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Anxiety expert Daniel Smith ’99 lectures on ‘Monkey Mind’

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: Front Page, News


Daniel Smith ’99 has not been inside Rapaporte Hall in the Goldfarb Library since 1998, when the Dalai Lama visited Brandeis. But that is where he was this Wednesday, reading excerpts from his new bestselling memoir “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.” The book tells a comical yet also very real account of Smith’s lifelong struggle with chronic anxiety.

Broken up into three parts, or “episodes,” the memoir features stories from Smith’s adolescence, time at Brandeis, and his life as an adult. Smith read passages from the first and second episodes. He began with the first chapter.

“It’s preceded by an epigraph by my grandfather, who said … ‘If you really feel like you have to put another book out into a world already choked with books, at least have the common decency to begin it with a man and woman making love,” Smith said.

So that is what he did. Smith opens his first chapter, titled “Genesis,” with a memory of when he lost his virginity. “I am 16 years old. I have never before seen a vagina up close … To mark the occasion, I would like to shake the vagina’s hand, talk to it for a while: How do you do, vagina, would you like some herbal tea?”

Smith fills his memoir with this anecdotal humor. After he finished reading, Professor Stephen McCauley (ENG) asked him how he constructs his humor. “I think about it constantly,” Smith admits. Smith was part of the improv troupe False Advertising in his time at Brandeis, and for a while wrote a humor column for The Justice, but eventually found the column to anxiety provoking. However, what he found in his practices of humor, was that any joke “leads to specificity in the punchline.”

Smith told the audience that while writing his memoir, he wanted to “with as much sensory detail and descriptive evidence” describe “what it feels like to actually be in a body that’s hard wired for this sort of thing.” The humor helped him with the rhythm of the narrative, he said, making it easier not only for him to write, but for people who had anxiety like his to be able to read. The presentation of the experience of anxiety was important, and Smith did not want it to be contaminated by an excess of researched, book knowledge of anxiety.

The second episode, “People of the Book,” features Brandeis, where Smith said he fell into anxiety as soon as he arrived. The section read to the audience described Smith’s walk back from a traumatizing trip to the counseling center.

“The session made the college seem even more foreign and forbidding than before. Walking into the shadow of the science complex, I recalled a statistic that our guide had conveyed inexplicably on our campus tour. ‘Each academic year at the university,’ she announced to the assembled families, ‘more mice are decapitated for experiments than students graduated.’ I scrambled back into daylight.”

Smith illustrated for the audience how his anxiety consumed him in his first year at Brandeis, and how he attempted to find solitude in the library among the novels. Philip Roth was his favorite, while authors such as Charles Faulkner only hardened the icicle of anxiety that lived in Smith’s chest.

When asked whether it bothers him that strangers know him because of this memoir, Smith responded simply that “It doesn’t bother me at all because they don’t.” While his anxiety disorder is a large part of his life, it is not all of it, he continued. The second episode only contains about a year of his career at Brandeis, as that was when his anxiety was worst. Yet despite his initial distaste for Brandeis, the “hatred quickly dissipated,” and Smith was excited to return to read to us.

Daniel Smith’s first book is “Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination.” His second publication, “Monkey Mind,” has been celebrated by the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and NPR.