Archive for February, 2014

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

‘This book is about learning to live. In simple stories of encounter between a psychoanalyst and his patients, The Examined Life reveals how the art of insight can illuminate the most complicated, confounding and human of experiences.’
This collection of case studies, garnered by psycho-analyst Stephen Grosz over twenty five years of practice, was a rare venture into non-fiction for the Berwick Book Group, and had some of us running for the hills. Those who did venture to The Barrels Alehouse settled onto the therapist’s couch with mixed feelings.
We liked the author’s decision to write this book as creative non-fiction. Grolsz treats each case study as a short story, building suspense or intrigue, writing with economy, and knowing where to begin and end so that the reader is left with something to work out or to decide.
There are also some powerful and affecting case studies: the man in his seventies, married for many years, finally thinking of coming out; the child who spits at Grolsz for a year and a half before there is a break-through; and the people who cannot ‘get over’ the death of a loved one. Writing about the latter example, Grolsz was passionate in his opinion about the concept of ‘closure’ and how the bereaved should be allowed to not ‘get over it’.
We were also interested in his thoughts on praising children – how this was not always a good thing, putting pressure on the child and, actually, becoming a way of the adult avoiding contact/a meaningful exchange with the child. Grolsz’ ‘sabotage’ illustrations, showing how a fear of loss can cause us to lose everything, were also fascinating.
However we felt that, although this is an accessible read which avoids jargon, it is, in Bronwen’s words, ‘beach reading compared to Oliver Sachs’. At times Grolsz’ conclusions are verging on trite and his assumptions and extrapolations might be viewed as faulty – for instance, do we all, every one of us, envy our children? Really? And is all change loss? Were those people in the Twin Towers and other disasters who did not leave/escape quickly enough when they had the chance, really acting (or not acting) out of a fear of change?
We moved into a wider discussion about the value of psychoanalysis. Grolsz himself uses the analogy of two prisoners separated by a wall. By tapping on the wall they gradually begin to establish a shared understanding; the barrier then becomes the means of communication – a slow process! This time-consuming and expensive method of treatment is in the main, Glynis suggested, the realm of the privileged who can afford the consultation fees. Perhaps because of this exclusivity, sometimes too much emphasis is placed on the self/self importance rather than on the importance of community and co-existence. One of the more bizarre case studies in the book describes a woman who is trying to get pregnant despite an agreement with her husband to have no more children, because she is having an affair with the nanny and doesn’t want to lose her. It is seductive, having someone listen to you exclusively, even when you are describing your dreams! There was also some discussion around whether psycho-analysis can sometimes make things worse. The past cannot be changed, only our attitudes towards it. What if those attitudes become harmful or damaging? We also questioned whether gaining an understanding of why we behave in a certain way then allows us to change that behaviour.
Martin could not attend the meeting but sent his thoughts for the blog: ‘I have to confess that I am deeply prejudiced. Quackery, religion, and mumbo jumbo in general. Psychiatry in particular. Most of the aforesaid are based on nothing but hearsay. Having a sacred book is just written hearsay. Psychiatry is especially dangerous since I believe that we can have mental disorders. I do not believe mental health practitioners can cure them. I do believe they can either make them worse, interfere with natural healing or worse of all, pronounce cures which allow the most seriously disturbed out of jail and back into the community. The practitioners cannot even agree on a definition of mental health in general nor the specific labels to attach to their very approximate diagnoses.’

We are back on familiar ground next month, discussing the novel ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson.

Ann Coburn


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

February 2014
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