A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANXIETY (YOURS AND MINE) by Patricia Pearson (Random House), 198 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Weaving philosophy, poetry, medicine, history and social commentary into her memoir of a life spent suffering from generalized anxiety, Patricia Pearson crafts a lively, varied portrait of an affliction that the World Mental Health Survey lists as the planet’s most prevalent mental disorder.
Pearson’s light style, narrative drive and clear-eyed view of her emotions make her memoir focused, fluid and highly readable. She slides easily between the personal and general, pausing in her account of her fascinated dread of pandemics to quote Walt Whitman (whom she notes in passing was afraid of spiders). She then goes on to list, in a single brief paragraph, all the forms of anxiety currently afflicting 40 million Americans a year.
Pearson draws something different from each of her life’s major anxiety events. A failed love affair that leaves her obsessively trying to convert emotion into a solvable equation sparks a discussion of ritual and obsessive-compulsive behaviour as coping mechanisms.
A breakdown brought on by years of producing true crime TV shows generates thoughts on exploitation and “building public discourse from the dead.”
This leads to a standard reflection on the media’s responsibility for the public’s perception that crime rates are rising, as well as on women’s fascination with serial killers, a phenomenon she doesn’t understand. It’s the book’s weakest section.
The strongest chapter is on antidepressants and her struggle to break free of them.
Pearson has the journalist’s taste for the quick overview spiced with cute factoids, but some of her topics – the medical establishment’s shilling for drug companies, and a cross-cultural comparison of attitudes and treatments for anxiety – deserve more attention.
She cites her sources in extensive endnotes, for those who want the extra reading.