The Examined Life

the examined lifeBest 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.


30 thoughts on “The Examined Life

  1. I heard parts of this book read on Radio 4 and marked it down then one that I really needed to get hold of because Grosz compassion shone through strongly in every word. But somehow the world swept on past me and I’d forgotten about it until reading this. Thanks for jolting my mind. I’m going over to the library site now to see if they have a copy.

  2. Grosz sounds like a truly compassionate individual. It seems a good many people who suffer from or have suffered from mental illness are glad to share their stories in hopes of helping others. When I worked at a nonprofit that provided MH services we were never at a loss for people who were willing to share their stories for use in fundraising materials. Some of their stories and the things they had to overcome were truly humbling.

    • Humbling is a good word, Stefanie. It’s true, when you see what some people have to go through, it really does make you stop and think. And then, there are all the people with problems that don’t sound like much, until someone skillful like Grosz comes along and shows their depth. Whenever I think the world is a bad place, people like Grosz and his patients and those you knew or heard of make me realise how admirable many people are out there.

  3. This one is immediately going to be added to my list to read. I love that the stories are true and that the individuals were willing to and wanted their stories to be told and shared.

    • You are very welcome! Books about psychotherapy rarely raise themselves above the general parapet, so it just shows how accessible and interesting this one is. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read it.

  4. This sounds so wonderful. And of course I can’t get it here until a few months from now. Bother American publishers! Wouldn’t you think you’d be able to get an e-book copy early?

    • I don’t know whether it will be of any help to you or not, but I’m pretty sure the audio version is available right now. It depends if it’s easy for you to download it. Otherwise, I sympathise! I so often hear about American books that I have to wait for and it’s hard!

  5. This sounds extraordinary. My thoughts about it are much too long to go into a comment! I’ll have to read it myself and put them into my blog post when I write it myself. But thank you so much for tipping me to this. Marvelous.

    • I am so glad to know that you will both read it and write about it! There’s a review I will certainly be looking out for. It’s a wonderful book and I’d love to know what you make of it.

  6. You make everything sound interesting, Litlove! Now I want to add this to my list, though my non-fiction reading is slipping these days. I always mean to read more widely than I do. And when I do, this is the kind of book I want waiting for me. I am fascinated by how various and myriad are the ways people lose their way, hide, and then reach a point where they try to find their way again. it’s also humbling, because of all the pain; these are real people searching to be heard – and, as you point out from the book, to be really seen by others. I like how you link it to compassion, too. I agree with you. With hearing others, and understanding, comes the realization that we are all not so different in the end, though we each have something unique to say (or offer) the world. Compassion lets us find a way through what separates us, to what we share. It takes a book like this to let us recognize it. What a brilliant review.

    • Susan, that’s it exactly: it’s the combination of similarity and difference that is the essence of what we can give one another. And this sort of book is brilliant for drawing the reader in, and giving them insights they never realised they needed (but do need). It’s such an easy book to read, too, with no jargon, and the chapters all reading like very brief but scintillating short stories. I’ve heard it described elsewhere as a box of chocolates, and it does feel like that. There’s definitely a moment every time you read it when you have to stop yourself from cramming more in! I hope you get a chance to read this one, as I’m sure you’d appreciate it. Let me know what you think, if you do!

  7. I’ve just bought this and am reading it in small bites to make it last longer. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and I really liked what you had to say about being seen, humility, compassion, respect and holding others in mind (and being held in mind). I’ve tried out several therapists over the years and I know that Stephen Grosz would definitely have been “good enough” (which as you know is very high praise).

  8. Litlove, I admire the time, energy and devotion you give to your blog and thank you for keeping us all in touch with the wonderful world of books and expanding our mental horizons. Unfortunately, I get so little time to read at the moment, but it’s such a comfort reading your insightful reviews and the comments by others here on all the interesting books you cover. The Stephen Grosz book sounds fascinating – I have mixed experiences and views on psychotherapy, but this therapist sounds so humane and genuine and I’m sure it will be a very rewarding book to read. I think I’ll try to order it from the library soon (I heard a short extract on R4, too, and was very moved by it). I think I will have to wait a little while, though, as I have just reserved ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’ which I read about on another website and understand it’s about a mid-life crisis from a female perspective – something that might be good to read at my current stage of life! It will take me ages to get through it, but I hope it will be worth it, and then there will be the Stephen Grosz book to look forward to…

  9. I’m glad you found the book affirming. I think Grosz has a really nice way of writing, although I probably had a less strong reaction to the book. Nevertheless, I’d recommend it to anyone, particularly as it seems to have been roundly enjoyed by pretty much everyone who has picked it up.

    My review: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

  10. As an avid Radio 4 listener, this book flitted in and out of my mind thanks to its trailers but I had since forgotten it. Thanks so much for reminding me of it and for your thoughtful, considered review. It’s now written on my list so should not slip through my middle-aged memory again.

    • I’d forgotten it was on the radio (though looking at the image on Kim’s site, it does say so on the cover!). I loved this book so much – it is such an easy read in a strange way, and yet so full of meaning and mystery. I really hope you enjoy it!

  11. Thanks so much for choosing this book for my advent calendar — it’s one that has passed me by, but reading your thoughtful review has made me want to hunt out a copy immediately. I wonder if you have ever read any Patrick McGrath? I’ve only read a couple, but they have each focused on psychiatry and deeply troubled people looking for answers.

    • Dear Kim – thank you so very much for including me in your fabulous advent calender feature! It’s been full of so many really intriguing books. I have read Patrick McGrath – just Trauma so far, but I thought it was fantastic. I recently picked up a copy of his new novel, Constance, and I’m really looking forward to it. You’ve got my taste perfectly – he IS exactly the sort of writer I love.

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