The Sorrows of an American takes us through a year in the life of New York psychotherapist, Erik Davidsen, and those who are close to him: his mother; his sister, Inga; his niece, Sonia; his patients; and his tenant, Miranda, and her beguiling five-year-old daughter, Eglantene. It’s a glimpse of ordinary life which shows us the extraordinary twists and turns of the human condition. It’s also a fine example of what a talented and committed author, prepared to do her homework (with impressive acknowledgements of psychiatrists and psychotherapists consulted and the author’s supervised voluntary work in a psychiatric hospital) can make of this strange profession.
Like many therapists, Erik is vulnerable, although this vulnerability is woven so well into the story we hardly label it as such. Middle-aged, lonely after his divorce, his father’s death – and the discovery of his old diaries – prompts an investigation into his own back story. He can take things to heart, such as when he’s snubbed by his tenant (p40-41):
(While the infiltration of psychoanalytic theory into his personal reflections is perhaps overly self-conscious, I enjoyed the reminder of how people in the psy-professions can use clinical work as a refuge from their own problems.)
This vulnerability is further revealed when he threatens an intruder with a hammer, and his photograph in that primitive state of rage exhibited in an art installation (the intrusiveness reminiscent of Still Life with Bread Crumbs) leaves him feeling defiled. Like Ricky Starks in The Analyst, he’s been stripped of his dignity along with the trappings of his profession. Cleverly, Siri Hustvedt shows the reader, not only how this impacts upon Erik personally, but the potential for damage to his patients (an important aspect of the therapist’s reliability which is overlooked in the case of the wheelchair-bound therapist in The Rapture). For Ms W, who has seen the exhibition (p164):
the humiliating image of me became an assault on her, a distorted mirror of the violent, bad person she felt inside herself.
Erik feels unable to help her until, rather touchingly, I felt, his comment that looking in the mirror can be frightening, prompted her to relate a dream which leads to a therapeutic breakthrough. As David McBride did in The Other Side of You, Erik becomes most useful when he connects with his own vulnerability.
We find another good example of Erik’s effectiveness as a therapist when he uses his own irritation at persistent lateness (countertransference) to connect empathically for the first time with the patient’s childhood experience (p82):
I was thinking … while I was waiting for you today, I was feeling frustrated, a little angry as well, and then I
thought about your parents’ work days and what it must have felt like you to wait and wait for them to come home.
As you might expect if you’ve been following this series, I do have some criticism of Erik’s practice. Although it is laudable that he consults a supervisor, this seems to be at times of difficulty rather than as routine. Magda, although she does seem very wise, seems as happy to relate anecdotes from her own clinical work or function as his therapist as she is to help him think about his patients.
I was also surprised at a psychoanalyst taking notes within the session as this would detract from the patient’s experience of being genuinely heard. Neither was I particularly pleased to see Siri Hustvedt perpetuate the notion of writers being beyond therapy, via Erik’s relationship with his brilliant brother-in-law (p45):
I remembered making a delicate suggestion to him once that psychotherapy or an analysis might be an adventure for him, and if that seemed impossible, an anti-depressant might lift his low spirits, but he’d have to lay off the booze. Max had leaned close to me and clapped me on the arm. “Erik,” he said, “you mean well, but I’ve got a self-destructive bent, in case you haven’t noticed which I very much doubt, since you do this for a living, but people like me don’t go in for salvation. Crippled and crazy we hobble towards the finish line, pen in hand.”
Finally, there was one aspect of the novel on which I’m reserving judgement. Although childless, Erik is perhaps at his most endearing when he welcomes little Eggy into his home to play. Some of his comments to her reminded me of therapy with children (although I’m no expert). Why did I think this was okay when I’ve been highly critical of fictional therapists who think it’s possible to “just chat” (e.g. in Border Crossing and, although not mentioned in my review, the same occurs in The Girl on the Train) I think the difference is that Erik has never been Eggy’s therapist and his seeing her isn’t an alternative to a therapy she actually needs.
The Sorrows of an American was first published in 2008. I came to it through the recommendation of book blogger Susan Osborne some time ago and bought my Sceptre paperback copy myself!
Although this novel wasn’t included there, a quick thanks to the lively readers who joined in the therapy-lit discussions at Kirkby and Sutton libraries recently and look forward to engaging with others at Newcastle and Nottingham in a few weeks’ time.