Psychoanalysis as Literature

(by Lucy Scholes, The Daily Beast, June, 2013)

freudI’ve always found psychoanalysts slightly awkward interview subjects. This is perhaps unsurprising when it comes to men and women who must be somewhat of a blank slate. Talking about oneself invariably doesn’t come easy to someone whose job is to listen.

As such, I’m momentarily thrown when Stephen Grosz proves himself the perfect interview subject, engaged, engaging, warm, and not averse to sharing his feelings. But then what should I have expected? I’m here precisely because his first book, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, defied expectations by achieving the seemingly impossible: a book about psychoanalysis that made the bestseller lists in the United Kingdom, a country where Freud is readily dismissed as a quack. This volume, now out in the U.S., is a distillation of Grosz’s 25 years of practice, from which he amassed over 50,000 hours of conversation, into 31 chapters, each a peek into the human psyche.

One of the chapters begins with the story of Mary. Mary is the 46-year-old married mother of three. One day she and her husband attend a neighbor’s garden party, during the course of which she strikes up a conversation with another guest, Alan, a widowed barrister. The two share stories of grief—his wife’s recent death, her sister’s—and agree to meet for lunch at Alan’s house the following Friday. “When Friday arrived,” Grosz writes, “Mary showed up at his doorstep with a bouquet of peonies, a bottle of Sancerre, and a removal van containing all of her clothes and possessions, including some large pieces of furniture.” Alan refused to let Mary into his home; she broke down in the street, crying and screaming, so Alan called her husband, who in turn contacted the family doctor. What became of Mary, we’re never told. Grosz doesn’t deal in neat resolutions, nor in diagnoses. “It’s not as simple as that,” he says. In the book’s preface he quotes the philosopher Simone Weil’s description of how two prisoners in adjoining cells learn to talk to each other by tapping on the wall. “The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication,” she writes. “Every separation is a link.” Grosz says the book is about the wall. “We tap, we listen,” he writes. (read more)