The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Stephen Grosz
I’ve long been sceptical of therapy. People who’re not actually in need of psychiatric care, who don’t therefore need medical intervention, pay strangers relatively large sums of money to listen to their problems. It feels, well, self-indulgent. I’m also not particularly persuaded of its efficacy. As best I can tell there are no clear metrics for success or failure, treatment takes years and how can we tell who feels better due to their therapy and who simply from the passing of time?
Given my feelings on the topic I’m not a natural reader for a collection of what are effectively case studies. Normally I doubt I’d even have heard of this book, let alone read it, but John Self of The Asylum recommended it in a recent review (here) as a book that he loved. He spoke of its “formal perfection” and quotes Grosz’s agent’s letter to prospective publishers which said “Think Carver, Cheever, Calvino, not Freud, Lacan, Jung.”. Strong stuff. I may not care much about therapy, but I care a great deal about good writing. Besides, I’m as prurient as the next person, and the temptation of dipping into other people’s lives is always a powerful one.
First things first, this is a very well written book. Grosz has a clean prose style which slips past almost unnoticed, but which is worth savouring (I’ve started drinking bourbon recently and in a way it reminds me of that – easy drinking but packed with complexity and flavour). He’s a master of the insightful one-liner, though I suppose one would expect him to be (“It is less painful, it turns out, to feel betrayed than to feel forgotten.”).
The stories, because in the end they are all stories told to Grosz and told to us by him in turn, are well chosen. Grosz groups his case studies under certain themes, Beginnings, Telling Lies, Loving, Changing, Leaving, with five or ten or so accounts in each. I’d challenge anyone to read the whole book and not find at least a few of them having real emotional impact.
Lily was quiet for a moment. ‘My last night there I had a strange dream. It was a nightmare actually. What happened was upsetting, but I didn’t feel upset.’ In the dream, Lily was in a group of people standing by a lake. She watched a small girl swim out to a wooden raft – the girl struggled but was able to make it and to pull herself up. There was a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. The girl was in danger, but no one was concerned – where was the little girl’s mother, her father? Lily asked her parents to watch Alice and she swam out to the girl. The lake was black and choppy; it was a struggle to keep the girl’s head above water. When they got back on to the shore, Lily lifted the girl out of the water, and then saw that her parents were standing there alone – Alice was nowhere to be seen. Lily was sure that the last bit – Alice was nowhere to be seen – must have been about the tucked-away photograph. But what about the rest of it?
People in therapy seem to have dreams like that all the time, at least if television and movies (and this book) are anything to go by (and surely they are, would Hollywood lie to us?) I’ve never had a dream like that in my life, so rich with meaning. Mine are fragments of events of the day, memories filed and processed. Perhaps I should be grateful for that, because what underlies this dream is terribly sad. Alice is Lily’s nine month old daughter. Lily has just returned from a trip to visit her parents. Her mother “hugged me he way she always does, … She closes her eyes and pats my back – as if I have fleas.”
Lily’s parents have little interest in her life. Their house is full of photos, but none of Alice. When Lily says she’ll send them some her mother tells pulls one out from where it was tucked away in a drawer. It’s that night Lily has her dream, emotions she won’t express in words erupting through her sleep.
Grosz notes that Lily turns her account of her visit home into a series of comic vignettes, the comment about patting her back as if she had fleas being one of them. The jokes allow her to talk about her relationship with her parents, but in a way that insulates her from feeling the pain of their indifference. They act too as a way of bringing him to her side – by laughing he shows that he agrees with her and understands her perspective.
And then she said, ‘ I was remembering my breakdown at boarding school, the experience of calling home in the middle of the night from a payphone behind the dorm, the bugs buzzing around the fluorescent light. I was crying hysterically, “Please can I come home, please can I come home?” and being told, “No, you can’t come home.” Then, as things got worse and worse and worse, I forced myself to stay. But something had changed in me. My breakdown was like a furnace and what burned away was any belief in my own feelings.’
As I listened to her memory, I also heard her dream, the girl was in danger, but no one was concerned – where was the little girl’s mother, her father?
She went on. ‘Even now it’s very hard for me to trust my feelings. But when you laugh it means you believe my feelings, my reality. When you laugh, I know that you see things exactly the way I do – that you wouldn’t have said no, you’d have let me come home.’
The subtitle for The Examined Life is “How we lose and find ourselves”. For Grosz, we lose ourselves every day in small ways through lack of thought. We find ourselves through simple humanity, mostly by talking. For his patients that means talking to him, but he’s not arguing that everyone needs therapy. He’s arguing instead that we need each other. As he says in his preface: “It’s about our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It’s also about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between.”
I didn’t love The Examined Life as John did. The excerpt above perhaps illustrates why. Grosz has a tendency I’ve seen often in those touting evolutionary psychology, a tendency to present what is essentially a plausible “just so” story and then to stop there.
So, a patient’s behaviour reminds Grosz of how they must have felt as a child in a particular situation, and perhaps it is reminiscent of that. But the fact that we can craft a story connecting an experience then to a behaviour now, does that mean there is a causal link? If we dug deeper might we find other experiences equally similar? Might we find other stories equally persuasive?
There’s a neatness to these stories which doesn’t ring entirely true to me. In a way it’s an unavoidable neatness. Grosz is using his accounts to illustrate particular points. Some stories are only two pages long, and there’s a limit to how much complexity he can pack into any given narrative and still maintain focus on the reasons he included that narrative. Still, I was left with a nagging doubt – just because we have an explanation for something doesn’t mean our explanation is right.
There’s also a question about the kind of truth that’s being told here. I have no reason to doubt that Grosz is an honest broker in terms of passing on real stories from real patients (with names and details changed to protect anonymity, as he says upfront). As he notes though of a patient who uses prostitutes, “prostitution is a monetary transaction, and this inspires fantasy.”
Therapy too is a monetary transaction, and one in which people seek reasons for their sorrows which may ultimately not exist or be so complex that they may as well not exist. People finally leave therapy having found a narrative for their life which helps them make sense of it, is that narrative true though? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, or perhaps it’s more important that a narrative be useful than that it be accurate.
Despite my caveats, I did enjoy this book and I do recommend it. Grosz does have some real insights here. A passage on parenting (I’m not a parent) broadened out to a wider point about attention that seemed to me both at the core of his book and profoundly true (in a book I wouldn’t generally regard as profound, but then I’m not sure what I do regard as profound, if anything, perhaps Camus – clearly I’m still a teenager at heart).
[We dole] out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.
How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her? Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?
I rationed myself to one story a day, and that worked well for me. The impact is greater when read that way, and I think if you read several in a row the whole would be diminished. That’s true taking the book simply as a literary work, but it’s also true of it because of its subject matter. Grosz is deeply sympathetic to his patients, but their narratives are ultimately ones of loss and sorrow and given it’s real loss and real sorrow here I’m not sure how much of that I’d want to swallow in one go.
If you’ve read this far and not read John’s review you should, it’s as good as his reviews always are and he connected much more with this book than I did. Another review well worth reading is that of Bibliofreak, here. Biblio is much more critical of the book than John was, and in all honesty I’m closer to Biblio than John on this one, but I don’t regret reading the book and the call at its heart that we pay just a little bit more attention to each other is one that resonates as strongly for me as it did for John.