Skip to main content
book review

Stephen Grosz is a practicing psychoanalyst who has worked with patients for more than 25 years.Handout

Most books about self-reflection focus on self-improvement and reside on the self-help shelf. The struggles of our lives, as construed by this popular genre, are simply problems in need of a tool kit. The end goal, then, is to remove those torments, presumably because that will leave us with only happiness.

Stephen Grosz has something else in mind. In the tradition of Oliver Sacks and Irvin Yalom, Grosz shares 31 anecdotes from his practice and from his personal life. Writing with an elegance and poignancy that would make Raymond Carver envious, the long-time psychoanalyst seems to argue that our greatest difficulties should be looked at as stories rather than problems. In analysis, when one attempts to tell the story of one's life truthfully, the byproduct of that examination can be a myriad of emotions; more often than not, it is sadness. But as The Examined Life shows, whatever comes out, the richness of any person's honest story of adversity makes mere happiness pale in comparison.

Grosz, an Indiana native who lives in London, has spent 25 years seeing clients, most of whom come to his office five times a week. Readers might think that anyone going to therapy every weekday – this was Freud's original model, but probably will shock in this age of quick-fix pills – is far more messed up than they could ever be. Some are, sure, but some aren't. And even among those who are, their stories contain such vivid grains of universal humanity that it would be surprising if every reader of this book isn't brought to tears or to a near faint at least a few times, thinking, "Oh my God, that's me."

A persistently single woman's irrational paranoia that a murderer is after her is explained as a strategy to ignore the fact that we spend a lot of our lives alone, without anybody interested in what we're doing. Another woman avoids the risk of a real relationship by convincing herself for 10 years that her married lover will leave his wife. And nothing less than the awareness of mortality is at stake as a father estranges himself from his children because he can't overcome his resentful feelings that their lives are just beginning. We all know how it is – the longer you tell yourself a lie or repeat a well-worn opinion, the harder it becomes to admit the truth, or to see the real story. These admissions that Grosz must coax from his patients do not come easily.

Interestingly, the most heart-rending story in the book shows how the doctor can be as complicit as the patient in that reluctance. A nine-year-old boy named Thomas sees Grosz after being expelled from school for uttering death threats. In his sessions, the boy tries out a variety of insults toward Grosz until he finds what peeves his doctor the most – spitting in his face. Over the course of months, Grosz becomes increasingly irritated and angry before it dawns on him that this dynamic is a ruse playing out between them to avoid either facing a tough reality. "My brain's broken, stupid," the boy finally says. "Looking back, it is clear now that Thomas and I were at an impasse because neither of us could bear the thought that he was irreparably damaged," Grosz writes. It's an extreme case, but stands in for all the times when we go to great lengths to avoid admitting the ways in which we are broken or bruised.

Thomas's story isn't the only insight Grosz gives into the therapeutic process itself. Even people who are already in therapy may learn a little something about what's going on in their shrink's notebook. Illustrating the concept of transference – that we recreate the troubling dynamics of our lives in the therapy office in order to finally know them – Grosz points out that a pathological liar's therapy cannot really begin until the client starts lying to his doctor. In another chapter, he shares that his own girlfriend's infidelity makes it hard for him to tell whether one of his patients is investigating her husband's suspicious behaviour enough, or if the doctor is just reading his own regrets into her life.

Appropriately for a therapist more interested in stories than solutions, all the book's anecdotes are spun with the narrative structure of a page-turning mystery. We get clues into what happened at the psychic scene of the crime only as our analyst-detective outs them. While I've gone to great pains here to explain how devastating these stories can be, Grosz also does a neat trick by keeping his tone detached and even light at times. We cry, but we also laugh. (And okay, there are even a few happy endings.)

Cliché may be the death of writing, but in life, it is not so bad to find out that you are living one. The Examined Life tells of the melancholy nature of being human in a way that is surprisingly uplifting. We can gain solace from hearing that someone else is going through the same exact difficulty as we are. It is sad – acceptance of sadness is the point – but the deeper truth here is that we're all stuck to some degree with our lot, the good and the bad. Instead of viewing the bad parts as problems meant to be solved, after turning the last page of this book, we're inspired to believe they are, in fact, great tales that we can own.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.