The successful memoir sets out to reveal the intimate details of an author’s life, the lessons learned and key moments that shaped who they are. Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking is that rare thing that manages to use the form to explore the highs and lows, (mostly lows), of a teenager living with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder that quickly spirals out of control to dominate his every thought and action. It also serves as a manual to help identify young people suffering in this specific way and what might be done to help them—or at least come to understand them a little more.
The narrative opens with a family holiday in Florida and the dramatic image of the Discovery space shuttle rising into a cloudless sky. Although, sixteen year old Chris is preoccupied with an “empty Coke beaker”, wondering if it is large enough to contain the vomit he expects to appear any second and ruin his family’s special day. The catalogue of events that follows this initial episode are expertly handled and are always presented with a searing honesty that is introduced here and maintained to the final page.
The fact that this is about an otherwise ordinary boy from an ordinary working-class family, enrolled in ordinary college in an ordinary town, means the story will resonate with many readers. Chris is yearning to blend in, be a good mate, attentive boyfriend and dutiful son, mirrors most people’s lives at this notoriously difficult age and forces the reader to reflect on their own complex journeys to adulthood. In fact, Chris’s running commentary of fairly prosaic events provides some of the memoir’s standout comedic moments, covering everything from drunken parties to awkward sex, mammoth X-box sessions and Internet porn. But it is the quieter moments where the memoir could be said to achieve its true power and the need for the narrator to always be within a short distance of the toilet or his “Immodium tablets”, imbues the text with an almost rhythmic quality. Vibrant natural settings also punctuate the urban decay and are symbolic of Chris’s need to escape but also, ironically, fuel his mounting feelings of isolation and despair. Even away from everyone and everything, anxiety manages to track him down. “When I touch the gate,” Chris notes, “I make a note to wash my hands. I use as small a surface of skin as possible to do the latch. The very tips of my fingers on only one hand.”
After reading, I came away enlightened and richer for the experience, particularly as I have been in education for twenty-five years and was a secondary school teacher for much of that time. This account helped put a story to the empty seat in my English literature class and the growing string of absences in my form register. But Westoby’s talent as a writer lies not just in giving a voice to teenagers who find themselves unable to cope with everyday life, it is also the way that even when presenting moments of apparent utter futility, his prose bristles with hope. Suddenly there is light enough for Chris to navigate the darkness and find a way out for himself and others like him—and for anyone interested in witnessing this daring feat alone, The Fear Talking is an essential read.
Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney
Thanks for giving us the freedom to bring it to our website, Paul!