email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BodiesBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecause We Are BadBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGetting OffGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Neuroscientist Who Lost Her MindThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
It must have been nearly ten years ago when I read Irvin Yalom's earlier tales of psychotherapy, Love's Executioner, with great enjoyment. It was when I was first really getting into the whole genre of tales of psychotherapy, and I was going through them like I used to go through P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories when I was a boy. Tales of psychotherapy were like mini-murder mysteries, with the therapist searching for clues to find both the nature of the underlying problem, the cause of the problem, and the solution to the problem. I especially liked The Taboo Scarf by George Weinberg, and The Patient Who Cured His Therapist by Stanley Siegel. With each tale taking no more then twenty or thirty pages, they were bite-size morsels, little parcels of pleasure. So satisfying, and educational too!
Since then, the thrill of tales of psychotherapy has diminished for me. As with any genre, this one has its limitations. I started to wonder how confident the therapist was entitled to be about his or her own view of the effectiveness of the therapy. The credibility of the author's claims is thrown into some doubt because these tales are to some extent fictionalized in order to protect the identity of the people the tale is based on. In some cases, a character bears little relation to any single person's actual life, because he or she is a combination of a number of actual patients all rolled into one. And even if the tale were a precise record of events, how sure could we be about what actually caused the changes in the patient? Most studies of therapeutic effectiveness have failed to confirm the truth of any particular theory of how therapy helps. Most studies seem consistent with the view that it is the mere process of regularly sitting with someone sympathetic and discussing one's life that is helpful, and not anything that the therapist might do or say that has therapeutic effects.
Furthermore, it is hard to not wonder about the motivation for a therapist behind writing a record of his or her cases. What determines which cases are worth writing down? How many of the therapist's blunders and embarrassing errors get included in the stories? How can the therapist avoid such a book being an exercise in smug self-congratulation? Even when a therapist writes confessionally of his or her mistakes, is that not also potentially self-serving? I started to prefer to read the stories of therapy written from the point of view of the patient.
Now Yalom has written a new set of six tales. "Long-awaited," says the blurb on the flyleaf. By the publisher, maybe. For my own part, I found Yalom's new book both smart and annoying. He is perfectly well aware of the problematic nature of this genre. In Momma and the Meaning of Life, he does more to tackle these issues in a somewhat oblique way. Three of the six stories here are listed as non-fiction; in another the story is only remotely based on a true incident. The other two chapters are fictional and even fantasy at points, yet at the same time are clearly there in the book because they have some point to make about psychotherapy. The question is, what point is he trying to make? By including fiction along with reality, Yalom seems to be acknowledging that his tales can't prove anything by themselves. Or maybe not. The recent controversy over the recent biographer of Ronald Reagan using a fictional device in Dutch to describe Reagan's early years suggests that people are unsure exactly what to make of a blend of fact and fantasy in a genre which is normally categorized as non-fiction. Similarly, I wasn't sure what to make of Yalom's unusual approach.
Yalom is well known as a practitioner and advocate of existential therapy, and he has written a number of textbooks in this area. In Love's Executioner, his tales served as illustrations of theoretical points, even if the theoretical point is that there are limits to the use of theory. In the Prologue to that earlier book, Yalom wrote, "The powerful temptation to achieve certainty through embracing an ideological school and a tight therapeutic system is treacherous: such belief may block the uncertain and spontaneous encounter necessary for effective therapy." Thus, as a good existentialist, his tales illustrate how it is important for a therapist to remain open: to conduct therapy according to a manual will inevitably get in the way of an authentic encounter between the two people talking together.
There's no indication in his writing that Yalom has changed his theoretical perspective, but in his new book, he says almost nothing about theory. There is no prologue or introduction, there is no bibliography, and there are no footnotes. He does provide a website to accompany the book, giving some references and some discussion, but even there you won't find much detailed discussion. In an Author's Note at the end of Momma, Yalom does briefly explain that in this book, he has made storytelling his top priority, so the teaching part of his mission has had to take second place.
As a good existentialist, death is a central issue for Yalom. In the short first chapter, with the same title as the book, Yalom writes about his mother and his relationship with her, during her life and after her death. She was a difficult woman to please, and rarely if ever gave her son praise. Yalom realizes that his treatment of her was not all it could be either, and through this works out some old emotional issues which were still affecting his dreams and probably his waking life. "Travels With Paula," the second chapter, focuses on a patient with breast cancer with whom Yalom had a long and complicated relationship. She moves from being a patient to being a co-worker in group therapy for people with terminal illnesses, to becoming estranged from him. In his mind, his mother's death and the resolution of his relationship with Paula are related, although the exact connection is elusive. For five years, he treats a women who lost her husband to a brain tumor in another "non-fiction" chapter, "Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief." His patient, Irene, is both deeply depressed and also a very smart and difficult woman, but she eventually reconstructs a life for herself.
In some ways, Yalom's touch is light in these tales. He does not hammer his point home with the use of examples in the manner of popular psychology and self-help. His references to psychoanalysis and other theoretical approaches are always brief. He is often self-deprecating and is not shy to mention his own failings. Yet when reading these tales, I am filled with the sense that Yalom is the central figure and the underlying struggle is between him and his ego. Or maybe it's between him and his modesty. Whichever way around it is, Yalom is clearly aware of this dynamic. Indeed, he himself tells us how important it is to try to gain the approval of his mother: he desperately wants to be right, and thus to be praiseworthy. Not that he seems insecure-rather what makes his style off-putting is a sense of self-satisfaction that runs though nearly all his writing. But of course we are all depth-psychologists enough today to be able to proffer the interpretation that beneath smugness resides low self-esteem.
The fictional chapters do better at avoiding this dynamic, since Yalom does not figure in their narrative, even if the therapist figure in them if of course a stand-in for him. They are as well-written as the earlier chapters, and they develop interesting themes. Yet they are more like intellectual exercises, clever but ultimately not as gripping as the non-fiction part of the book. It seems it is Yalom's grappling with his own need to be right that is the emotional engine of his writing. And in the end, it doesn't seem like such a terrible motivation, so long as he can keep his arrogance in check, which he does.
If you want to join the Metapsychology E-mail discussion group to discuss this book or this review, then click here.