BOOK REVIEW: Listening for clues to mind's mysteries in 'The Examined Life'

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 14, 2013 

  • 'THE EXAMINED LIFE: HOW WE LOSE AND FIND OURSELVES' by Stephen Grosz; W.W. Norton & Co. ($24.95)

Freud's famous case studies, like Dora, the Wolf Man, Little Hans and the Rat Man, are psychoanalytic readings, suspenseful detective stories and elliptical narratives that have all the drama and contradictions of modernist fiction. Not only is Freud a powerful writer, but his methodology and insights also have a lot in common with literary criticism and novelistic architecture.

His patient portraits showcase his skills both as a critic, intent on deconstructing his subjects' lives, and as a masterly storyteller, adept at using unreliable narrators to explore the mysteries of love and sex and death. It's no coincidence that he paid so much attention to the language and imagery employed by his patients.

"The Examined Life," by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz - who teaches at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and in the Psychoanalytic Unit at University College London - shares the best literary qualities of Freud's most persuasive work.

The book's unfortunate title and chapter headings ("On not being in a couple," "Why parents envy their children") give the false impression that this is some sort of cheesy self-help book. It's not. It is, rather, an insightful and beautifully written book about the process of psychoanalysis, and the ways people's efforts to connect the past, present and future reflect their capacity to change. The book distills the author's 25 years of work as a psychoanalyst and more than 50,000 hours of conversation into a series of slim, piercing chapters that read like a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks. They invite us to identify with Grosz's patients and their losses and regrets, even as we are made to marvel at the complexities and convolutions of the human mind.

Grosz quotes Isak Dinesen, who observed that "all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them," and he goes on to argue that stories can help us to make sense of our lives, but that if "we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us - we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don't understand."

To protect his patients' confidentiality, Grosz says he has "changed names and altered all identifying particulars." Some have predicaments that will sound immediately familiar to many of us: a woman reluctant to give up hope that her commitment-phobic boyfriend will marry her; a man, uncomfortable with intimacy and emotional dependence, finds that he is genuinely happier on his own; a girl whose skill in living up to her parents' expectations of good behavior and academic achievement "did not prevent the development of her substantial intellectual abilities" but slowed her emotional development.

Grosz is prone to seeing loss everywhere: Success, he suggests, can make a person feel cut off from colleagues and the past; marriage can make someone feel as if other avenues of possibility had been closed. But he is never tendentious, and he does not try, like Freud, to view everything through an insistently sexual prism. He writes with enormous empathy for his patients, gently encouraging them to recognize patterns in their lives, while hearing out their own theories and concerns.

Being a psychoanalyst, Grosz writes, means spending his workdays "alone with another person, thinking - trying to be present." He is a "tour guide - part detective, part translator" - an editor who helps his patients connect the dots of their stories, helping them to make sense of their lives, or, at the very least, assuring them that they are "alive in the mind of another." With this deeply affecting book, he has done just that - and shared their tales with a wider world.

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