When should you read this book? On a peaceful Sunday morning, while you contemplate your life’s meaning.
The interpretation of illness
I should start this review by saying that I am fascinated by psychoanalysis and the idea that you can talk yourself out of some ailments of the mind.
It’s a bonkers idea that the mind can both make itself unwell and heal itself through the power of thought.
Some people believe that psychoanalysis has meaningful applications in real life and others don’t, but you can’t question the effect the idea of being able to interpret your thoughts and dreams into messages from your subconscious is powerful. And that it’s influenced loads of brilliant literature.
In ‘The Examined Life’, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz takes us into his therapy room as he speaks to several of his real-life patients, explaining how he uses psychoanalysis to help them bring themselves out of the malaise that afflicts them.
For instance, we meet a young boy being treated for seriously bad behaviour; he spits in people’s faces, he destroys property, he is rude and aggressive to everyone. Grosz is tasked with trying to figure out what the problem is. The conclusion he comes to is really heartbreaking and quite unexpected (I don’t want to give it away!).
Each episode of the book involves the problems presented by a single patient and examines Grosz’s relationship with them. Often they are just a couple of pages long, and they are divided into themes like love and death.
Yes, there are a few bourgeois problems, and yes there is at least one token story which involves a (this time, inverted) Oedipus complex. What book on psychoanalysis would be complete without one?
However, the vast majority are just very understandable human stories which evoke your empathy in a natural way.
Indeed, I ended up thinking that maybe we should all have some psychotherapy.
The number of patients that come to Grosz claiming they’re not sure why they feel the way they do is both alarming and comforting.
Grosz taps into their need for reassurance, and often, the need for some external person to unburden them from making a decision.
Allowing someone else to interpret (correctly?) your deepest and most obscure feelings and convert them into the ‘right’ action plan must be very liberating. Here’s someone who says, ‘I understand your feelings and here is what you must do about them.’
Surely everybody wants that on some level?
Psychoanalysis as a theme
‘The Examined Life’ reminds me very much of another book I read just before Christmas called ‘Love’s Executioner’ by Irvin D Yalom.
Another psychoanalyst, Yalom writes his book in a very similar structure. But he goes into just a little bit more detail about his cases, and I preferred his style of writing which is a touch more emotional.
He is also quite honest about his own shortcomings (he admits to being repulsed by one of his patients because she is fat). Not pleasant, but truthful.
If you’re already really interested in psychoanalysis I would say go for ‘Love’s Executioner’ which is more in depth, but if you’ve just had your interest piqued, try ‘The Examined Life’ which is a nice way in.
Obviously, you can get onto some Freud after that…
Next up: ‘The Colonel and the Bee’ by Patrick Canning