Monkey Mind by Daniel Smith
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. Aaron Beck, the most influential doctor in modern psychotherapy, says that “Monkey Mind does for anxiety what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression.” Neurologist and bestselling writer Oliver Sacks says, “I read Monkey Mind with admiration for its bravery and clarity. . . . I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.” Here, finally, comes relief and recognition to all those who want someone to put what they feel, or what their loved ones feel, into words.”
I don’t normally review non-fiction, or indeed anything besides science fiction and fantasy. I felt compelled by this book, though, not only to read it but to write about my experience reading it. And it’s going to be a hard review to write.
Allow me to explain.
The full title of this book is Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. I was diagnosed with panic disorder back in 1990, so you can imagine my interest in reading a story about someone living with a condition that is so familiar to me. I didn’t go into it looking for wisdom or advice—I’ve gotten plenty of that over the course of time, useful and otherwise—but I was hoping to see the experience of anxiety through the eyes of another. Knowing, as I do, that the anxious can be sensitive to criticism, I’m going to have a hard time being honest about how much I disliked this book.
I have no quibble with Smith’s actual experience of his anxiety. Every person’s struggle with it is different and unique, although there are many symptoms and traits that tend to be similar no matter what. But for a book that purports to be a “hilarious” look at the tragedies and triumphs, it’s incredibly negative. I didn’t like the tone that the author often took, which was a cross between a self-deprecating “woe is me, this is all my fault” attitude and looking for anyone and anything to blame for his condition. He also seems to think that anxiety sufferers are, by their very natures, toxic to those around them. This is hardly encouraging to any readers who might be having their own issues with anxiety.
Now, a lot of what I just wrote is personal preference, and I freely admit that. A “memoir of anxiety” needn’t take a positive tone to be successful, by any means. I do, however, think that Smith’s stated aims in writing the book and what actually came out in the writing were two entirely different things.
Taking a more technical look at the writing, there was a quote from Pride and Prejudice came to mind: “He studies too much for words of four syllables.” Far too much of the book is taken up with lengthy quotes from Kierkegaard, Philip Roth and the like. I know that the author has spent a lot of time researching and reading about mental illness—he says as much in this book—and it feels like he wants to work as much of that material into this book as possible. The quotes often slow down the narrative flow, and after a while, it felt like the author was trying to show how educated and well-read he is. The story could easily have been written without so much literary navel-gazing.
Structurally, the book is all over the place. Part of that is due to the proliferation of quotes from other sources, but I think it’s also due to the author trying to link his past and present in a bid to explain his anxiety’s roots. The story is arranged in roughly chronological order, but there is some jumping around time-wise, and there are many asides about aspects of anxiety that seem shoehorned in at moments where they don’t really fit. For example, during the section about his time working for The Atlantic, he suddenly goes into a dissertation on sweating. Maybe better organization would have made this work better, but I don’t know.
I do have to wonder if all of the positive reviews for this book were from people who don’t suffer from anxiety. After I wrote the bulk of this review, I went onto Amazon to see what others thought, and it does seem that the vast majority of the negative reviews are from people like me—those who live with anxiety. I found that my reaction wasn’t atypical at all. Monkey Mind may be a fairly accurate representation of one person’s experience with anxiety brought on by certain specific events, but it does not give a good picture of anxiety to those who don’t already know what it’s like.