The impetus for her journey was a trifecta of personal traumas: a series of car-totaling automobile accidents, an ongoing struggle with her knee-buckling fear of heights, and then the death of her mother — an inevitability she had dreaded all her life but that, when it came, came too soon and left her bereft. Together they pushed her to confront another fear, and one common to writers: Weaving a personal narrative into a serious exploration of science and psychology.
With an approach reminiscent of Mary Roach, “Nerve” takes us on a deep dive into the science, examining the roots and cutting-edge treatments of fear and trauma, often using herself as a guinea pig. Holland is an outdoor adventurer, and some of her own fears are faced when in the wild. That gives her story echoes of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” spooled out in moments that help ground her research. The result is a touching, stirring narrative that braids together immersion reporting, traditional science writing, and memoir.
I’ve long been a fan of Holland’s work, which has been featured in several of “best of” anthologies. I had the pleasure of teaching a narrative workshop with her. And like her, I left my full-time job several years ago to freelance, am an avid outdoorswoman, and what some would call a risk-taker.
“Nerve” is available from Allen Lane in Canada, the UK, and India; from Pantera Press in Australia and New Zealand; and from The Experiment in the United States, where it will be released April 14. And while the book was conceived, reported, written and published before we all faced the fear of the coronavirus pandemic, it has proved a prescient guide to our anxiety in these times.
I wanted to know more about the story behind the story, so I reached Holland at her home in Whitehorse, a small town in Canada’s Yukon Province, to talk about the reporting and craft decisions that went into her book.
By most objective measures, you appear rather fearless. You’ve done a two-week survival boot camp on extreme polar travel. You’ve climbed the Unclimbables. You’ve competed in the 450-mile Yukon River Quest. So how did you come to write a book about conquering your fears?
Yeah, there’s a funny disconnect between my previous work and the way I am with my friends, off the internet and away from bylines. I do this kind of adventurous writing, and I do some adventurous things in my personal life, but in comparison to the people I’m surrounded by, I’m always a beginner and I’m always the most scared. So there’s a gap between how people on Twitter my might see my life and how I how I see myself — as this sort of perpetual scaredy-cat trying to keep up with the big kids.
Did your concept for the book evolve over time, or was there an a-ha moment where things just coalesced?
There was a gradual lead-up and then a this-is-a-book moment. My mom died in July of 2015. That fall and winter, I was thinking: What does it mean that my worst fear came true? After the acute grief had passed, I realized I had a clean slate, an opportunity to take charge of my fears, since my first worst fear had already come to pass. And then a couple of other things happened.
I had a panic attack on an ice climbing trip in February 2016. At that point, I wasn’t thinking about a book. I was thinking: I’ve got to get a grip on this fear of heights thing. This level of response was not acceptable. In the context of having come through my mom’s death, I thought: Maybe I can confront this and do something about it.
About two months after the ice climbing trip, I had the last of a series of major car accidents. When it happened, I had actually been driving down the highway thinking about book ideas. I’m always thinking of stories in terms of What do I bring to the table? What do I have that someone else might not have for this subject matter? Some insight or relevant experience or a unique access.
So I was thinking about fear that day, how the different strands of it appeared in my life. And then I totaled my car, literally a couple of hours after I started thinking about it. The aha moment was, in fact, a rollover into the ditch.
While I was in the hospital that night, or maybe on the Greyhound bus home the next day, I realized: Okay, well, now you HAVE to do a book. I knew there would be consequences from this crash. I had already been nervous about driving after the previous couple accidents. I was like, Okay, this is gonna mess you up.
So there were three threads to the book: The fear of my mom’s death, my fear of heights, and my fear of driving. Those are the three main things I confront.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
One challenge was getting my head around the more technical sides of the science—the neuroscience and the psychology. I don’t have a strong math and science background. I was nervous about the hard science and found myself concentrating really hard to try to make sure I was getting it right.
The other hard thing was just sitting with a lot of the memories in the memoir portions. Obviously, the parts about my mom dying were heavy to work through. But some other things hit me surprisingly hard. In Chapter 9, for example, I talk about threats from other humans. It’s the “Law and Order” part of the book. There were times when I and other people in my research have been faced with a mortal peril from other humans — as opposed to falling off a cliff or being afraid of spiders. Sitting with those memories freaked me out more than I expected.
Those aren’t things you want to dwell on if you live alone and walk around by yourself. I wrote that section in January in the absolute depths of the Yukon winter. It was like, here I am by myself in a basement in the dark, writing about some of the scariest things that have ever happened to me. Great.
What was the thing that most surprised you?
What I learned about trauma. When I started reporting the book, I knew a little bit about phobias. And I had thought about grief and loss and death, which isn’t exactly fear, but something that we do fear. But learning about trauma — and also the ways that trauma and anxiety and fear are all connected — was surprisingly interesting. And the physicality of trauma and grief, the way it expresses itself in our bodies, was an area of unexpected learning for me.
How did you go about recording your emotional states as they were unfolding?
Some of it is pure memoir, and I had to reconstruct what I could remember from years earlier. But in other cases, I was able to be more deliberate about it. The moment I found out that my mom had a stroke, I knew I was going to write about this at some point. So I did start taking notes, even while we were still at the hospital, while she was in the ICU. I intended that to be a personal essay, but then it ended up being part of this book.
Year later, when I did EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I would come home and take notes right away on how that session had gone. My therapist told me I could look at her notes at some point if I wanted to reconstruct what had happened in a given session. I didn’t end up asking to see them. But knowing I had the option helped me, because I wanted to just be in the moment in the in the therapy so that it would work.
