Comedian Sara Benincasa articulates her philosophy of healing right on the book jacket of her new memoir, Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom, which details the author's struggles with depression, panic attacks and, yes, agoraphobia. "If you can laugh at the sh**tiest moments in your life," she proclaims, "you can transcend them. And if other people can laugh at your awful sh** as well, then I guess you can officially call yourself a comedian."
As a driving ideology of comedy, this is pretty standard stuff. But consider for a second how radically it contrasts with the philosophy that guides most memoirs of mental illness, which would have you see the book itself as evidence of healing. Sometimes, you get the sense that this really is the case. But, as plenty of critics have observed, many such memoirs devolve into something resembling public therapy sessions, which suggests that they are not so much proof of triumph over adversity as chaotic, tortured efforts to come to terms with the difficult legacy of mental illness.
This is not the case with Agorafabulous! Benincasa, a young comedian who specializes in stand-up and short, online videos, and who adapted the book from a one-woman show of the same name, doesn't spend her time wrestling with the meaning of her past problems. Instead, she's focused on setting up for the punchline. When she tells you she draped a tie-dyed cloth over her TV because it "copped an attitude," or that she started peeing in Le Creuset dinnerware because she was afraid of her toilet, she's not going for disclosure for the sake of disclosure. She's just trying to make you laugh. You know you're being manipulated, of course, but more often than not, it works.
Slipped in along the way, almost as asides, are some rather deft -- and deftly written -- observations about mental illness. When Benincasa is headed for a breakdown, "things began to curdle and spoil" inside her. Anxiety, she smartly notes, is chameleonlike, manifesting in unexpected ways. She points out that it tends to shows up as an array of embarrassing physical maladies -- and that people would much rather discuss these ailments than the underlying emotional distress. And she points out that anxiety often masquerades as insight, creating the false impression that you benefit from a sixth sense, when in fact you're just imagining crazy scenarios while everyone else remains firmly rooted in reality.
Benincasa notes that while at her worst she let herself "wallow in the rising swamp of my own shame." But in this retrospective account she doesn't let herself wallow in self-pity, which is mostly a good thing. She has a comic's sense of timing, which means she knows when to move on and keep things from getting maudlin or simply too pathetic.
That said, she has a weakness for neat and tidy resolutions. Either because she's been truly lucky or because she just tweaks the narrative details accordingly, she seems to get rescued from the stickiest situations not by any kind of epiphany or enhanced self-understanding, but by other people's well-timed kindness. A sympathetic guidance counselor cancels her high school tour group's beach day in Sicily so a panicking Benincasa can go to a local hospital and get a sedative; her best friends from college stage an intervention when she won't leave her apartment; her no-nonsense mother drives up from New Jersey to bring her home in the middle of the night; two more best girlfriends and some kindly nurses cheer her up while they wait in the ER during a possibly suicidal post-break-up freakout. You get the picture.
These successful interventions, while sometimes irritatingly pat, do serve the purpose of reminding us that although Benincasa and millions of other young people like her seem relatively high-functioning, they're actually only a step or two away from some potentially devastating breakdowns. Caring friends and family often make the difference in truly dire situations. But ultimately, as Benincasa's chronicle of her long, halting recovery demonstrates, she and her peers have to take responsibility for their own healing (for her, Prozac and Xanax helped a lot, too).
On the other hand, when considering Agorafabulous! as an account of mental illness, you have to question how heavily Benincasa has filtered her past pain through her present identity as an apparently stable and happy young woman and an up-and-coming comedian. There's nothing wrong with turning pain into fodder for an act; arguably, that's the basis of most great comedy. But for a book billed as an account of mental illness, the question becomes whether she has struck the right balance. Her flashes of insight are prescient, but they are often subsumed by digressions and whole stories that have little or nothing to do with the book's stated subject. A Viagra-induced boner in one of her former middle-school students has, so far as I can tell, absolutely no connection to her psychiatric troubles, yet somehow it garners an entire chapter in the book.
Benincasa has been suffering from panic attacks since she was 10 and depression since her mid-teens and has been medicated for both conditions since she was 16. It's rare to get a child's perspective on mental illness, even retrospectively. Feeling that you've gotten to know the very funny Ms. Benincasa and knowing that her problems began much earlier than her stories do only makes the omission of her early struggles more glaring. I would have far preferred to see her devote more space to exploring her childhood and adolescent state of mind, rather than giving it over to "Billy's boner."
In the end, Agorafabulous! manages the rather sneaky feat of making what Benincasa astutely calls "the wrong kind of different" seem not so wrong at all. She conjures up images that are not just weird, but downright gross -- bowls of pee in her room, herself curled up in a fetid-smelling public bathroom having a panic attack and a miscarriage. Considering that these topics are not inherently hilarious, it's impressive that she transforms them into something that is, if not laugh-out loud funny, then amusingly, blissfully normal.
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