RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Composer Allen Shawn lives a phobic life. He doesn't like heights, bridges, tunnels, subways, elevators, open spaces, closed spaces. It's something he's just written a book about, and that book begins with how being phobic makes a short drive through the woods a daunting journey.
Mr. ALLEN SHAWN (Author, "Wish I Could Be There"): (Reading) 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 is slowed painfully, as if I have been driving down the road for hours.
MONTAGNE: At that moment, Allen Shawn had traveled just four and a half miles. He never did reach his destination. Gripped by panic, he turned the car around. Now this is a man who comes from a famously creative family. He writes music, writes about it, and teaches; has raised two children, has many friends. Still when Allen 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.
Mr. SHAWN: Well, there's several funerals I didn't attend that I wanted very much to get to. In terms of my own career, you know, there are many, many performances of my own music that I've not gotten to, let's say in California or in Europe, or just in a place in New Jersey that I didn't seem to be able to find a way to get to that I could stand. Sometimes I set out for something and have to phone my colleagues and friends and say, sorrowfully, that I can't make it there.
MONTAGNE: You write about your phobias and what they sort of make you do in terms of thinking about yourself, that the degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling.
Mr. SHAWN: Well, you know, I mean fear makes you focus very, very vigilantly on something. Now if somebody is, you know, holding a gun and pointing it at you, you're going to focus on that gun and how to avoid getting shot. And if you're afraid, let say, of being, you know, in the middle of the aisle of a theater and you're watching a play. And you're just, your fear is about being shut in, you got to be focusing on the most ridiculous things instead of watching the wonderful play. You know, how can I get out of here. And, you know, why is that person next to me so big. Where was that exit? You know. And that kind of self-preoccupation is really silly, but it's what happens to the phobic.
MONTAGNE: In the book you trace some of your phobias to your late father, William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker magazine. But it seems that your sister, your twin sister who is autistic, had a huge impact on your life.
Mr. SHAWN: Yeah, you know, I tried to keep my own life as a kind of abstraction in the book and I don't use anybody's names for the most part. But with my sister, I used her name, Mary. She's someone who of course no one has heard of. And I felt she needed a name. And as I wrote it, she became, in a way, the center of the book. Mary was also a mentally retarded. She also has schizoaffective disorder.
And as her twin, sometimes I think I'm carrying her around with me, that the problems I have are almost a way of connecting with the disturbances that I saw in her when we were growing up. So I have these episodes which are strangely like mirrors of things that I saw her go through. She used to suddenly be unaccountably anxious and fretful and panicky. And what happened to my sister was pretty traumatic. She actually was sent away from home for good.
MONTAGNE: Got sent away to a home for children who are retarded.
Mr. SHAWN: That's right. She was certainly the first person I loved, and to suddenly have her disappear from my world and not to even talk about it particularly, that was a terrible trauma. So when you couple that with the fear of being sent away if you're unruly or unpredictable, which I must have had, that's a reason why I think my own panic attacks frightened me so much that I never told anybody about them, that I felt that these were little instances of my becoming like my sister.
MONTAGNE: Does understanding your phobias, describing them even, knowing they exist, does that make them less powerful?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHAWN: You know, I'm still asking my self what came over me to write this book. I've come to feel I have a strange mission or something precisely because it's very hard for me to get rid of these problems. And I'm 58 years old and no longer, you know, naively thinking, oh this is just some terrible quirk, it has nothing to do with me. But no, it hasn't changed the power of the problem.
MONTAGNE: I've seen a photograph of you in a sunny room of your own home and there's a cat there.
Mr. SHAWN: That's right. Kiwi.
MONTAGNE: And it looks like a beautiful world. Is being, in a way, locked in your own world, has it have the effect of enhancing your creativity?
Mr. SHAWN: My music is music of exploration and traveling and wonder, and it's my outlet.
MONTAGNE: Sounds a little like your father with writing.
Mr. SHAWN: I think that's true. And, you know, you can't do everything. I mean if you look at Immanuel Kant didn't do much traveling or, you know, Schubert.
MONTAGNE: Emily Dickenson.
Mr. SHAWN: Oh, Emily Dickenson was truly agoraphobic and, you know, explored the outer reaches of the universe in her poetry. So I would say my music is a place where I can explore the world and explore the dark parts of life and take a lot of risks. There's free person within me who emerges in music.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Allen Shawn, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. SHAWN: Thank you, Renee. Very nice talking with you.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And this is a composition by Allen Shawn. The second movement of his "Piano Concerto." His new book is called "Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life." You can read an excerpt, plus hear Allen Shawn's memories of his father, the New Yorker's William Shawn, at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.