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The recurrent interest of fiction writers in psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic process is a fact that hardly needs extended research: suffice it to mention books like D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel, Irvin Yalom's When Nietzsche Wept, and more recent ones like Salley Vickers' The Other Side of You, Hanif Kureishi's Something to Tell You. But why is such an interest in the psychoanalytic found in creative writers? Probably because the "talking cure" so easily morphs into the "written cure," the novel, a genre which easily embraces the mental anguish, soul-searching and psychological insights displayed in the psychoanalytic experience.
Alastair Campbell is the acclaimed "spin doctor" of Tony Blair's cabinet and this in itself arouses the reader's expectations. After the publication of select extracts from his diaries under the title The Blair Years (2007), the shift from the journalistic style to the novel results in Campbell's second book, All in the Mind. As a novel, it adds to that group of novels dealing more or less straightforwardly with psychoanalysis and the place of the psychoanalyst/psychotherapist in modern society. The new twist here -- which is hardly new, taking into account the plethora of novels with similar subject-matter -- is the view of the analysts himself as an equally vulnerable human being, rather than as an ultimate source of knowledge and authority.
At the end of a long week, Prof. Martin Sturrock, the psychoanalysts-protagonist, is facing a line of patients with problems ranging from facial disfigurement to gang rape, alcoholism, sex addiction and depression. Just an ordinary day in the office, we might think, yet it becomes obvious that in addition Prof. Sturrock is carrying an enormous load of his own: a disgruntled wife pretty much on the way to estrangement, distanced children, elderly mother in a care home, a deceased aunt whose eulogy he dreads to deliver, and above all these -- the imposing shadow of a dead father and the unresolved issues surrounding him. What is expected, then, is the legitimate question "Who did psychiatrists see when they were feeling shaky up top?" (168) The bitter answer: other psychiatrist or prostitutes or… just nobody else.
Campbell quite skillfully entwines the individual stories of the patients into the main plot line, especially working on the patients' observations, feelings and changing attitudes towards their analysts. For all these people who inhabit Prof. Sturrock's personal and professional life have a very limited view of his own anxieties and fears, yet all of them claim a significant part of his attention, hoping for a "cure" or resolution of their own problems. The Sturrock family, like so many families today, have no idea that he is so unhappy despite the superficial display of middle-class happiness and prosperity. Feeling so "hopeless in his life," Sturrock comes to realization that he can share only with his favorite patient, the depressive David Temple: that David is a "mirror image" of him. The ironic conclusion, in the language of psychoanalysis, that the one supposed to know knows nothing, comes to haunt Prof. Sturrock in his contemplation upon his own life, not the humanity as a whole. Because, after all, the psychoanalyst is just a human being, not a superhero - pray, Dr Phil, excuse such a claim!
On a purely literary basis, I sincerely doubt that All in the Mind will be remembered as a masterpiece of literature. Campbell, unfortunately, has to deal with one too many issues like character, narration, and dialogue, but more significantly, with the problem how to make the subject new. However, the general message I see in the novel still rings true: "Humility. It was one of Professor Sturrock's favorite themes. He believed that humility was the key to self-respect and mutual respect." (195)
© 2011 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis
Dr Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is an Assistant Professor in the Languages Department at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern British and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.