Jamal Khan is a London psychoanalyst in his fifties, haunted by memories of his late adolescence: his first love, Ajita; the highs of sex, drugs and idealistic left-wing politics; the shady dealings of his college friends, Wolf and Valentin. As he navigates the indignities of divorced middle age alongside his best friend, Henry, he revisits his adolescent obsessions, under the shadow of his lonely childhood with an emotionally absent white mother and physically absent Pakistani father and bullying out-of-control older sister, Miriam. Amongst all this he somehow manages to maintain his therapy practice and share the parenting of his pre-adolescent son, until the repercussions of a brutal attack on Ajita’s father threaten to blow everything apart. A dark and comic tale of London hedonism and politics in the 1970s and in the early years of the twenty-first century, Something to Tell You also supplies some interesting insights into psychoanalytic ideas:
Like a car mechanic on his back, I work with the underneath or understory: fantasies, wishes, lies, dreams, nightmares – the world beneath the world, the true words beneath the false. The weirdest intangible stuff I take seriously; I’m into places where language can’t go, or where it stops (p4)
In sharp contrast to the allusions in both John Katzenbach’s The Analyst and in Pat Barker’s Regeneration to therapy as a means of silencing dissent, Jamal tells us that
psychoanalysis doesn’t make people behave better, nor does it make them morally good. It may well make them more of a nuisance, more argumentative, more demanding, more aware of their desire and less likely to accept the dominion of others. In that sense it is subversive and emancipatory. But then there are few people who, when they are old, wish they’d lived a more virtuous life. From what I hear in my room, most people wish they’d sinned more. They also wish they’d taken better care of their teeth. (p81)
Nor, in the character of Jamal, is the analyst presented as any closer to sanity or more virtuous than those who consult him. Though I’d agree with this sentiment, I struggled with his collusion with his crazy sister’s dealing in stolen goods and her neglect of her children. Little wonder Jamal doesn’t protest when Henry comments:
A cursory glance at the early analysts and their disciples and colleagues will show what a bunch of perverts, suicides and nutters they were, apart from Freud. Completely human, then. But at least they knew one true thing … You either love or fall sick. (p317)
With his evident knowledge of analytic theory, Hanif Kureishi does not appear to be a writer who is suspicious of therapy. In fact, he narrows the gap between the two professions by giving his analyst, like real-life psychotherapist Stephen Grosz, a couple of successful books of case studies Six Characters in Search of a Cure and The Reader of Signs. Although, along with many fictional therapists in this series, we don’t see Jamal having supervision, his path to the profession is convincingly portrayed, borne out of his own desperate need for analysis in early adulthood. But, for a contemporary London analyst, Jamal seems over-reliant on Freud (although his disciples do get a mention), which might account for my confusion around his division of people into “neurotics” and “psychotics” (whereas later theorists, especially Klein, would consider these types of processes rather than people – in fact, I wondered (p355) if he might be confusing psychotics with psychopaths).
I also disagreed with his assertion that
The difference between therapy and analysis is that in therapy the therapist thinks he knows what’s good for you. In analysis you discover that for yourself. (p223)
Nevertheless, Jamal is by far one of the more convincing fictional therapists I’ve encountered for this series, perhaps less in the doing than in the mindset of this strange profession. Echoing Wilfred Bion’s thoughts on therapy taking place between “two frightened people”, he tells us:
I soon learned that listening to another person was almost the hardest thing you could attempt … the truth wasn’t hidden behind a locked door in a dungeon called ‘the unconscious’, but that it was right there, in front of the patient and analyst … Listening is not only a kind of love, it is love. But, sitting with my first analysands, trying to bear the anxiety of hearing someone unknown, whose dreams and ramblings I could not comprehend … I’d want to flee the room, wondering who was more afraid, analysand or analyst (p265)
A good-enough place to leave this, I think. Something to Tell You was published in 2008 by Faber and Faber. Once again, I coughed up the dosh to buy my own copy. Thanks for reading and do share your thoughts.