- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

BART MCDOWELL

on Charles A. Monagan’s

THE COMPLETE NEUROTIC: THE ANXIOUS PERSON’S GUIDE TO LIFE

Try to get a plain brown wrapper for this book. Otherwise, when you read it and laugh out loud, strangers will see the title and think you are a nut. Maybe you really are a nut. If so, this book will be even funnier. Already, the humor here has had a long shelf life, for the book was first published in 1982. But phobias, manias and plain old insecurities have a long shelf life, too.

That word, “anxiety,” the author, Charles A. Monagan, tells us, “is just another word for nothing much to do.” He looks backward to the time when most people were normal. “Children were given names such as Joe or Ann rather than obscure crossword-puzzle names that were once reserved for the family dinghy or a pet turtle.” Today, Mr. Monagan observes, almost no one is normal. Ask people whether they are “content with their lot” (a phrase left over from the lost Age of Normalcy) and they assume you are talking about real estate.

Neuroses start early. The comfort of the womb — “pleasing warmth with the purr of soft, indistinct voices” — will never again be duplicated. “The sheer excellence of the womb can be blamed for almost all future neurotic complaints … . Following the unasked-for trauma of birth itself, the storm clouds begin … as soon as someone hangs a frightening, ominously bobbing mobile over the crib.” Soon the baby learns about distrust. He is given a pacifier, “the first of many great hoaxes … . No sooner have we settled into the wonders of the mothering breast than we are tricked into accepting … this cheap, toy-like substitute … . Is there ever again any reason for the child to trust anyone once this con game has been found out?”

The infant is given a security blanket (“later given up favor of gin”), and he learns something about his world, seeing, touching, putting things in his mouth. “For such fledgling efforts at self-education, he is thrown into jail, euphemistically known as a playpen.” But the playpen is not a rehabilitative facility, “the word is a shortened form of ‘playpenitentiary.’”

The child grows older and receives such wisdom as, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” And who wants to be the one child in a million who knowingly steps on a crack “only to come home and find his or her mother writhing in pain on the living room floor.”

“Neurosis is the natural state for teenagers … . Teenagers’ parents are strange and intractable … . They can’t be trusted in public places. They can’t be introduced to your friends.” “With only algebra, English composition, and maybe a little French or Spanish to guide them, teenagers suddenly have to decide how to dress, how to look, and what to say. So they take the only sane course: They wear identical clothes … they all act the same, and they all say the same things.”

The young adult neurotic has a different batch of concerns. “If you still can’t open a bag of potato chips without using your teeth, how are you going to pick apart the subtleties of the cosmos? … Outwardly neurotic buzz words such as ‘humongous’ and ‘gross’ and ‘teen-weeny’ have been dropped.”

Middle-aged neurotics “expect a crisis at midlife because they have had one at every other age.” Because they have had so much practice answering deep and desperate questions, they have ready answers, though perhaps not the correct answers. “Who am I? I am the same person as always, only now with graying hair and a heart that could give out at any moment … . What lies beyond life, beyond death? Hey, what is this, some kind of inquisition? … Why don’t you go ask Carl Sagan? Leave me alone.”

The aged neurotic revisits “the building blocks of anxiety that once shaped our infant lives: distrust, insecurity, guilt … . The doctors don’t tell you anything, or if they do, they lie. The only people your doctors level with are your children, who have begun to visit more often and treat you with affection … . For this to happen, you must be dying. Six months to live, or even less … . The only one you really can trust is the chiropractor, but everyone just smiles in a strange way whenever you mention him.”

Among my favorite observations are the ones based on bedrock certainty — “Horoscopes for the Rest of Your Life.” For Aries, in late 2007, “Romance beckons you, but it disappears whenever you leave the room to put things from the washer into the dryer … . Your book ‘How to Make Small Talk’ rushes to the top of the best seller lists and assures your financial security.”

Taurus gets special comfort: “Late in your career, coworkers admit that you are worth more than they are, and they go on strike until you are given a substantial raise.” For Cancer in February, 2012, “A strange but harmless disease brings you notoriety.” A Gemini, in 2009, is warned, “Stay away from the Bengal tiger cage at the zoo.”

Leo, in 2024, will find that “a love interest flees with the silverware but otherwise leaves behind pleasant memories … . Obey all signs in 2011, especially the one that says, ‘Don’t stand up in the rollercoaster car.” Scorpio is warned to “ignore the daily horoscope you read in 2025 that says you will be grazed by a speeding fire truck. Keep an eye out for tow trucks, however.”

Specific — that’s the great virtue of this soothsayer. You know where he stands, and it is not near the Bengal tiger nor upright in the rollercoaster car. An Aquarian is admonished, “Don’t eat anything you find on the sidewalk in 2014-2015.” But those are also words to live by in other seasons.

The section on palmistry is somewhat confusing, and sometimes alarming. A line branching off one’s lifetime, for example, “indicates that you have a twin brother or sister whom you have never seen (or possibly its half-formed fetus is living inside your own body).” This assertion is printed without footnotes or any other scholarly citations.

In a portion called “Some facts of Summer,” the author tells us “never to take a shower or use a telephone during a thunderstorm; the lightening will come right down the nozzle or through the receiver, and throw you across the room.” We also learn that “books you find left behind in a rented cottage always include a paperback copy of ‘The Rise and Fall of their Third Reich.’”

But it is on his section about dating that Mr. Monagan shows true compassion. “Like the cockroach, the blind date has remained essentially unaffected by the passage of time … . The device is used by happily married couples to torture their single friends, just for the sake of a few laughs.” The reader is advised to Expect the worst, and Looks Aren’t Everything. Bad omens are a date “who holds eating utensils like a prison inmate” or one “who loudly joins in on the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ for celebrants at a nearby table.” And we are offered some unfortunate opening lines: “Do you know anything about ingrown toenails?” “Boy, it’s nice to sit down. Do you like to sit down?”

But in spite of all these auguries, sometimes people get in over their heads. Danger signs are comments like these: “You can use my car anytime you need it.” “Sex really doesn’t mean that much to me.” and: “I used your toothbrush.”

Bart McDowell is a former editor at National Geographic.

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