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Book review: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

Stephen Grosz’s collection of case histories makes a subtle but powerful case for psychoanalysis

By Alexander Linklater  /  The Guardian, London

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Stephen Grosz.

Complex, time-consuming, expensive and usually inconclusive: it’s hard to define what purpose psychoanalysis really serves. Janet Malcolm, one of few modern writers able to explain the Freudian method in clear, uncluttered prose, likened the process to pouring water into a sieve. “The moisture that remains on the surface of the mesh is the benefit of the analysis,” she wrote in 1983.

Thirty years later, the medical reputation of psychoanalysis has deteriorated, even from that modest appraisal of its value. It has been superseded by simpler, shorter, more research-friendly cognitive therapies. The psychoanalytic profession has, in the meantime, done surprisingly little to defend itself. Once the dominant psychological system of the 20th century, it has since tended to retreat into private practice, or obscure theoretical factionalism.

Inadvertently, Stephen Grosz provides an illustration of why that is. His book is not an argument. It is a collection of case histories: patient accounts that, though reduced to parable-like brevity, took 25 years to accumulate through painstaking care and attention to individual lives. These are shaped like short stories, but true and moving in ways that fiction cannot be. Rather than validating a system or method, each of his cases speaks uniquely for itself.

Grosz avoids almost all psychoanalytic jargon and, even when he uses a concept such as “splitting,” he has the humor to suggest that ordinary expressions may be more effective. In one of his book’s 30 pithy chapters, a woman describes to him how she was disowned by her strictly observant Jewish father after she married a blond Catholic man. Years later, she discovered that her father had, all the time, been having an affair with his blond Catholic receptionist. “The bigger the front, the bigger the back,” she concludes.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

By Stephen Grosz

Chatto & Windus

240 pages

Hardcover: UK


It’s a great phrase and, as Grosz rightly decides, a better explanation of self-contradictory human behavior than “splitting,” because its larger truth has been hewn from firsthand knowledge. Yet there’s a bit more to the anecdote than flagging up the therapist’s humility in the face of experience. It’s not immediately obvious, but he is still subtly demonstrating the value of a psychoanalytic concept. If you didn’t know what splitting was before, you do now.

All the stories in the book work like this, on two levels. First, they are intimate accounts of real individuals, whose conditions are particular to their circumstances: the gay professor recognizing his sexuality only in his 70s, the untidy girl wetting her bed in her super-tidy home, the learning-disabled boy remorselessly spitting in the face of his therapist, the therapist’s own father refusing to recognize the sites of childhood from which his family was cleared by the Nazis.

But then they are also narratives that have been distilled through long examination into finely crafted literary form, each with a distinct meaning. And in turning people’s lives into stories with (at least partial) resolutions, Grosz persuades us to see how the psychoanalytic encounter can help people change — a little — or perhaps accept the ways in which they cannot change. This hardly amounts to a rallying cry, but it is powerful nonetheless. He does not act as advocate for psychoanalysis. He makes his larger case by showing, not telling.

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