JEFFREY A. KOTTER AND JON CARLSON: The Mummy at the Dining Room Table: Eminent Therapists Reveal Their Most Unusual Cases and What They Teach Us About Human Behavior. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2003, 325 pp., $24.95, ISBN 0-7879-6541-3.
The structure of this book is quite straightforward. The authors traveled far and wide to interview 32 prominent psychotherapists, asking them to recount the therapy they conducted with their most unusual patient. The average chapter is about ten pages long and each describes the dialogue between the therapist and the authors; describes the emotional problems suffered by one or more of their most memorable patients; recalls how the treatment went; discusses the rationale for the interventions that were made; and offers a few words about psychotherapy in general.
Many different viewpoints are offered. Nevertheless, the authors do not discuss the divergencies or communalities between and among these various approaches to treatment, nor do they attempt to generate a synthesis of the widely scattered ideas to be found on these pages. While it is difficult to classify the nature of these therapies, most are family- and systems-oriented, cognitive, behavioral, hypnotic, mystical, educational, superficial, manipulative, directive, and not especially insightful-indeed, if anything, they are anti-insightful and pro-action, pro-reeducation, and pro-reframing.
As for what these cases tell us about human behavior, it is quite difficult to extract a central message or two. Mainly, the book shows us that there is almost no limit to the kinds of emotional problems with which patients present themselves to psychotherapists-the range of emotional hang-ups defies imagination. For example, the patient chosen to begin the book wants his hospital examining room psychotherapist to cut off his nose because he cannot rid himself of the smell of cows. His secret, we learn, is that his sexual partner is a cow and his cure, which follows the consultation, is the turn to using perfume to mask the disturbing odor. Then there is the title story in which a patient cannot lose weight and settle into her marriage without finding a long-lost aunt whom she has not seen in years. She tries phoning her and makes several surprise visits, but her uncle keeps her at bay. He does the same with the police, whom the patient calls because she is suspicious of foul play. The police obtain a search warrant and discover that the aunt has been killed by medications prescribed by a male dentist working as a health practitioner. Bereft with her loss, her grieving husband has had her mummified. The children who had been with protective services eventually settle in with their father and the dentist. Once the situation is clarified, the patient is able to end her therapy on a satisfactory note.
It would take a companion volume to sum up what the book tells us about the human behavior of psychotherapists. Once we get past their hubris and self-aggrandizement, even when attempting humility, perhaps the most compelling message is that all manner of imaginable and unimaginable interventions were intuitively invoked by these therapists, and all brought symptom relief to their patients-the book is very symptom-focused. …