Psychoanalysis and the examined life

This book is about change.

We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen. From The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz


Regular readers of my blog will know that I take an interest in mental issues. I have been critical of the meaningless psychobabble that clogs up our language – issues, baggage, closure, and low self-esteem. I have pointed out a number of the psychological myths that just refuse to go away. No, we do not use 10% off our brains. Using hypnosis to retrieve memories is not useful. In fact, it can be very dangerous. Low self-esteem is not a major cause of psychological problems. I have been critical of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM and its apparent mission to convert life itself into a mental illness. I have quoted critic Tana Dineen’s cynical formula of victimhood:


I am sceptical about the powers of psychoanalysis to cure anyone. Indeed, it can sometimes be harmful. In the fifties and sixties it was proclaimed that psychoanalysis could cure even schizophrenia. Cold mothers were blamed for autism in their children. And we should not forget the debacle of repressed memory therapy (RMT).

So you will probably be surprised that I have just finished reading a book about psychoanalysis called The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. The author, Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst who has worked in Britain and the United States. Over the course of a 25-year career as a psychoanalyst Grosz estimates he has spent 50,000 hours listening to the life stories of his patients. He has distilled these hours of conversations into a slim volume of 31 elegantly written case histories which give us a glimpse into our fundamentally flawed psyches. The stories are all short, between 1,000 and 2,000 words.  This is what drew me to the book – I am a sucker for stories.

Storytelling is such a huge part of what it makes us human. Psychoanalysis and storytelling have a rich history. Freud has been described as a great modernist writer. And while I don’t subscribe to Freudian theory there is no doubt that his theory of the unconscious had a profound influence on literature. Indeed, whether Freud was right or wrong, most major 20th century writers believed that his account of the human mind was the correct one. In this volume Grosz is unapologetic about his use of stories. He argues that anything, no matter how complicated and theoretical, that can be done in technical language, can be done better in a very simple story

He wants to strip away all the theory,, paint a picture of the relationship between an analyst and a patient and give us an insight into how analysts think about things. The whole psychoanalytic experience seems a like a throwback to a bygone age. Two people are alone in a room for fifty minutes. There’s no telephone, email, or contact with the outside world. We are so used to being constantly connected. I have to admit I don’t spend that much time in pure contemplation. Shaving in front of the mirror in the morning is one of the few times of the day when this happens. We don’t like silence, so we constantly try to fill every second of the day with noise. If I’m on the bus and I don’t have my e-reader or my MP3 player, I feel bereft. Don’t get me wrong I love these devices. They transform mundane activities into pleasurable ones. But perhaps we should turn off our gadgets more often. In this sense I can see the attraction of the psychoanalytic session. It is a chance to slow down a bit and take stock of our lives.

The book is divided into five parts – Beginnings, Telling Lies, Loving, Changing and Leaving. Here is a selection of the chapters to give you a flavour of the book: How praise can cause a loss of confidence, The gift of pain, Why parents envy their children, On wanting the impossible, Why we lurch from crisis to crisis, On being boring, On closure and On waking from a dream. 

One story that I found especially fascinating was not in fact one of the case studies. Rather, it was the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who was on the ninety-eighth floor of the south tower when the first plane slammed the north tower of the WorldTradeCenter. Marissa Panigrosso didn’t pause to turn off her computer, or even to pick up her purse. She walked to the nearest emergency exit and left the building. We imagine that these situations are dominated by hysterical panic. However, this is not necessarily true. Two women she had been talking to – including the colleague who shared her cubicle – did not leave, preferring to have telephone conversations. Many people in Marissa Panigrosso’s office ignored both the fire alarm and what was happening just forty metres away in the north tower. Some of them actually went back into a meeting. Tamitha Freeman, a friend of Marissa’s, turned back after walking down several flights of stairs in order for some pictures of her baby. She would not make it out of the building. Nor would the two women on the phone, or the people who went into the meeting.

This behaviour may strike us as odd. Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around. This happens when there is a fire drill or the fire alarm goes off:

Instead of leaving a building, we wait. We wait for more clues – the smell of smoke, or advice from someone we trust. But there is also evidence that, even with more information, many of us still won’t make a move. In 1985, fifty-six people were killed when fire broke out in the stands of the Valley Parade football stadium in Bradford. Close examination of television footage later showed that fans did not react immediately and continued to watch both the fire and the game, failing to move towards the exits. And research has shown, again and again, that when we do move, we follow old habits. We don’t trust emergency exits. We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered. Forensic reconstruction after a famous restaurant fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving, and so died in a queue.

Despite my scepticism about psychoanalysis, I was won over by the book. The Examined Life is well worth reading.


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