75 years after his death, Harry Houdini remains unsurpassed in the history of magic as an escape artist. In Houdini's Box, Adam Phillips maintains there is a trace of the man in each of us, because we all spend part of our time trying literally or figuratively to escape from something. To support his contention, Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, uses two concurrent narratives. In one, he explores Houdini's need to escape and in the other, he allows the reader to eavesdrop on his sessions with a patient who, in a sense, represents the rest of us.

Instead of revealing how Houdini accomplished his feats, Phillips examines why he developed his death-defying effects. In performing an intellectual autopsy on Houdini, Phillips offers ingenious interpretations of the magician's mindset: a compulsion not only to extricate himself from any contraption he or anyone else could devise, but to be the only person able to do it. In the second narrative, the reader, as if seated on a chair next to the psychoanalyst's couch, can follow the dialogue in a series of sessions between Phillips and his troubled, middle-aged patient, who says he wants to escape from his feelings about women. The exchanges between the two underscore Phillips' thesis that "we cannot describe ourselves without also describing what we need to escape from, and what we believe we need to escape to." In Phillips' view, our lives are largely shaped by what he calls exits, elsewheres and avoidances. He sees Adam and Eve as players in "a great escape story, the story of a failed breakout." Phillips, whose previous books have ranged from such topics as guilt and childhood to tickling and kissing, devotes one chapter of Houdini's Box to a provocative study of the use of the word "escape" by Emily Dickinson, who spent the last 24 years or so of her life in the seclusion of her garden and her room, where she composed more than 1,700 poems. The essay is an appropriate conclusion to this illuminating and intriguing book.

A Florida writer, Alan Prince escapes by practicing and performing sleight of hand.

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