Reviewed by Victoria
I am a huge fan of shrink lit, the small genre of books that feature psychotherapy, because they almost invariably explore and unpack some of the most intriguing paradoxes about human beings. Stories often make people coherent and straightforward, wrapped around a single desire like threatening notes around bricks thrown through windows, but the reality is that we are nowhere near as coherent as we might like to be. We do things we feel compelled to hide, we have violent emotions that are far beyond reason, we create falsified justifications and cling to them with anger and pride. It’s just what we do. I love the way that psychotherapy honors our dark and disturbed side and shows how it is often a clumsy friend in times of dire need. We have a cowardly preference for the good and beautiful, but as Franz Kafka said, it’s only in the darkness that we can see the stars.
Irvin D. Yalom is a bit of a legend in psychotherapy circles, the author of a number of books, some novels, some theory, some case studies, and still a practitioner in his early 80s. This latest book of fascinating cases reads like modern fables and all turn around our fraught relationship to mortality. There’s nothing quite like it for forcing us to consider what makes life worth living, and which personal hells need at long last to be addressed. The result is a collection of deeply inspirational case studies.
In the opening story, Yalom receives an email from a writer suffering from writer’s block. He agrees to one session with the man and is surprised when his client appears in his consulting rooms, 84-years-old and clutching a battered briefcase. While Yalom rushes to get as much out of the single session as possible, his client refuses to give up his highly personal agenda. He wants Irvin to read the 45-year-long correspondence he kept with his dissertation supervisor, and comment upon it. It takes Yalom a moment to realise that the writer’s block is a red herring, and that frozen but deeply cherished grief is at work here, a forcefully nostalgic longing for a lost past that can be briefly regained with the right audience.
The case of former ballet dancer, Natasha, has similarities, when she appears on his doorstep clutching a photo of herself as a young, accomplished dancer and then becomes angry when Irvin suggests that she has a particular meaning in wanting him to see it. In both these stories, Yalom manages to find exactly the right tone, allowing both the ridiculousness of his patient’s behaviour and their deep, vulnerable humanity to be seen and appreciated. Some cases are longer and more complex, for example, successful business executive Charles, who suffers from terrible self-esteem that they gradually trace back to the loss of his father in a sailing accident when Charles was young. His recent business success, with a friend and mentor he much admires, comes to a traumatic end when the mentor commits suicide, leaving Charles afraid that all the happy experiences they shared together were dissimulations, fraudulent and not to be trusted.
Some cases are deeply moving. Yalom takes on a woman who has spent her career as a cancer care nurse and who is now a terminal sufferer herself. Justine is a harsh and bitter woman, whose personal history of loss and hard times Irvin teases out of her. Disliking herself and afraid there is no one who will care for her or mourn her, Justine’s ultimate challenge is to make peace with herself before death. By sheer coincidence, Yalom is able to tell her that an angry command she issued to one of her sick patients, of which she feels ashamed, was actually experienced by that patient as a useful, morale-strengthening bromide. It just so happened he had heard the other side of the story already, for it had been one of his former colleagues whom Justine had nursed. For Justine it is a miraculous blessing to realise that her own view of events is not the only one, and that actions taken in anger may have quite opposite consequences.
I absolutely loved these case histories. They are so real and true in unexpected, original ways. I raced through them, consumed by greed, for they are so easy to read and yet so profound and full of wisdom. Everyone should have the voice of an Irvin D. Yalom in their heads, endlessly compassionate, effortlessly non-judgmental, unafraid to look at whatever frightening truths may be on offer, knowing that without the fear they will be immensely valuable. It’s somewhere between a joke and a hopeless cliché to suggest that reading can make you a better person. But if any reading can, then surely this book of case histories might be it. I certainly put it down having been moved on many occasions to hopeful tears.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Irvin D. Yalom, Creatures of a Day, and other tales of psychotherapy (Piatkus: London, 2015). 978-0349407425, 224 pp., paperback.