Many psychoanalytic case studies read like stories, but these are especially exquisite. Beautiful prose, tightly structured, these are moral stories without being moralistic, gentle fables in the manner of Aesop and Kipling that leave us pondering the big questions of how to live. Alongside the stories from the consulting room, there’s an examination of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and ordinary incidents from the author’s life. Without being heavy handed, he leaves us in no doubt as to the centrality of storytelling, that without our stories we are diminished:
[O]ur childhoods leave us in stories … we never found a way to voice, because no-one helped us find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream of these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand. (p10)
Fear, love, envy and grief are all here, represented both in the patients and therapist. Many of the vignettes are deeply moving; my sole disappointment in the book is that it doesn’t sufficiently capture the humorous side of therapy (although I did have a laugh-out-loud moment in the chapter On Being a Patient). Yet although it handles deep emotions, there’s a lightness of touch throughout. Exactly what I look for in my reading and aspire towards in my writing: no dictating what the reader should feel.
3. It’s about a character’s journey, about change and fear of change, and the loss that underlies it
As with many stories, therapy is a quest. And, as in some fiction, what the characters want and where they’re going may be unclear, psychoanalysis is also a journey into the unknown. Our characters, as Stephen Grosz’s patients, both desire and fear change:
We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us (p123)
I was always dissatisfied with the story of Cinderella. I worried how she’d manage in the palace when all she’d ever known was how to be a skivvy. I sensed that giving up even the life you’ve always hated involves a difficult adjustment, that change is intertwined with loss.
4. It’s a search for the truth
Instead of seeking happy-ever-afters, both fiction and psychoanalysis can be seen as a search for the truth. Fiction can be more honest than non-fiction, we can dare to confront the most terrible realities because, if anyone objects, we can say it’s pure invention. Psychoanalysis isn’t about making things up, of course, but securing a place apart from the patient’s ordinary life bestows a similar kind of freedom to confront the truth. After all, the therapist isn’t there to judge. Yet, deep down, we all know the lengths we will go to in order to avoid the truth; hence the allure of stories about secrets, self-deception, cover-ups and lies.
5. It’s the small details that highlight the greater truth.
Ever had feedback that your secondary characters seem flat and indistinguishable from one another? You give them an interesting quirk – wearing a watch that’s perpetually an hour slow, say, or a dog that will only go outside in the rain – and they come alive? Or perhaps you’ve had your plot require your main character to do something – consult that watch, or stroke that wet dog – and they’ve steadfastly refused? In fiction, it’s these minor details that build the sense of reality. Similarly, in psychoanalysis, the minutiae of supposedly trivial decision-making – the behind-the-scenes thoughts that might otherwise go unexplored – can lead to the source of the person’s distress.
6. It’s a masterclass in beginnings and endings
Writers are conscious of the need to hook the reader on the first page.
Stephen Grosz kicks off his collection with I want to tell you a story about a patient who shocked me, and shocking it certainly is. Who could resist the patient who faked his own death? There’s a whole section on beginnings and another on leaving, covering death, grief and the things we can’t control. The ending of a novel can be as tricky as the opening: the reader requires some degree of resolution but it seems inauthentic if every last thread is neatly sewn in. So I liked the way The Examined Life comes to its conclusion, with a hint of regret that the work – like the story – never ends:
Now, so many of the patients I saw when I was young are gone or dead, but sometimes, as when waking from a dream, I find myself reaching out to them, wanting to say one more thing. (p215)
Harriet Lane must be the exception to the rule in rattling off a good first draft in less than three months. Many novelists find it takes far longer than expected to produce something readable. We feel stuck and frustrated, as if the work is unravelling itself even as we write. Achieving the emotional depth often requires a period of incubation, that feels out of step with the modern fast-paced world. Likewise, psychoanalysis can appear unduly lengthy and tedious in a world of pop psychology, self-help books and quick-fix therapies promoted by our health care system. While the book itself is never boring and repetitious, Stephen Grosz doesn’t shy away from the fact that both analyst and analysand may need to experience both en route to the truth.
It’s a bridge between two endeavours that have more in common than some writers care to think.
Despite notable exceptions, I think a lot of writers are suspicious – dare I say sneery? – of therapy. Storying, emotion, secrets, change and loss, all wrapped up in an instinctive empathy: the crossover is too great to ignore. If you’ve read The Examined Life I’d love to know what you thought of it. If you haven’t, I wonder if I’ve managed to whet your appetite?