Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety

  • Daniel Smith
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 220 pp.

In this funny and insightful self-reflection on his life, the jittery author captures brilliantly the feeling of being a stranger in his own brain.

Reviewed by David L. Robbins

Daniel Smith’s “memoir of anxiety” is  a highly personal effort. You’ll read few works that feel so integrated with the author himself, so in-synch in style and reasoning, so thoroughly what you imagine him to be like in person. It’s brilliant, twitchy, maddening, confessional, wise, stunning. And anxious.

Smith (also the author of Muses, Madmen, and Prophets) has wrestled since childhood with an acute anxiety disorder. In Monkey Mind, he parses himself and his own foreign-feeling brain, using the incisive tools given him by years of study, therapy, and Jewish/Long Island angst.

The result is a book that I suspect would be just like a friendship with Daniel Smith. I stayed with him despite his youthful and embarrassing struggles, pratfalls, victories and relapses. I hung in there while he mired in solipsistic cul-de-sacs, as he worried and picked at niggling moments of no consequence like bitten nails. I loved Monkey Mind because Daniel Smith is a charming dude with an open heart, a teetering brain, and a wowing voice. The book mirrors his anxiety and, no surprise, trips itself up a lot. But when Smith gets it right, he gets it jaw-droppingly right.

Understand, Monkey Mind is not a compelling story. At its core, with no offense intended, it’s the tale of a quotidian existence, a bookish little schlumpf from Long Island with a therapist mother. A Philip Roth cliché. He has an adolescent sexual awakening with a lesbian that sends him out of orbit. He goes away to college and hates it, hiding in the library. He gets a first job at The Atlantic and finds the woman he will marry, screwing everything up along the way with untoward fears and torrents of sweat. He mulls for long minutes in a Roy Rogers restaurant over which condiment to select. If you distill only Smith’s life from the book, it’s a three-page essay on a smart northeast kid who suffers from anxiety, then, with lots of help and personal gumption, finds his way.

Not Homeric, not tragic, not really intriguing. Daniel Smith is an expert on himself — it is, after all, a memoir. And his life, frankly, just hasn’t been that interesting.

What is remarkable, however, is his ability to describe that life. He calls freedom “anxiety’s Petri dish.” Refers to a therapist who uses several treatment approaches as a “magpie.” Explains anxiety as “the stage a person has to pass through on the way to creating himself.”

One of my favorite passages floored me, Smith’s description of the pain from chewing a nail too deeply into the quick:

“There’s an inflammatory aspect to the experience. Then the heart gets involved. Informed of the insult, it sends some extra blood to the region to facilitate healing. But it feels like what the heart has sent is itself, like it has assessed the situation and decided the best thing to do is pull up stakes and bivouac right there in the fingertip until things blow over. Which means a new, heightened, rhythmic type of pain, a Looney Tunes pulsation. …”

It’s here, in the well-turned phrases, that Monkey Mind most mirrors its anxious author, and likewise suffers for it. Anxiety seems to be, at its center, a lack of confidence in the world. The irony is, as Smith’s mother and several therapists intone to him throughout the book, that everything really is okay. Calm down. I wanted to whisper this to Smith on almost every page. You don’t need to make this point so many times, I got it. You write very well, lad. Repetition and gilding are not emphasis. Putting a hat on a horse doesn’t make a new thing, just a horse in a hat.

Dig this passage on therapeutic breathing:

“I laid my right hand on my stomach, closed my eyes and breathed. I felt my belly rise and fall. In through the nose, four, out through the mouth, six. … Gradually, I felt it working. Somewhere within me things shifted. My blood chemistry chemically recalibrated. Ions flipped their charges. Molecules realigned. The organism settled. Behind my eyelids the dark was now a dampening dark rather than the dark of terrifying space. I felt, as I opened my eyes … as I imagined I was meant to feel. I felt lucid.”

I got it at “breathed.”

And this, on the subject of adapting feminine hygiene pads to solve his problem of sweating:

“Feminine hygiene is a $13 billion a year business. Thirteen billion buys you a lot of R&D. It buys you absorbency so cutting edge it’s like the sweat is being sucked into another dimension. It buys you adhesiveness that’s like some alien technology. … It buys you maximum performance with minimum size, discomfort or audible rustling. Today … I wear beneath my arms a product designed by a multinational corporation to absorb eighty milliliters of menstrual blood at a wearing.”

I got it at “feminine hygiene.”

Over the course of 220 pages, over and over, I had the sensation of what it must be like to be in a relationship with Daniel Smith. Brilliant and crazy-making. I wanted to share a Xanax.

Smith is, indeed, an anxious writer. He isn’t sure that he’s made his point when he has. He worries when he needn’t. He hyper-focuses. He’s as good a writer as he wishes he was, but sometimes he just won’t let it be. The nail-biting thing.

His writing even has a nervous tic. Because Smith is deeply versed and dastardly clever, he frequently heaves up long and obfuscating paragraphs that he, doubt riddled, sums up in lay terms. Like this riff on being set off by a Holocaust memorial:

“If you are already in an unsettled frame of mind, the sight and setting of the memorial could bring on a psychological onslaught of tremendous proportions — a sudden, almost revelatory flash of malignant-seeming power that overturns whatever mechanisms of whatever biochemical equilibrium you possess, causing you to sweat, gasp, cower, tremble, and shrink and just as suddenly wipes out all your cherished intellectual and interpretative functions, leaving you with nothing but a devoted, bargain-basement cognition capable only of the blunt detection of bodily danger which it always, and almost always incorrectly, finds. In short, you might have a panic attack.”

You can almost hear Smith saying: “Oops, I got carried away. Sorry.”

Still, Monkey Mind is a phenomenal read. In another writer’s hands, perhaps a reporter or documentarian, I might have skimmed until I lost interest or got sufficiently dizzy. But Daniel Smith is truly, really, seriously anxious. This is his story and he’s told it, perhaps inadvertently, in a way that is so informed by his anxiety that it’s a rare conversation. I know this man better than he intended, and you will, as well.

David L. Robbins, a freelance writer since 1981, is the author of nine novels. He  founded the James River Writers, a nonprofit group in Richmond, Va.,  and is the co-founder of The Podium Foundation (, which works with teachers and students to support creative expression.

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