Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 225 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In a bid to read more non-fiction this year, I picked up Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, part of Vintage Publishing’s “shelf help” promotion.
It first came to my attention when Victoria, who blogs at Tales from the Reading Room, chose it as one of her books of the year in my Book Bloggers’ Advent Calendar last December. In her review, Victoria said: “Everyone should read this book and feel it chip away any ice around their hearts, to let our admirable human capacity for love and compassion flow through.”
And I concur: this book puts paid to the notion that non-fiction is boring or dull. I was entirely captivated by it and ate it up as quickly as I could.
A series of case histories
Written by Stephen Grosz, an American-born psychoanalyst who has a practice in London, it reads like a collection of short stories structured around five key themes — beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving. These, in turn, are broken into short chapters, some of which are are only a few pages long. Each chapter is a case history of one of Grosz’s patients — adults in psychoanalysis whom he has met four or five times a week for 50-minute sessions over several years.
As he explains in his preface, “all tales are drawn from day-to-day practice. These stories are true, but I’ve altered all identifying details in the interests of confidentiality”.
The book shows how Grosz is able to help people who feel trapped — whether by circumstance, poor decision making, foolishness, fear or past history, among other reasons — to change their lives and their behaviour for the better. It’s important to stress that these people are as ordinary as you and I. In fact, you will probably recognise friends, colleagues, family — perhaps even yourself — in these pages. For that reason alone, it makes for a riveting read, full of “light bulb moments”. It shines a light on the human condition and the terrible muddles we sometimes get ourselves into without even realising we are doing it.
Stories that resonate
There are several stories that have stuck with me. The first was about a boring man called Graham whose girlfriend broke up with him after she told him he bored everyone he talked to: “Can’t you tell when someone goes dead behind the eyes?” she asked.
Grosz explains that there are many psychological (and often unconscious) reasons why people are boring — to avoid talking about a particular subject or because they are envious and do not want to hear a helpful idea coming from someone else. But in Graham’s case it was a form of aggression, “a way of controlling, and excluding, others” because it protected him from having to live in the present, which he didn’t know how to do.
The second story that resonated was from the chapter entitled “How praise can cause a lack of confidence”. Here, Grosz explains that today’s parents lavish too much praise on their children, which devalues it.
Often a child will react to praise by quitting: why make a new drawing if you have already made “the best”? Or a child may simply repeat the same work: why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way gets applause?
He adds that it is far better to simply spend quality time with children, to interact with them and pay attention to them instead of doling out “false” platitudes. “Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about,” he writes.
Indeed, that seems to be the overriding message of The Examined Life: each of us wants the people in our lives to be present — to listen to us, to communicate with us, to be there for us — as opposed to being absent, whether physically or psychologically. Many adult problems stem from this sense of absence in childhood, but not everyone recognises it.
The best thing about this book — aside from the astonishing amount of insight it provides into human psychology — is its sheer readability. It is totally jargon-free and written in clear, simple language. And because Grosz personalises it — he writes almost as much about himself as his patients — you can identify with the problems discussed even if you’ve never experienced any of them yourself.
It’s very moving in places, occasionally shocking, sometimes funny. It’s all done with such a lightness of touch despite the fact each case history delivers a powerful message — or makes you think about things, and people, in a new light.
I started The Examined Life thinking I’d just read two or three chapters. Before I knew it, I’d read the whole thing (in two sittings) and as soon as I’d finished I wanted to turn back to the start to begin again. Truth, it seems, is sometimes more intriguing that fiction.