Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future has a walk-on part in Stephen Grosz’s collection of case notes from 25 years as a psychoanalyst.
THE EXAMINED LIFE: How we Lose and Find Ourselves
BY STEPHEN GROSZ
Random House, 225pp, £19.99
The jangling, white-sheeted guide from A Christmas Carol helps him explain how a lovesick thirtysomething comes to see the downside of her going-nowhere, nine-year affair with a married man. Her ghost is a respected older single woman glimpsed behaving foolishly at a party – an intimation of a future the woman doesn’t want for herself. It’s a haunting image, like Dickens’ ghostly visitations; and with its own transformative power.
Elsewhere, Grosz summons Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener to show just how powerful our resistance to change can be. Bartleby’s response when asked to do anything, in the Melville short story, is always “I would prefer not to”. Eventually his negativity kills him – he starves to death. His situation is made worse by the well-meaning efforts of his lawyer boss to jolly him along, and Grosz sees in this a message for the psychoanalyst. The analyst’s role, he reminds himself, is to keep patients focused, to help the process of understanding – since with understanding comes change – by asking questions.
There are 31 short, easily digested tales in The Examined Life. Most take as their starting point a particular patient – prepare to meet real people with disguised first names, and surnames indicated only by letters of the alphabet (an irritating if necessary phenomenon of the case-note genre). Some of their behaviours are extreme – a man so addicted to shocking people that he fakes his own death then turns up again six months later; a compulsive liar whose wife thinks he’s dying of cancer; a nine-year-old who threatens his classmates with a kitchen knife.
Others are more familiar, more everyday – recognisable from plot lines in literature and drama if not from personal experience. There’s the woman who refuses to acknowledge her husband’s infidelities; the new father who feels excluded from his wife’s bond with their baby; the young mother who blames her husband for things so she won’t have to blame their child; the elderly parent who rages at his children so he won’t have to envy their health and vitality; the daughter who finally discovers her capacity to love while caring for her father who is dying.
Fear crops up a lot – of intimacy, of loss, of success, of being forgotten. Grosz explores each phenomenon by describing the journey he and his patients took in order to understand it. Dreams are pivotal guides here, and his interpretations make fascinating reading. The dreams themselves leave you marvelling at the ingenuity of the human subconscious. We are all storytellers, Grosz reminds us – it’s how we make sense of our lives.
He writes thoughtfully on subjects prompted by a run of cases – his views on the destructive power of empty praise, for instance, should be on every new parent’s reading list. And his ideas on Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ “stages of grief” approach to mourning are hard-hitting.
The process of grieving, he insists, is not the same as coming to terms with one’s own death: life has an endpoint, but grief has no such cut-off; and the sooner we accept that, the more likely we are to find a way of living with loss without ourselves being consumed by it.
Not every chapter involves a patient. Some explore Grosz’s own learning as an analyst. There’s a moving account of his 80th birthday present to his father: a trip back to his childhood home in Hungary. When Dad won’t accept that the places they visit are indeed his childhood haunts, despite all the evidence, Grosz shares his frustration and confusion, only later realising that denial is his father’s way of dealing with the emotional pain of the visit, and of his own childhood.
In another chapter, a conversation with an old friend about the process of being in therapy – the friend, a successful media player, reveals a terror of doing the wrong thing – leaves Grosz feeling that he should have handled things differently, steered his friend in the direction of fresh insight.
Sometimes he leaves his own narrative dangling, because real-life tales don’t all end in blinding flashes of revelation. And sometimes the case studies make for uncomfortable reading – anonymous or not, these are very real people whose lives are offered up for analysis. But Grosz’s message is always affirming: if a person can work out what it is that’s driving them, it is possible, like Scrooge – and unlike Bartleby the Scrivener – to change.