Review by JC Sulzenko
A rare confluence of personal and professional interests has influenced this review of Eva Holland’s Nerve, A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear.
First, I could hardly contain my impatience as I waited for this debut book by now Whitehorse-based Holland, our daughter’s BFF since Grade 5 at First Avenue Public School. Eva grew up in the Glebe. I have followed her writing career closely, from her work in Canterbury’s Literary Arts program, through her escapades around the world as a travel writer, to today, as her articles feature in leading media, including Canadian Geographic, The Walrus, Bloomberg Business Week, Wired, and Outside. The Globe and Mail just published her opinion piece on the meaning of friendship during the pandemic.
Second, to read Nerve cover to cover, I had to overcome my own fear! Revulsion at the tarantula on the dust jacket took my courage to right-size. How? I shredded the image!
Third, I read the book twice. Not because it’s difficult to understand. Quite the opposite: I couldn’t put the book down. The second reading provided specific material to include here.
Without hesitation, I recommend highly this well-crafted memoire cum study. Nerve provides a largely accessible view of the way in which the brain works and fear operates, as the author explores “how fear can serve us, how it can become a tool rather than a burden.”
While the pandemic undermined plans for a traditional launch of Nerve in May, it also created an ideal climate to examine the role and mechanisms of fear and its relative, anxiety. The book has soared to the top of recommended non-fiction reading lists and received an enthusiastic reception in mainstream and social media, including coverage by Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Macleans and the CBC. It’s clearly struck a nerve!
Holland uses the crucible of her most intimate experiences to reveal and explore with candour and rigorous research the sources and depths of her three greatest fears: the loss of her beloved mother, to whom she dedicates the book and whose presence lingers even after reading it; a propensity to be the victim of severe car accidents; and exposure to heights.
Unflinchingly, she details what she endures. She pursues doggedly, at times with humour, not only a better understanding of the origin and impact of these experiences on her and resulting emotions she feels her day to day but also different measures to address them.
In Nerve, Holland serves as both guinea pig and amanuensis. She begins at the moment when her greatest fear is realized. Her mother, Katherine Janet Tait, died from a stroke at the age of 60 in 2015. “I was afraid I would be sad forever,” she admits. She holds little back in portraying their love for each other as well as their interdependence. She invites the reader into the depths of her sorrow and into each stage of her grieving process as she comes to understand her mother and herself and to accept that her mother’s life experience need not define her daughter’s.
To target the residual trauma from a series of car-totaling accidents, she chooses a somewhat untraditional course. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy uses rhythmic and rapid eye movements to deaden such memories and the PTSD attendant on such experiences.
Holland then tackles her fear of heights. After little success in facing her fears through repeated exposure to rock climbing and a one-time skydive, she seeks leading-edge treatment at the Kindt Clinics in Amsterdam. There she undergoes a process designed to interrupt her emotional response to fearful memories through reactivating the problematic memory and a one-time use of medication.
Was Holland cured of these fears? Rather than give away the endgame in each case, let me say the term “détente” does appear toward the conclusion of this very fine read.
JC Sulzenko is a Glebe writer and poet whose poetry collection, South Shore Suite…Poems, was published in 2017. Her award-winning centos appeared in The Banister anthologies (2016, 2013.) She curates the “Poetry Quarter” for this paper and sits on the selection board for Bywords.