The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

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Reviewed by Victoria Best

Best book of the year so far is Stephen Grosz’s compilation of case stories from his thirty years as a psychotherapist, The Examined Life; How We Lose and Find Ourselves. Freud once wrote that he was surprised how his case histories read like short stories, which was a tad disingenuous but never mind. Grosz’s read like little parables, only wrapped around a moment of revelation or understanding, and the result is moving and enlightening.

Recounted with grace and clarity and mostly in the space of a few pages, the stories introduce us to a particular patient or occasionally a particular theme. There’s the patient in an affair with a married man who absolutely refuses to see that he will never commit to her, the widow lurching from one silly, pointless crisis to another as a way of distracting herself from her grief, the small boy who behaves as outrageously as he possibly can, spitting in the therapist’s face every session, the man who is boring as a subversive form of aggressing others. All life is here, in its misshapen splendour, and the beauty of every story is that we get to see these people through the compassionate eyes of Stephen Grosz. There’s neither pity nor irritation, simply sympathetic interest backed up by a razor-sharp intelligence. When we reach the moment of higher understanding, when for instance, Grosz realises that the small boy’s spitting is designed to provoke his anger, because that anger tells them both that he can change, that he isn’t as permanently broken as both of them fear, it’s like the moment Kafka talks about, when the book is an axe for the frozen sea within us.

I often think that one of the fundamental goals of life is to be seen – and ideally accepted – exactly as we are. The point of therapy is to make us see and accept ourselves, but the lure of the therapist is wrapped up in the longing for someone else to do it. Indeed, in one of the stories, in which a man with HIV keeps falling asleep in his sessions, Grosz becomes aware that healing his patient is about holding him alive in his own mind. It’s easier for the man to accept the possibility of his death if he knows he lives on elsewhere. So, if one of our goals is to be seen properly by others and mentally held safe there, then one of our biggest basest fears is that our image will simply deteriorate in the minds of others, that they will fail to give us the benefit of the doubt, or their own anxieties and aggressions will deform or distort our true and constant portrait. For me, this is why psychotherapy is so fascinating: it shows us what we can really give one another that matters, and in its practice it shows us how these important things can so easily be bent out of shape or changed into some mutant version of their original, valuable intentions. Still considering this essential notion of being held in thought in other people’s minds, Grosz talks about paranoia and shows how it is used to ward off the altogether more painful belief that other people are actually completely indifferent to us. I suppose it’s a version of Oscar Wilde’s saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

There have been doubts expressed about the ethics of publishing case histories, even though it’s been common practice ever since psychotherapy began. But for anyone who worries about such things, there’s a little note at the back of the book in which Grosz explains that he sought permission from every patient he mentions and let them read the relevant part of the manuscript. I find a tear in my eye every time I read his comment that all were willing to share their experience, and most expressed a hope that their story would help others. This is the whole point of accepting that we are flawed, mistake-oriented creatures who often find supposedly simple things almost impossible to do: from this perspective, we are in touch with our humility. And humility breeds compassion. Both are absolutely essential for loving and being lovable. Everyone should read this book and feel it chip away any ice around their hearts, to let our admirable human capacity for love and compassion flow through.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny editors.

Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life; How We Lose and Find Ourselves (Vintage, 2014), pages.

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