Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

BOOKMARKS; Tales of the Consulting Room: Stories Are How We Learn to Be Therapists

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

BOOKMARKS; Tales of the Consulting Room: Stories Are How We Learn to Be Therapists

Article excerpt

The Mummy at the Dining Room Table: Eminent Therapists Reveal Their Most Unusual Cases

By Jeffrey A. Kottler and Jon Carlson

Jossey-Bass. 320 pp. ISBN 0-7879-6541-3

Let's face it, to be a therapist is, among other things, to be a voyeur. We spend our days in our front-row seat on the intimate parade of human foibles, and we couldn't do our jobs with any enthusiasm if we didn't enjoy watching the parade. But while we may be voyeurs, we're not passive voyeurs. Therapy is a deeply engaging process, in which the boundary between observer and actor shifts frequently. To be effective, we must also get involved, becoming players and shaping the drama we're watching.

One of the ways we manage this balancing act, making sense of the endless details of people's lives to which we are privy every day while maintaining our boundaries, is by telling stories, both to ourselves and others. That's what we focus on with our clients, and that's how we pass along what we know to each other. Stories about cases are central to how we learn how to be therapists and maintain our sanity once we do. Telling them allows us to step back from them, learn from them, and release some of the burden of carrying them. And so in our field we have a vast literature of cases, which tend to come in three major types, well-represented by the books that are the subject of this review.

The first type of case is about the clients and the poignant, amusing, or mind-boggling ways they manage or mismanage their lives. A second type of story is more didactic, focused on the process of treatment and how therapy works in a particular case. Then there's a third type, less about the content of clients' lives and treatment and more about the therapist's inner experience. These can be either self-glorifying stories--look how smart I am, look what important and intriguing people come to me--or, more thoughtfully, stories of the therapist's own growth and transformation through his or her interaction with the case.

The Mummy at the Dining Room Table: Eminent Therapists Reveal Their Most Unusual Cases is a gallery of sometimes amusing, often bizarre, cases of the kind most of us might see once or twice in our lifetimes. The title case, for example, involves a family that, literally, kept their embalmed aunt propped up in various poses for seven years. The authors, psychologists Jeff Kottler and Jon Carlson, traveled around the country interviewing "eminent" therapists (mostly originators of theories or methods) about the most memorable and unusual cases they'd ever had. The result ranges from the truly outrageous to the merely unusual. The outrageous cases, like Albert Ellis's "Oedipal Dilemma," in which a father has an extended affair with his daughter, or Susan Johnson's "The Woman Who Hanged Herself to Check Her Husband's Response Time" are fascinating but don't teach us much because they focus on the freak show aspect of therapy. In those cases, there's not much technique or instruction involved beyond the spectacle of the therapist holding on for the ride. In contrast, the less extreme cases are often quite helpful and instructive because they include more about clinical decision-making. Frank Pittman, for example, offers a nice riff on how we use the lessons from some clients to benefit others: "They [clients] are misinformed about how to live a life. It's my job to learn from all of my other patients how you can screw up, and how you can recover, and then make whoever I'm seeing more aware of what the possibilities are."

Where Mummy deals with the lessons from clients in a more instructive way, it's useful and informative. Where it seems more interested in titillating than educating, the focus shifts from"How I dealt with this difficult case" to "Can you top this ?" The authors occasionally even seem to egg on the clinicians they're interviewing toward the sensational--which is disturbing, but also seductive. …

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