“When I was seventeen years old, I met the hottest guy…,”so begins Sara Benincasa‘s memoir about a boy who would never pick her as his girlfriend. “Kevin entered a new high school in a new town and was immediately nominated for Best Looking, Most Likely to Succeed, and Best Personality – stunning trifecta of high school laurels… Then, one night in the spring, he walked into his garage, filled a bottle with gasoline, brought it upstairs into the bathroom, locked the door, poured some of the gasoline down his throat, soaked himself in the rest, and lit a match.”
Suicide seems a funny way to start a memoir about living with mental illness, but it works for this eccentric stand-up comedienne’s personal account of her own journey. Agorafabulous: Dispatches From My Bedroom, by Sara Benincasa, is a hilarious self-deprecating chronicle of her own crippling anxiety, depression, and debilitating fears and how she overcame most, well many, of them. Kevin’s memory is with her when she stacks up the garbage and recycling instead of taking it outside, when she begins to urinate in cereal bowls because the toilet frightened her, and especially when her own dark thoughts crowded into her cramped Boston apartment.
“He sat with me while the knives whined their siren song from the drawer and I rocked back and forth, gently, sort of ignoring them but mostly just waiting. Kevin was there somewhere, perched in the back of my mind, reminding me that clear-cut choices are few and far between, and I had better not fuck this one up.” For such a serious subject, humor is a well-chosen weapon. When we laugh, we can open ourselves up to truths that might otherwise be too painful. If we don’t talk about the difference between having suicidal ideas and making actual suicide plans, we mistake one for the other.
“Vanity trumps anxiety.” When she could no longer stand the stench of herself or the strands of stringy hair, she recognized the only way to have a good hair day must begin with getting it wet. Benincasa’s explanation for how she ended her fear of the shower is convincing. The specificity with which she gives to the logic of her own delusions resonates with anyone who has ever done any rationalizing of their own eccentricities.
By the time she was 21 years of age, Sara lived on her own in Boston, enrolled at Emerson College. She didn’t make it to most class sessions. She didn’t much leave the apartment, or eventually, her bedroom. Before midterms, she’d returned home to her parents’ cupcake neighborhood and started to see a psychiatrist. As she begins to turn a corner towards Normal Town, Sara explains her stumbling steps in her chapter on Hairapy.
“There are a few items that should never be left near a person in a state of nervous breakdown, including not limited to: knives, guns, drugs, babies, credit cards, and scissors. When the afflicted individual in question is a woman, the scissors become even more dangerous. Sure, she may stab herself or a loved one, but she may do something even crazier: attempt to cut her own hair.” Locking herself in the bathroom, Benincasa takes the shears to her tresses and freaks her parents out. Emergency salon visit ensues.
Turns out Warren Wilson College in North Carolina proved to be the best little psych ward for Sara who learned most of her lessons outside classrooms. She didn’t graduate on time to walk in ceremonies with her classmates but she earned advanced certificates in coping with stupid jobs, mean people, broken condoms, broken hearts, and a boy’s boner in her ninth grade writing class as an Americorp teacher in Texas.
“I subscribe to the notion that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them. And if other people can laugh at your awful shit as well, then I guess you can officially call yourself a comedian.” Sara Benincasa is a writer who shares her most humiliating moments so that all of us with our idiosyncracies, fears, dreams, and the will to live, at least through today because making a plan to end it all requires too much effort, laugh with her.
Recently I enjoyed a premiere screening of Sleepwalk with Me. Mike Birbiglia is a funny guy. His own anxieties, and fears (bears), offered a compelling premise to a story about what happens when his fear of commitment manifests in sleepwalking episodes. The first movie co-written by Ira Glass and co-produced by “This American Life” is based on Birbiglia’s off-Broadway show and bestselling book. I can’t help but notice that Birbiglia’s career trajectory toward discovering a career in comedy spans Benincasa’s rising star. I can only wish for a cinematic version of Sara Benincasa’s Agorafabulous. So fabulous to read, it ought to be performed live by the author. This would make such an entertaining film and there just aren’t enough talented women comediennes recognized and rewarded for this kind of excellence.