Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Narrative Lessons for the Psychotherapist: Kafka's the Metamorphosis

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Narrative Lessons for the Psychotherapist: Kafka's the Metamorphosis

Article excerpt

JEROME S. GANS, M.D.*

Psychotherapists can learn a great deal about their craft from reading literary fiction. This paper will utilize Franz Kafka's short story, The Metamorphosis, to describe and discuss some of the parallels between the therapist-reader's relationship with a work of fiction and a therapist's psychotherapeutic relationship with his patient.

There are many parallels between a reader's relationship with a work of fiction and a therapist's psychotherapeutic relationship with his patient. To both encounters each party brings an inner world.1 The inner world of the author finds expression in the narrator and the interactions of the characters in the story. The reader brings his life experience and culture, present life situation, strengths and limitations, and idiosyncratic blind spots. The interaction between a great literary work and the almost infinite variety of human experience of its readership allows the story to be read at many different levels. Although the text, to a certain degree, will insure a commonalty of experience, no two readers take away the exact same experience from a reading-and rereading-of a literary masterpiece. A very similar argument could be made regarding the treatment of a given patient. The same patient seeing five hypothetical therapists could conceivably undergo five very different treatments.

This report focuses on two dimensions of literary fiction that are instructive for the psychotherapist: how the story is told, and the effect of the telling on the therapist-reader. We will be looking at the effect the author's story has on the therapist-reader and comparing it to the effect that the patient's narrative has on the therapist.** It is the thesis of this paper that the limiting factors in both endeavors are the capacity for, and openness to, introspection, self-confrontation, and emotional honesty that the therapist-reader and the therapist bring to their respective endeavors.

In particular, this report will utilize Franz Kafka's short story, The Metamorphosis,*2 to teach about narrative knowledge. As Charon, Banks et al.3 have stated:

Evaluating patients requires the skills that are exercised by the reader: to respect language, to adopt alien points of view, to integrate isolated phenomena (be they physical findings or metaphors) so that they suggest meaning. . . (p. 601).

Kafka, as omniscient narrator in The Metamorphosis, tells a tale that requires the reader's dynamic involvement. The story abounds with misleading assumptions, perversion of traditional ideas, intricacies of deception, projective identification in families-all tinged with irony and paradox. Just as the therapist must listen to the patient's story on its many reverberating levels, the therapist-reader of The Metamorphosis must constantly suspend judgment around "knowing," question assumptions, confront inconsistencies, and welcome complexity. The purpose of this report is to assist in the clinician's refinement of those skills in which the dynamic reading of fiction and competent patient evaluation, formulation, and treatment overlap.

What Literature Offers the Psychotherapist

The use of literature to heighten therapist sensitivity has a long history 1,4- and has much to recommend it. Literary masterpieces defy pat answers and do not yield to facile psychiatric interpreting or superficial diagnosing. The provision of a compelling object of displacement for study and concern frees up the reader-therapist to disclose unself-consciously those same attitudes which, if elicited by a clinical situation, might be suppressed or, at least, not discussed as openly. Rereading the same story provides a sustained, contemplative opportunity to grasp elusive and complex intrapsychic and interpersonal experience-an opportunity that may realize greater significance in this era of shortened hospital stays, limited insurance payments for long-term therapy, and the ascendancy of the biological therapies. …

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