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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Bestselling author returns to Brandeis, the ‘epicenter of anxiety’

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

This past Wednesday, New York Times bestselling author and Brandeis alum Daniel Smith returned to Brandeis, a place he deemed an “epicenter of anxiety.” Suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Smith penned a memoir recounting his experiences titled “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.” In a similar manner to his brazenly honest book, Smith spoke and read out loud to a full audience at Rapaporte Treasure Hall about his struggles, his successes, and how he never wanted to attend Brandeis in the first place.

Professor Stephen McCauley, the Associate Director of Creative Writing, introduced Smith, acknowledging the Creative Writing Department, the Brandeis magazine and the psychological counseling center, who all made the event possible. McCauley, who had Smith as a student, credits him with a “major success in a field that is very difficult.” In his introduction, he mentioned that “Monkey Mind” was met with “unanimous praise” from such diverse sources as “People Magazine” and “Psychology Today.” McCauley praised Smith’s memoir as “most impressively hilarious and shockingly intimate and honest,” a text that is “a literary work and a scientific one.”

Smith began his reading by stating, “Last time I was here I stole a tin of Pringles from Usdan.” Crediting McCauley, Smith acknowledged, “I owe it to McCauley that I decided I had what it takes to be a writer.” He said that “Monkey Mind” is composed of episodes, “the three worst times I’ve struggled with anxiety in my life.” While Smith has read hundreds of books on the topic, he wanted to pen “Monkey Mind” because he believed none of these writers had “sat down and described directly what it feels like to be in a body that’s hardwired for that sort of thing.”

Smith’s reading began with a sex scene, with an amusing aside, “I should pause to point out that the first two times I read this my mother was sitting in the front row.” The scene describes how Smith lost his virginity to two girls, and the crushing sense of anxiety and hopelessness that followed. While Smiths’ is a book about a mental illness, the reason “Monkey Mind” succeeds is that he balances its dark side out with humor. In describing this sex scene, Smith personifies the vagina, saying, “How do you do, vagina, would you like some herbal tea?” and calls it “an impatient vagina, a bureaucratic vagina.”

Smith continued reading, slowly and expressively, captivating the audience. The second section described anxiety with a looming sense of doom. Smith recalls that “everything [felt like] a grave danger, an assault on consciousness itself.” A high school student at the time, he struggled because he was “totally focused on what was going on inside me.” Comparing himself to Macbeth and the turmoil this Shakespearean figure faced, Smith believes anxiety tells you an unfortunate truth: “You are not at the wheel.”

Perhaps most intriguingly, the third section Smith read was from a scene that occurred at Brandeis, in the very same library in which he spoke. Smith admits he had “paralyzing” anxiety while at Brandies, and that he feared that coming back to speak would bring him “dangerously close to waves of nausea.” Smith did not shy away from speaking the truth about Brandeis and his experience, despite the venue. “I fell in a state of really terrible anxiety as soon as I went to college,” Smith said. The scene he read out loud depicted his younger self finding solace in the library’s “crypt-like lower levels,” where he would read to distract himself. Stated in “Monkey Mind,” Smith’s original view of Brandeis is incredibly clear, and not something he was afraid to share. “I don’t want to be here, I hated it here,” Smith read out loud. He recalls how his mother wanted him to go to Brandeis, but he resented the lack of diversity the school offered. Growing up on Long Island in a Jewish household, Smith did not want to attend a Jewish school. While his mother told him he could be a “big fish in a small pond,” Smith remarked it was “a Jewish small pond.” While speaking at the institution that brought him so much stress, Smith acknowledged after the reading, “my hatred [of Brandeis] dissipated after that, and I thank everyone for inviting me here.”

In the question-and-answer following the event, McCauley probed Smith with questions about how he managed to remain entirely truthful in his memoir. “I don’t make anything up,” said Smith. “But memory is unstable and unreliable, and it’s going to alter in your mind, and as soon as you put it down on paper.” Smith acknowledges that other authors have gotten in trouble for penning memoirs not completely truthful, so he added an author’s note saying “Monkey Mind” is as truthful as he can remember it. The author’s note included his personal email address. “I got so many emails,” said Smith. “I had to take it out of the paperback version. People wrote to me asking what medication I take, about my therapist, and to meet them for coffee. I try to write back to everybody.”

When questioned about his use of comedy and its structure, Smith referred to his past, mentioning that he wrote a humor column for the Justice and was in a comedy group at Brandeis. “[I had] hour long conversations about the funniest sounding consonants,” said Smith, in how he was interested in the science behind comedy. “I try to play it by ear,” he said. “It is in the details.” He believes humor is something that must be balanced, at once something that is sprung on the reader but not overdone. “Anxiety is the only funny mental illness,” Smith said. “You can’t make a good joke about paranoid schizophrenia without being insensitive.” Yet, Smith contends, anxiety is something that can be considered humorous because “you are aware that what you’re torturing yourself with is absurd.”

Now a high profile author, Smith states, “I still get anxious writing.” He believes that the only thing that has helped quell these feelings is writing everyday for the past 12 years. While Smith may not have enjoyed his time at Brandeis, today’s students appreciated this reading from an author that blends the tragic and the comic.