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Allen Shawn's 'Notes from a Phobic Life'

Mar 5, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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Composer Allen Shawn lives a phobic life. He doesn't like heights, bridges, tunnels, subways, elevators, open spaces or closed spaces. It's something he's just written a book about, beginning with how his fears make a short drive through the woods a daunting journey:

I am fine for the first mile, but slowly start to feel as if I were suffocating. The woods are dense, and all I can see are trees. Occasionally a branch strikes the windshield. I feel as if I need to find a bathroom. My breaths are becoming short and shallow, and a dark cloud seems to be forming in front of my eyes. I keep looking for houses, and there aren't any. Without noticing it, I slip into a dream-like state, wherein the passage of time has slowed painfully, as if I have been driving down the road for hours.

At that moment, Shawn had traveled just four-and-a-half miles. He never did reach his destination. Gripped by panic, he turned the car around.

Shawn, 58, comes from a famously creative family, including his late father, William Shawn, the former New Yorker editor, and his brother, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. Allen Shawn writes about music and musicians. He teaches, has raised two children and has many friends.

Still, when Shawn titled his meditation on phobias Wish I Could Be There, he meant that, literally. His fears of moving through the world have cost him a lot. He says that he has missed funerals and "many, many" performances of his own music.

"Sometimes, I set out for something and have to phone my colleagues and friends and say, sorrowfully, that I can't make it there," Shawn tells Renee Montagne.

In the book, he writes: "The degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling."

"Fear makes you focus very, very vigilantly on something," he says. Just as someone who has a gun pointed at him focuses solely on that gun and how to avoid getting shot, Shawn says, a person who's afraid of sitting in the middle of a theater will think of nothing else but: "How can I get out of here? Why is that person next to me so big? Where was that exit?"

"That kind of self-preoccupation is really silly, but it's what happens to the phobic," he says.

When they were young, Shawn's twin sister, who is autistic, was dispatched to a school for retarded children. For years, Shawn says he hid his panic attacks from others for fear that he would also be sent away.

"I felt that these were little instances of my becoming like my sister," he says.

Shawn says music offers him an escape from his phobias. "My music is a place where I can explore the world and explore the dark parts of life and take a lot of risks," he says. "There's a free person within me who emerges in the music."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Phobias and Accomplishments

Allen Shawn traces some of his phobias to his late father, William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker magazine. The author discusses some of his father's fears with Renee Montagne.

Allen Shawn's Music

Hear a selection from Shawn's Piano Concerto No. 2 (Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller, conductor; Ursula Oppens, piano).

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