Book review: The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 4:14pm


The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

by Stephen Grosz

Chatto & Windus

For anyone who has ever bemoaned the lack of excellent writing about contemporary psychoanalysis, this plain-looking book with its austere title arrives like a box of chocolates.

Thirty-one elegantly presented case histories bear repeating. All offer worthwhile insights. Author Stephen Grosz has worked as a psychoanalyst for 25 years and these are the patients, families, relationships and situations that have stayed with him.

The Examined Life opens with "a patient who shocked me" by faking his own death, and there are more shocks ahead. One man is introduced as a "pathological liar", a stranger on a plane starts a conversation by saying she is on her way to visit the mother who cut her off. A married father-of-four announces that he is thinking of coming out, aged 71, while a woman who has just celebrated her 50th birthday realises a sexy dream that bothered her was about her son.

But the stories that stay longest in the mind are those where Grosz himself is most deeply engaged. With good reason, he fights shy of jargon and for most of the book he does an admirable job of translating ideas derived from decades of theory as well as practice into plain words.

With Anthony, who at 29 has been diagnosed with HIV and begins sleeping through his sessions, Grosz finds himself losing all sense of time: "whole sessions could go by in what felt like minutes, or just the opposite". In Through Silence, they come to understand these supervised naps as a kind of rehearsal for death.

On Being Boring does a fantastic job of showing how even boredom is worth thinking about: how boring others (including your analyst) can be a means of attacking them. Another piece, A Passion for Ignorance, describes the author's frustration with a young woman who chooses not to notice that her lover is a cheat.

Most of these pieces build to a breakthrough or solution (many began life as magazine columns). But the author does show how hard-won such moments are.

Psychoanalysis is by definition indigestible. It is an analyst's job to tell you things you would rather not think or hear. Grosz's book should give confidence to all psychoanalytic therapists that their work, much more remote from ordinary social interactions than most talking therapies, can be made perfectly accessible and even tempting to anyone who can read.

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