The Examined Life: how we lose and find ourselves by Stephen Grosz (Chatto and Windus)

The Examined Life by Stephen GroszPsychoanalytic writing is not usually for the likes of us, the common reader. The tradition of read papers at conferences even less so. The jargon is often hard to penetrate (no Freudian reference here), but this book was one of my favourites this year. There are thirty or so chapters, case studies drawn from the author’s private and NHS careers. Some resolved problems, some were unresolved. Some of the chapters start with the patient but are perhaps more about the writer. There is no blank canvas here, Grosz is ever-present, not least as he writes about psychoanalysis as a skilled short story writer, but his stories are based on reality, or at least the patient’s perception of reality. This man can write.
Grosz is aware of the basic difficulties for the patient – a friend of his, on his first visit to another analyst’s couch does not know whether it is best to take off his shoes or keep them on. Does either choice convey any meaning? Most of the stories, of course, have deeper problems, rooted in loneliness, bereavement, preparing oneself for death, inappropriate love, the loss of self, abuse. In some cases the patient is a child, and one not-quite-patient is a chance encounter on a long flight who opened up to Grosz.
Most, if not all, of the stories are interesting in themselves – making this the kind of book you want a friend to read (or a book group) then discuss with you.
It also raised the question, if Grosz can write plainly and interestingly about psychoanalysis, could others not try too?
The Examined Life is out in a paperback edition in January 2014.

Ross Bradshaw

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