Smith, despite his anxiety — or maybe because of it? — is a phenomenally talented writer. Here is his description of being dropped off at college by his parents: “I was standing curbside in the wet New England heat, my stout brick dorm — my new home — at my back, and I was watching my parents climb into their car and drive off. As they turned the bend and disappeared, all at once the frost re-formed on my sternum. My mind befogged, my vision began to shimmer, my limbs begin to tingle, and I was suddenly seized by the impulse — an impulse it took every bit of self-respect I could muster to stop myself from acting on — to go bolting down the road after them, an idiot dog chasing a car.”
The modern memoir is a secular confessional: the outing of imperfections and frailties in hopes of absolution granted by The New York Times bestseller list. Writers, Smith asserts, “are better than most people at articulating their neuroses and more dedicated to the task.” And Smith is better than most writers at articulation. This is his second book; the first, a straightforward analysis of the mind’s mayhem, is titled Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination. Clearly, Smith writes what he knows. Monkey Mind 2, The Sequel would not be unwelcome. B+ — Jennifer Graham