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Book Reviews

The Woman Who Thought Too Much by Joanne Limburg (Atlantic, £8.99)

womanwhoEverybody in Nottingham will know “the lions”, which sit patiently guarding the Council House, providing a meeting point for first dates and a thousand photo opps for small children who like to sit on top of the beasts. The lions were presented to the City by Sir Julian Cahn, whose biography mentioned that he suffered from terrible OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), a reminder that OCD can strike people of any class, any religion, any ethnic grouping, any gender. This point was made by someone attending a Bookshop discussion with Joanne Limburg.

The Woman Who Thought Too Much is Joanne’s own memoir of living with OCD, which was not diagnosed until she was 29. Unlike some, most of her OCD is in her head – obsessive thoughts rather than compulsive behaviour, though in the book she describes her wounds from compulsive skin picking and the way her obsessive thoughts led to restrictions on her life and made demands on others, especially her husband. It is not only the sufferers of OCD who are affected by it.

Joanne’s memoir is wonderfully written, at times witty. Chris married me and my disorder at the end of August, and then the three of us went off on honeymoon to Venice, the perfect venue for generating both romantic memories and imaginary near-drowning incidents. In her case she has been helped by cognitive behavioural therapy, though not by analysis, and she is enthusiastic about prescribed drugs for her own condition, accepting that these might not be for all. The only part of the book that was hard going was the descriptions of her time trying to get the appropriate drugs, though it was difficult, earlier, to be accepted as having a problem as she presents as “normal” in her behaviour. If a little odd. The oddness was sometimes explained as being a poet, “since we are expected to be odd”. At the shop meeting to discuss the book many people talked openly of their own OCD, feeling that simply sharing own’s own experience is part of dealing with, getting rid of, the shame attached to the condition. Given that up to a million people have genuine OCD symptoms (not just wanting their CDs to be in order, as one wag said), there’s a lot of it about.

Some people cope well with the disorder, others struggle with the “Awesome fecundity to OCD: all the time it throws out new shoots, new runners – new compulsions, new obsessions.” The Woman Who Thought Too Much will be useful to any OCD sufferers, but is also a book for others who might want to better understand their friends with OCD. 

By chance, the national organisation of OCD sufferers is local to us, it’s OCD.UK, which has a very useful website and an interesting national conference coming up.

Ross Bradshaw

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