If possible, I like to sit with my back closest to the wall while in a public place, or a high backed booth will do. I’d sit on the inside of the booth if I could, but if I’ve got the kids with me, I want to be in front of them. What exactly am I nervous about? I have no idea. Something. Something could happen, and it will not blindside me, dammit! When under threat, I know that some people would rather not be up against a wall (putting Baby in a corner and all that), but I’m okay with it. Unless… there might be something “wrong” with the wall. … Let’s move on.
Point is, I get where Sara Benincasa is coming from with her memoir Agorafabulous! If anxieties were easily explainable, and therefore more easily worked through, life would be a lot different for just about everyone. However, we wouldn’t have nearly as many funny/ridiculous stories to tell people: “Dude, you think you’re alone with your panic attacks? This one time, I…”
This book collects those stories, as well as Benincasa’s steps towards being a more reliably functioning person. “I subscribe to the notion that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them,” she says. “And if other people can laugh at your awful shit as well, then I guess you can officially call yourself a comedian.”
For me, it was approximately a decade-long trip from “I’m afraid of X” to “I’m afraid of other places that look like X” to “I’m afraid of every place that is not my bed, and have resolved to stay there for the rest of my life, thank you very much.” I prayed that this mysterious mental malady would be lifted from me spontaneously, or that I would somehow suddenly become normal. It didn’t happen.
The process ramps up with panic attacks during a high school trip to Italy and leads to her, at age 21, becoming afraid of her own toilet. A friend and her parents intervene, and she begins the slow process of finding the right therapy and medication to manage her condition. She relates everything through her sense of humor, and her stories are not pity parties.
While I was learning to eat solid foods and shit in a toilet and drive a car again, I read a lot of Zentastic, organic, free-range, fair-trade, sustainable, sage-scented self-help books, most of which were designed for postmenopausal ex-hippies with a fondness for moon worship and natural-fiber clothing. I wasn’t rich enough to follow my dream of living among noble brown stereotypes, which is why this book isn’t called Eat, Pray, Love. I just read books that similarly co-opted other people’s cultural traditions and repackaged them with a neat, lily-white bow on top. I called this “spirituality.”
Now, lest you think she’s entirely mocking this endeavor, she does talk about how learning meditation techniques, mindful breathing, and various like-minded therapies did give her the tools to become healthy again. The dismissiveness, if anything, revolves around the snake oil-type figures within the New Age scene who claim to fix problems (even cancer!) through “positive thinking” and, of course, unquestioning worship of the person providing said cure. Financial and narcissistic gain is not only for Southern television evangelists, after all. As a person who has found considerable comfort and practicality in Buddhist practice, I found it funny in that knowing, sad way. When life goes off the tracks, we want to cling to anything that might “fix” us.
Benincasa thought she might benefit from working at a place called Blessed Sanctuary, hoping for that delightful mix of spiritual satiety and a paycheck. And maybe a boyfriend. You know, as long we’re listing our desires here, right? The leader of the sanctuary, Edgar, initially appears more “evolved” than the average human, but she soon finds out that he’s really just another control freak who claims to know “the way.” Still, the way she tells the story is hilarious. Her writing nicely straddles the line between amusing story-time at the bar, standup routine, and traditional memoir. You’re in it with her, but still with the benefit of hindsight.
Also detailed are her efforts to graduate from college, a brief teaching career at a Texas charter school — “The school turned out to operate in a manner very similar to a community theater. Someone in town said, ‘Let’s put on a school!’ and decided to do it.” — as well as finally applying to Columbia for grad school. Her application was only semi-serious. Though it had been a longtime dream to attend the university, “you didn’t get bonus points with Ivy League administration officers for being a recovering mental case with a history of ‘episodes.’”
But boyfriends who say stupid things are also good motivators:
“Why would you waste money on an application for a school that’ll never take you?” he said irritably. “You can’t get into Columbia.”
Everything got very quiet then, on both ends of the call. I felt something bumping against my ear and realized with a start that my hand was shaking. At the same time, a feeling I couldn’t identify rose in my stomach. I immediately wondered if I was having some kind of stroke, or if I’d suffered irreparable nerve damage while printing my name on the application.
Then I looked at my other hand. It was clenched. And I realized, to my shock, that I was angry.
Hell yes, she proves that guy wrong.
If there’s any complaint I’d have, it’s a very minor one: the chapters are more like standalone stories instead of part of a larger, more cohesive narrative arc. Yes, we see how Benincasa progresses from anxiety-riddled teenager to mostly together adult comedian, but the stories she tells are definitely handpicked, specific episodes. It’s still a very good book, but it just made me realize, if I had to choose, I somewhat prefer a more traditional memoir format. However, within those episodes, I do appreciate her blunt honesty and sense of humor. Besides, she’s a Sara-with-no-H. Of course I’m partial to that! (Ha.)
I must admit that it took me a while to write this review. At first, I began writing it while sitting in a coffee shop, but the trouble with talking about my various peculiarities in public spaces is that it made me very aware of working in a public space, especially since I’d forgotten the comforting insularity of music on headphones. Then, while trying not be stressed about various other recent life-things, again I had trouble with writing about her story. Because I get where Benincasa is coming from, reading the book sometimes felt a little too real. That’s no fault of hers — in fact, I’d say that’s a compliment to her abilities — but it did keep me from fully enjoying it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that the book is “triggering,” but it’s probably best read when one is in a mostly comfortable head-space. All the same, I do recommend Agorafabulous!, especially if you would like some insight into various mental conditions. Sara Benincasa is an entertaining, thoughtful writer, and I’d like to investigate more of her other work.