Psychoanalysis as Literature: Stephen Grosz’s ‘The Examined Life’
A psychoanalyst distilled 50,000 hours of therapy into a book—Lucy Scholes says its details are worthy of the masters of fiction.
I’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.
In another story, an architect wins a prestigious competition but sabotages his own celebrations by purposely losing his wallet, as if to say to his less successful colleagues, “I’m not having fun and I’ve lost my money—there’s nothing to envy here.” Considering each patient comes to see Grosz four or five times a week for years, and in each of these sessions alone they’ll say more than 4,000 words, the 200-odd page volume is surprisingly slim. He edits his material like a fiction writer. “It’s that thing William Trevor talks about, the art of the glimpse in Chekhov,” Grosz explains. “To take one thing that was really important, to learn that sometimes just one moment—like losing a wallet, or something said at my daughter’s nursery—that you can pick that and unravel it, and that’s enough.”
If he had any concerns at all about the book, they weren’t to do with how his patients would react. He gave each and every person he’d written about the chance to read their story and give their blessing regarding its inclusion in the volume, and nobody refused. He was more concerned about whether he was telling each patient’s story as the individual and unique tale that it was. Before he began the book he thought carefully about the case histories he’d read: “I thought about what moved me, what convinced me about these stories, and it was the writer or analyst’s capacity to have this offstage experience in the consulting room, but then come out of the room and onstage and write about it,” he tells me. “To capture something of being there with the patient.” The most important thing at the end of a patient’s first session, he writes, is that he or she should leave “feeling heard.” Being there with the patient is, of course, crucial to his analytic work, but translating this experience is the challenge of writing.
Psychoanalysis and storytelling have a rich history. “I begin the treatment, indeed, by asking the patient to give me the whole story of his life and illness,” Freud writes in his famous case study of “Dora” in 1905. It is a method reiterated by Grosz in his book, where he declares, “I believe that all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories.” Back in 1962, in an introduction to the “Dora” case, Philip Reiff argued that the case study was a distinct literary genre, a line of argument that was then taken up by literary critics like Steven Marcus and Peter Brooks in the 1980s and ’90s. Marcus, for example, argued that Freud was an unwitting modernist master and “Dora” “a great work of literature.” Grosz mentions the “slight embarrassment” that clinicians feel about this emphasis on the rather unscientific element of psychoanalysis. Yet despite a lifetime of clinical work, he actually errs on the side of literature. “Anything that can be written up theoretically in a technical paper can be told better in a story,” he says. “It’s a better way of communicating.”
The Examined Life is marked by a clear absence of technical jargon. Grosz barely mentions any clinical terminology. In one chapter a patient’s Jewish father is so prejudiced against his daughter’s blond, Catholic boyfriend he sits shiva for her on her wedding day. Years later the patient gets a call from her estranged mother; the patient’s parents are getting a divorce, for 25 years her father had been conducting an affair with his blonde, Catholic receptionist. The psychoanalytic term for this is “splitting”: “an unconscious strategy that aims to keep us ignorant of feelings in ourselves that we’re unable to tolerate.” Grosz, however, defers to the patient’s phrase, “the bigger the front, the bigger the back,” declaring it “more telling.” “The technical terms just stopped being useful,” he tells me.
The thread that holds The Examined Life together is that of change. “I want to change,” a patient once said to Grosz. “But not if it means changing.” It is a sentiment that apparently resonates with so many of his clients that, since published in the book, more than a few have since claimed the phrase as their own. But the book is also about the loss that’s always entailed in any change, no matter how positive a step forward one is taking. In the course of our discussion Grosz mentions twice that he became a father late in his life—he’s 60, and his children are 10 and 7. Both his parents having already passed away—his family isn’t “long-lived,” he says. Part of his reason for writing the book was to give his children his thoughts on how to manage loss. As the volume draws to its end, Grosz becomes more and more of a character in his own right, not merely as analyst collaborating in the psychoanalytic dialogue. There are chapters about his father, children, and his relationship with them. This seems to challenge the traditional model of the line drawn between analyst and patient, but Grosz argues that the idea of the analyst as a blank slate is a “fantasy.” “The world has moved on,” he says. “My patients can Google me—they know where I’m teaching, where I’m publishing.”
“One of the hardest things about the book was judging how much to bring myself in at certain moments,” he tells me. “But I felt that I owed it to the reader to explain something of how and why I became an analyst.” The Examined Life is an immensely personal work, and something much more than just a legacy of advice. The book also appears to be Grosz’s way of managing his own mortality and the potential loss his children will one day endure. “I am speaking to them,” he says.
However, he’s not dwelling too much on the distant future, and is already working on a second book, this time about relationships. One of his friends joked with him that for a book about psychoanalysis, The Examined Life is oddly bereft of sex. But this new work will again be driven by the desire to pass on his experience. “I wish somebody had told me these things about relationships when I was younger,” he laughs. “Why did nobody tell me what I now know?”