For as long as Canadian writer Eva Holland can remember, she has had two major fears – the death of her mother, and heights. When her mother unexpectedly dies of a stroke and, a few months later, Holland finds herself frozen in terror while ice climbing with friends, she decides to seek answers about the nature of fear – and whether it can be cured.
Almost immediately it seems she’s set herself an impossible task: fear, despite being so universal, is hard to nail down and define. Where do we draw the lines between fear, anxiety, worry, trauma, dread and phobia? Or are there lines at all? How does the physical experience of fear intersect with the psychological? Which is more important, nature or nurture? When does fear tip from survival instinct into pathology?
Holland draws upon studies, historical and current, as well as interviews with various researchers and experts, as she tries to find clarity. Some of the stories from the wild early days of the science are fascinating in themselves. Most haunting, perhaps, is the story of Little Albert, a nine-month-old deliberately traumatised by researchers to prove a child could be trained to fear soft and furry animals. Now used as a case study in psychological ethics, the image of “Little Albert” quivering in fear at the sight of a rabbit will stay with you long after putting down this book.
The true strength of Nerve is how Holland frames the book with her own experience: she is three case studies in one. She explores her fear leading up to her mother’s death and how she coped in the aftermath. After a series of car accidents, she tries EMDR, or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, a non-conventional treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. To conquer her fear of heights she takes part in a “magic pill” experiment that aims to break the link between stimulus and fear response. In another writer’s hands this book could have been dry and frustrating; through Holland, however, theories are given context, are personalised.
Fear is a delicate balancing act – to tip too far one way is to live a muted life, but to tip too far the other is to invite danger. Finding our balance point is highly individual and there are many studies and few definitive answers; what Nerve offers instead is a different perspective. This is an accomplished debut full of strong images and clear-headed discussion.
Pantera, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2020 as "Eva Holland, Nerve".
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