Creating laughter is, of course, a comedian’s first goal. And for consumers of comedy, just laughing as a response to the action on stage or on screen or in a book is perfectly ok— that is, for the casual comedy observer. But for many of us a bit more damaged (or maybe we just have a heightened self awareness), a comedian that provides more than laughs is quickly endeared to us. And the concept of “more than laughs,” although built from ideas like “makes me think” and “gives me perspective” and “teaches me new things” all comes down to, in my estimation, finding comfort.
And I usually find comfort within inherently unfunny things— those great negative equalizers that help assuage my feelings of self-hatred, dread and panic. It’s why I embraced Greg Giraldo’s angry-yet-sensitive comedy so hard and why I still enjoy Jim Norton’s perverse admissions and Louis C.K.’s brutally honest view of parenthood. All of it makes me feel like I’m not alone. And it’s for similar reasons that I heartily enjoyed comedian Sara Benincasa’s memoir Agorafabulous! Dispatches From My Bedroom.
Before I go on, let me assure you that her book, spawned from her one-woman show she’s been touring for years, is funny. Will it leave you breathless from laughing? Likely, no—unless you’re some sort of fucking sociopath. After all there’s nothing funny about the way Sara describes her 21-year-old self early in the book: “I was a freak of the most terrible type, designed not to be displayed and celebrated but to be hidden in the darkness, an ugly, stinking waste of flesh.”
So, why the harsh self image? Well, Sara’s book, as you can surmise from the title, centers around her struggle with Agoraphobia, a psychological condition wherein its owner lives with a seemingly illogical fear of the outside world. For Sara, who, since a young age, had “an unquiet mind predisposed to irrational terror,” this condition finally became a life-changing problem during her junior year at Emerson College in Boston. She became increasingly frightened to leave her apartment or even the area around her bed— so much so that she began urinating in cereal bowls – she was barely eating so pooping wasn’t too much of a problem – and leaving these bowls to sit, festering around her abode. Hence, the whole “hidden in the darkness” thing. This was the turning point.
Mom and Dad had to bail her out; back to her home in New Jersey she went to seek help from a therapist and to re-learn the proper hygienic activities she had been ignoring and to start eating properly (read: at all). She recalls those last days at Emerson: “When I ate, I nibbled in bed and thought about dying.” Back home, however, she eventually became best friends with her blender – “When your daily routine includes repeatedly convincing yourself to not commit suicide, you probably don’t have time left over to prepare haute cuisine” – and even offers some Cuisinart-friendly recipes in the book.
From there, we follow Sara through her relative recovery in an amazingly detailed account; she excavates dialogue, settings, smells, colors from her past, affording we, the readers, with such a clear moving portrait of her life that it’s impossible not to feel empathetic, even if we haven’t experienced exactly what’s presented. And although the book’s focus is on our subject’s psychological journey, dare I say that Agorafabulous! is a bit of a road trip book— if you redefine “road trip” to include plane rides and multiple stops over many years.
I submit: Besides Boston and New Jersey, we find Sara in Italy on a class trip and hanging out in the gay enclave of New Hope, PA, and earning money at the Blessed Sanctuary in rural Pennsylvania where she landed a job as an assistant; in Asheville, NC where she attended Warren Wilson College and Kentucky where she worked for a migrant outreach center run by nuns. She even lived in a Texas border town where she taught a ninth-grade writing class and was forced to deal with a teen’s raging boner during class; and we also follow her to the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she attended grad school at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
While her story is inspirational, Sara, whether purposely or not, avoids spinning her life into an over-sentimental blob. After all, there’s nothing really cute and cuddly about having to use Prozac, the occasional Xanax and constant therapy to maintain your sanity. This is something Sara still struggles with today, except now she has the ability to sculpt art from Agoraphobia’s inherent shittyness. I assume, also, her kitchenware is mostly used for its intended purpose.
Click here to snag yourself a copy of Agorafabulous! Dispatches From My Bedroom. Seriously, do it.