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Montage | open book

Annals of Anxiety

January-February 2014

“I have since the age of about two been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses,” writes Scott Stossel ’91, editor of The Atlantic (and an incorporator of this magazine). In a self-revealing, funny, and unsparing act of exposing one’s dark fears to the light of day, he has drawn on his personal experiences to address the history, etiology, and science of a broad topic in My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (Knopf, $27.95). From the vivid opening:

 

I have an unfortunate tendency to falter at crucial moments.

For instance, standing at the altar in a church in Vermont, waiting for my wife-to-be to come down the aisle to marry me, I start to feel horribly ill. Not just vaguely queasy, but severely nauseated and shaky—and, most of all, sweaty. The church is hot that day—it’s early July—and many people are perspiring in their summer suits and sundresses. But not like I am.…In wedding photos, you can see me standing tensely at the altar, a grim half smile on my face, as I watch my fiancée come down the aisle on the arm of her father: in the photos, Susanna is glowing; I am glistening.…We turn to face the minister. Behind him are the friends we have asked to give readings, and I see them looking at me with manifest concern. What’s wrong with him? I imagine they are thinking. Is he going to pass out? Merely imagining these thoughts instantly makes me sweat even more. My best man, standing a few feet behind me, taps me on the shoulder and hands me a tissue to mop my brow. My friend Cathy, sitting many rows back in the church, will tell me later that she had a strong urge to bring me a glass of water; it looked, she said, as if I had just run a marathon.

The wedding readers’ facial expressions have gone from registering mild concern to what appears to me to be unconcealed horror: Is he going to die? I’m beginning to wonder that myself. For I have started to shake…I feel like I’m on the verge of convulsing. I am concentrating on keeping my legs from flying out from under me like an epileptic’s and am hoping that my pants are baggy enough to keep the trembling from being too visible. I’m now leaning on my almost wife—there’s no hiding the trembling from her—and she is doing her best to hold me up.

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