Stossel's Inferno
January 1, 2014                    

                                                Stossel's Inferno


My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel. Knopf, 416 pages, $27.95.


I've always felt sorry for myself, having suffered four debilitating episodes of clinical depression and many years of moderate to severe dysthymia.  No longer. In fact, I feel rather fortunate not to be Scott Stossel, editor of the Atlantic, whose lifetime of psychic agony - "suffering" is too weak a word - is chronicled in excruciating, enthralling detail in My Age of Anxiety.

The torments of Job were nothing compared with Stossel's. Two-year-old Scott would throw "epic tantrums," in which he "lay on the floor, screaming and writhing and smashing my head on the ground, sometimes for hours at a time." A few anguished years later, his afflictions began assuming their permanent shape. Constant emetophobia (fear of vomiting) set in, along with an almost equally frequent and tormenting fear of losing control of his bowels. Neither of these terrors has ever left him in peace, except briefly.

Nor has acute separation anxiety. Sentenced to nursery school at three, he refused to get out of bed until wrestled into the car, then refused to get out of the car until dragged into school. In first grade, when his mother started taking night classes, he fled all babysitters and paced his bedroom agitatedly every night for the next several years, convinced that his parents had abandoned him, until his father came home from work around 6:30.

The dreary litany continues:


            Here's how my first baseball practice ended: with me, age six, crying in the dugout, alongside a kindly but puzzled coach. (I never went back.)


            Here's how my first beginners' swimming lesson ended: with me, aged seven, fearfully, tearfully refusing to get in the pool with the other children.


            Here's how my first soccer practice ended: with me, age eight, crying on the sideline with the babysitter who'd brought me, resisting entreaties to join the other boys doing drills.


            Here's how I spent my first morning at day camp, when I was five: sobbing by my cubby, crying that I missed my mommy and wanted to go home.


            Here's how the first two hours of my first and only) overnight at camp, when I was seven: sobbing in the corner with a passel of befuddled counselors trying, serially and without success, to console me.


            Here's how I spent the drive to college with my parents: sobbing in the backseat, consumed by anxiety and anticipatory homesickness, worried that my parents would not love me after I went away to college - "away," in this case, being a mere three miles from my parents' house.  



His social phobia was also intense and unrelenting. In high school and college tennis and squash matches, he would be seized by fear of the crowd's attention (and also of vomiting), so he would deliberately lose and flee the court. Nearly every meeting, public appearance, even social occasion, brought on a panic attack. His fear of flying nearly cost him a mate: "On my first airplane trip with Susanna, who was later to become my wife, my anxiety got so bad soon after takeoff that I began shaking and gasping frantically, and then, as Susanna looked on in bewilderment, my stomach cramped and I lost control of my bowels. I had planned the trip - three days in London - as a romantic vacation, an attempt to woo and impress her. This was not a good start. Nor was the rest of the trip much better: those parts of the vacation that I did not spend sedated into near catatonia by massive quantities of Xanax I spent quaking in mortal dread of the return flight." [203]

As that passage suggests, Stossel manages to describe the most painful and embarrassing experiences in a style that is candid but not melodramatic, heart-rending but not self-pitying, wry but not cute. The narrator of My Age of Anxiety (who may or may not be identical to Scott Stossel of the Atlantic) is quite a mensch. The book is not quite, like Kate Millett's The Loony Bin Trip or William Styron's Darkness Visible, a work of art. But it is an extraordinary literary performance nonetheless.

It is also - I hope I don't sound like a publicist - extremely useful. The history of nearly every psychic disorder Stossel has ever experienced, every drug he's ever taken, every form of therapy he's ever tried - and he's experienced them all, taken them all, tried them all, this side of psychosis - is canvassed. Every theory, from Hippocrates to Freud to psychogenetics, is given a respectful hearing. Dozens of great men and women reveal their secret sufferings, some of them, like Darwin, Samuel Johnson, Freud himself, at considerable length. Stossel's own family is not spared.

One thing does, perhaps, get off too easily: capitalism. Early in the book, a brief allusion to "the getting and striving of modern capitalist society" immediately morphs into " a consequence of being alive" and of "the caprice and violence of nature and each other," as though drastic inequality and radical economic insecurity were merely the human condition. Late in the book, buried in a footnote, a few sentences speculate that "life in a capitalist economy produces anxiety and uneasiness [and] can be psychologically corrosive. ... Perhaps the human organism is not equipped to live life as society ["society" - really?] has lately designed it - a harsh zero-sum competition where the only gains to be had are at the expense of someone else, where 'neurotic competition' has displaced solidarity and cooperation." [297-8] That's it. He devotes more space to the etymology of "panic" (the slightly crazy god Pan) and the physiology of blushing.

This is a failure of moral imagination. During two of those depressive episodes, I had to take a lot of time off my day job. Without the paid disability leave negotiated by my union, I would have wound up financially and perhaps literally under water. It may be decades before we find the "anxiety gene." But we could make a serious dent in the prevalence of anxiety tomorrow (or the next day) by raising the minimum wage, enforcing existing labor law, and aggressively pursuing full employment policies.  As Keith Payne, a psychology professor, wrote recently: "The professional class may be stressed in their way. But the powerless are stressed in the way that kills."

Still, only a dysthymic leftist would fault Stossel too harshly. In an age inundated by memoirs and psychic self-help books, My Age of Anxiety is the rare memoir that tells an entirely compelling story and the rare self-help book that really helps. You, and many thousands of readers along with you, will laugh until you cry.




George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and For the Republic.