Art of Psychiatry Society

July 2013 book: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz
November 26, 2013, 8:51 pm
Filed under: Books, Reading the Mind


July 2013 book: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

All grades of psychiatrist were round the table on July 9th, despite the sizzling heat outside.  For some, Grosz’s work was a distillation of 25 years’ therapy into an honest, simple tome: “What I’m describing here isn’t a magical process,” says Grosz of psychotherapy, “It’s something that is a part of our everyday lives – we tap, we listen”. Nicely put. And yet, for others round the table, there was something unnatural about this tapping.

“Which genre does it belong to?”, one member cried, holding aloft a stick of satay chicken. A forensic consultant sipped his orange juice and replied, “these are a series of case-studies”.  This suggestion did not hold under scrutiny. The histories are mere pages long, some even lacking patients. For example, the chapter ‘Going Back’ concerns his odd gift to his father: a holiday to Eastern Europe, and thus to a childhood marred by Nazism. Even in the more patient-focused chapters, things seem rather well-wrapped for clinical realities.  The first, ‘How we can be possessed by a story that cannot be told’, is about a mendacious patient who fakes his own suicide to upset Grosz. But then the ending is more Grimm than grim: he marries, settles – lives happily ever after. Some of us loved the strong presence of the therapist’s own life and humanity, loved also the subtle, jargon-free exploration of dreams. Others yearned for more warts, more confusion, and more obvious use of psychological technique. Orange juice was exchanged for glasses of viticulture from the warm South, as we approached something like a conclusion.

For all their allure, we agreed that there is a tension in Grosz’s tales, between clarified fact and coddled artifice. This is alluded to in the fly-notes, which describes the cases as “aphoristic”, an original thought expressed in memorable form. None other than Hippocrates was the originator of the aphorism, with his famous maxim on medicine: ars longa, vita brevis (the life so short, the art so long to learn). Fairy tales are also a kind of aphorism. And thus with Grosz: his studies are so short, the point they make is so clear, so elegantly put across, that some readers perceived hints of the artificial behind the seeming reality of his tales.  Does this too-neat packaging of clinical truths matter? Perhaps not. Grosz is clear about his project, quoting Isak Dinesen who said: “Any suffering can be borne if it is put into a narrative.” He has done just this – indeed, done it beautifully with each case-tale. More than artful, perhaps even bordering on Art itself, these histories drew excited comparisons from works of poetry to the musical studies of Bartok. In the final analysis, we raised our collective glasses to Grosz, only to find our glasses empty. Well, such is life – and having examined it thoroughly, we closed our books.

Ben Robinson


September 2013 book: The Myth of Mental Illness by Thomas Sasz

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