A duck is watching me: strange and unusual phobias. Commentary by Bernie Hobbs

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NLA Publishing, 2014. ISBN 9780642278647
(Age: 12+) Most people are aware of arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, and claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces. But what about pupophobia, the fear of puppets, or lutraphobia, the fear of otters? In A duck is watching me, photographs from the collection of the National Library of Australia have been used to raise awareness of a psychological condition that can be debilitating to those affected.
The two page introduction by science writer and broadcaster Bernie Hobbs is a textbook example of how scientific and medical knowledge can be communicated to lay readers. After outlining the biology and psychology of the fight-or-flight response, the author considers the various origins of phobias including evidence that they can be learned, inherited or develop after adverse experiences. She also recommends programs organised by zoos to help those with phobias about animals, and wisely advises anyone in the thrall of a phobia to speak to a health professional. Bernie Hobbs has the ability to convey information about a medical condition in a light-hearted style that is enjoyable to read but maintains scientific credibility and empathy for sufferers.
The book is neither a medical text book nor an in-depth study of the causes and effects of phobias. Instead, readers can browse an intriguing collection of nineteenth and twentieth-century photographs, and dwell on the brief definition of the phobia with which each picture is associated. For example, an 1890 portrait of a child on a fur rug is matched with 'Doraphobia, the fear of fur' and a photograph of spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1980 accompanies 'Demophobia, the fear of crowds'.
If the first step to overcoming a fear is to name it, then A duck is watching me has certainly succeeded. Its playful approach to a subject that is grounded in fear can help to promote an understanding of the anxiety disorders that affect one in ten people but are rarely discussed.
Elizabeth Bor