Top critical review
Stories from the Consulting Room
on 15 July 2017
The psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz gives us very short excerpts of some case histories, each of which is supposed to teach us something about ourselves. The book has had a huge number of five-star reviews, many of them extremely brief and failing to explain just what the reader saw in the book. I cannot quite share their enthusiasm.
Psychoanalytic treatment is a lengthy and searching business, and it makes these snippets, often with an encouraging outcome, seem to me to be too concise. In some of these short chapters Grosz even recounts bits of the stories of two or three of his patients to illustrate a single point. And a few of his examples do not come from his patients, but from situations in novels, or from his father’s traumatic visit to the places in Hungary where he had lived before the Holocaust.
The lessons conveyed by some of these case histories are unexpected: for example, the damage that can be done to a child by the “wrong” kind of praise; or that paranoid feelings may sometimes be a defence against the worse feeling of being ignored.
Others reflect not uncommon experiences: men feeling lonely and excluded after their wives have babies; how children often suffer when the arrival of another baby deflects attention from themselves; how parents sometimes see a child as a problem rather than themselves.
But many of the stories struck me as neither conveying an unexpected insight nor as reflecting the experiences that many of us have: they are about neurotic behaviour that is so strange and so unique to a particular patient that I could draw no general conclusion from them, though they may be interesting in themselves (“there’s nowt so queer as folk”). One or two are moving, like that of the patient afflicted with AIDS who found comfort in spending entire sessions not speaking and even sleeping.
Grosz honestly describes the occasions when he had difficulties in “clicking” with his patients, when he felt at the end of a session that he and the patient have talked around rather than about the problems. He doesn’t use the technical words “transference” and “counter-transference”, but he describes many situations in which they happened. It is astonishing to me how he could tolerate some of the physical manifestations of it – in one case being regularly spat at by a young patient.
Perhaps I was expecting the wrong things from the book – more wise illuminations from a guru about common problems in life than Grosz was trying to offer. Perhaps a more reliable title for the book would have been “Stories from the Consulting Room”.