Turning Case Histories into Healing Literature

By Kakutani, Michiko | International Herald Tribune, July 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Turning Case Histories into Healing Literature


Kakutani, Michiko, International Herald Tribune


"The Examined Life," by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz shares the literary qualities of Freud's best work.

The Examined Life. How We Lose and Find Ourselves. By Stephen Grosz. 225 pages. W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95; Chatto & Windus, Pounds 14.99

Freud's famous case studies, like Dora, the Wolf Man, Little Hans and the Rat Man, are psychoanalytic readings, suspenseful detective stories and elliptical narratives that have all the drama and contradictions of modernist fiction. Not only is Freud a powerful writer, but his methodology and insights also have a lot in common with literary criticism and novelistic architecture.

His patient portraits showcase his skills both as a critic, intent on deconstructing his subjects' lives, and as a masterly storyteller, adept at using unreliable narrators to explore the mysteries of love and sex and death. It's no coincidence that he liked to write about characters from Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen and Sophocles (yes, Oedipus), or that he paid so much attention to his patients' language and imagery.

"The Examined Life," by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz -- who teaches at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and in the Psychoanalytic Unit at University College London -- shares the literary qualities of Freud's best work.

The book's unfortunate title and chapter headings ("On not being in a couple," "Why parents envy their children," "How lovesickness keeps us from love") give the false impression that this is some sort of cheesy self-help book. It's not. It is, rather, an insightful and beautifully written book about the process of psychoanalysis, and the ways people's efforts to connect the past, present and future reflect their capacity to change. The book distills the author's 25 years of work as a psychoanalyst and more than 50,000 hours of conversation into a series of slim, piercing chapters that read like a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks. They invite us to identify with Mr. Grosz's patients and their losses and regrets, even as we are made to marvel at the complexities and convolutions of the human mind.

Mr. Grosz quotes Isak Dinesen, who observed that "all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them," and he goes on to argue that stories can help us to make sense of our lives, but that if "we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us -- we dream these stories, we develop symptoms or we find ourselves acting in ways we don't understand."

To protect his patients' confidentiality, Mr. Grosz says he has "changed names and altered all identifying particulars." Some have predicaments that will sound immediately familiar to many of us: a woman reluctant to give up hope that her commitment-phobic boyfriend will marry her; a man, uncomfortable with intimacy and emotional dependence, finds that he is genuinely happier on his own (he asks Mr. Grosz if he can see him occasionally, when he needs to, but not on a regular basis); a girl whose skill in living up to her parents' expectations of good behavior and academic achievement "did not prevent the development of her substantial intellectual abilities" but slowed her emotional development.

Other case studies have a more surreal, fablelike quality. There's a man who obsessively fantasizes about an imaginary house he owns in France, sketching floor plans in his head, visualizing different colors of paint in one room, a larger doorway in another. …

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