There’s a scene in the book where, as a treatment for your fear of heights, you’re sent up in the bucket of a fire fighting ladder-truck, and at the same time you’re being filmed by a documentary film crew. Did the presence of a camera magnify the fear?
Being filmed absolutely heightened the nerves around the situation. It’s more embarrassing to freak out in front of people. That’s always been a theme of my panic attacks, that they’re worse when I’m around people, because I’m more agitated about freaking out when I’m around people. It’s one of those snake-eating-its-tail things — I’m more calm if I’m by myself, even though I’d be less embarrassed to freak out by myself.
But once I was actually up there in the in the bucket, there was sort of no room for self-consciousness. It’s not that I forgot the camera guy was there, but I was too freaked out to really worry. And on some level I was happy to be extra freaked out by him. I wanted the treatment to work, and my concern going into it was that it would be hard for them to scare me enough in somewhat artificial conditions. I was presented with real heights, but I always have to feel like I can fall to really panic. And so it was it was a tricky thing to trigger me without putting me in danger.
On the notetaking front, that one was tricky, too. For the therapy to work, I wasn’t supposed to think about it for 24 hours afterwards. So I couldn’t go back to my hotel room and take notes—they told me not to. Luckily, the memories were very vivid.
What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of reporting and writing a book like this in first person versus third person? What made you choose the first-person approach?
I knew the central challenge would be stitching together the personal story with the science. But I never considered writing it in third person, because my interest in the subject matter was so driven by wanting to change myself. I did debate about a more classical sort of immersion reporting—like a Mary Roach approach—that would have me experimenting on myself, but not with a deeply personal memoir component. So there was a lot of discussion of how much to put in about my mom.
And what informed your decisions about that? Can you unpack that a little?
I still don’t know that it was necessarily the right call in terms of pleasing the largest number of readers. I think some people might wonder, why is this in here? Other people hopefully will be touched by it and will understand what I was what I was going for. But my decision was ultimately based on the reasons why all this stuff mattered to me. It all it all came back to her death. It was the driving force behind the book. It put everything else in context.
Was that scary?
Yeah, it was scary. There’s a real vulnerability to putting that stuff out there and knowing that people might say mean things about it on Amazon or on Goodreads or on Twitter. That’s the stuff that scares me right now. Because it’s easy to hurt me on that front. I don’t have a super thick skin about that aspect of my life. But it wasn’t consciously really scary while I was writing it. It felt really good to write those parts, which were some of the first parts I wrote. I’m happy with what I wrote about being in the ICU with my mother. But I don’t know what everyone else who was there will think. With the exception of my dad, my family hasn’t seen it yet. So that’s scary, too. I wouldn’t want to upset anyone or hurt them in some way.
The book has an elegant three-part structure. Did you map out this architecture from the beginning, or did it emerge organically as you did the reporting?
I started planning the structure in the proposal, and the end result is pretty close. Part One lays the groundwork—the backstory about my mom and my reasons for doing all this, a crash course on the science, and a look at fear in our culture. Part Two is the immersion reporting section. Part Three zooms out to the big picture, a look at fear in science and society.
What were some unexpected challenges, and how did you solve them?
I was pretty intimidated by the length of a book. With the exception of some work in graduate school, I’d never written anything longer than 12,000 words. That’s part of why I closely followed the structure mapped out by the proposal. I made a blank word document for each chapter, and I just imagined I was writing nine 6,000-word articles. I didn’t write them in a linear fashion, but I would focus on a chapter until it was complete. I didn’t worry about trying to smush them together until pretty late in the process. And then I put Part One, Part Two and Part Three each into larger Word docs and revised them in thirds. I didn’t put the whole manuscript into one Word document until the last couple of weeks before deadline. I didn’t want to sort of freak myself out, I guess.
What was fact-checking process like?
I hired a fact-checker, and the way I made it work with my modest budget was that I only had the science portions fact-checked. I hired my friend Jane Hu, who in addition to being a fabulous freelancer, also happens have a PhD in psychology. I went through and I annotated roughly half the book. I was very thorough, giving her not just the page number, but “third paragraph, second sentence.” Because fact-checkers charge by the hour.
I also had Jane fact-check some portions of the memoir. When I’m describing my mom’s hospitalization, for instance, my memories were a bit hazy. I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t imagined parts of that scene. I didn’t want to be making up that there was a tube in her skull. That’s my recollection, but I was pretty messed up at that point. So Jane did some research on strokes. She was not able to check my mom’s records, but she verified what would a doctor would typically do in that type of situation.
She really helped me with the hard science, which I didn’t want to screw up. I was particularly nervous about overstating research results. Often I reference only a single paper, rather than an accumulation of evidence, and I didn’t want to overstate what one paper represents. So Jane really helped me with the language around framing that research so that I could gesture at what it might mean for our understanding of fear, without claiming too much.
You wrote, “Our own feelings of fear and pain can be the cause of the later trauma as much as the event itself.” What other what other insights did you have about the nature of fear?
That was a big one—the realization that our own fear is sometimes what does the harm to our psyches as much as the actual event we’re reacting to. That was really powerful for me, and empowering in a way.
Another revelation—not just about fear, but grief—was that grief isn’t something to be feared in the way that I had feared it. That grief is just sort of natural, and that it can even have value. That’s not to say that that terrible things happening are a good thing. But well-managed grief can be kind of a beautiful thing, something that you sit with and experience and move on from. That really helped me look ahead to future sad events and not be afraid of them in the same way. That was that was kind of the point of the book for me.