An Interview with Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz
Last week, The Brooklyn Quarterly published the first part of Jessica Gross’s in-depth interview psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, described in The New York Times as “a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks.” The second part of their conversation follows below.
Jessica Gross: What makes a person seek out analysis?
Stephen Grosz: There are as many reasons as there are people. Part of the work of the analyst doing the consultation is to make contact with just that—to try and find together a bit of why that person is coming, to put it into words, so the person can feel that they are heard. I’ve had people who have never been alone with their mom or their dad, and just to be alone with a person in a room with the telephone shut off, no television, just a person there, for an hour, to listen to them, can be astonishing. They were yearning for that.
JG: What makes a person able to do analysis?
SG: I think that is really a good question. Some people can’t. Take an alcoholic with a serious addiction: they already have a cure that is more powerful than my words. In the first meeting, I try to get my patient to bring their internal experience to mind, to just say what they are feeling, be brave, have the courage to talk about it if they can. I try to help people say what they are thinking and feeling, and some people are better at that than others. I’ve had a lot of people act out, and sometimes you have to help them find the words for what they are doing.
JG: Can you tell me how you decided to become a psychoanalyst?
SG: Towards the end of the book, I describe going back to Eastern Europe with my father, who had come to the States after the occupation by the Fascists. My father was a person of action, and he didn’t ever talk about his history. If you wanted to talk to him about it, he would sort of wander off. That’s one thing about my patients, they never wander off. [Laughs.] They stay and talk to me.
I think I was always curious about people, through literature. When I was 16, I was at Berkeley, and at that time politics and psychoanalysis were very mixed together. Left-wing ideas had a lot to do with hidden desires. When I went to Oxford and studied philosophy, I was interested in those ideas too. I think I found I liked being with people and listening to their stories and talking with them, and I have for a very, very long time. As soon as I started to work with patients, I was completely gripped by it.
JG: You’ve mentioned that you didn’t want to put the word psychoanalysis on the cover of the book, and it is not really in vogue to think about or talk about. Why do you think that is?
SG: On my book tour in New York, I met young people and felt a slightly manic undertone, as though everyone I spoke with was drafting their CV as we were speaking. It was like they weren’t talking, but telling me the whole road ahead and where they were and what they had done. It felt—how can I put it—almost like a counter-depressant to the real, lived life.
I think we live in a very difficult world right now, in terms of economics and careers and our personal lives, and there is a huge amount of real anxiety. When I was growing up, with very little work it seemed I could have a house, a swimming pool, a couple of cars, my wife wouldn’t necessarily have to work. You didn’t think you had to do that much to earn a living. Well, no one thinks like that now, and everything is different. So, in the middle of all this, analysis is another expense, oh my God, it feels huge. I think analysis is a very powerful force, but for a lot of people I think it feels like another big thing to undertake.
JG: But I think it is more than that. I’ve run into many intelligent, educated people who don’t just say, “Oh, psychoanalysis is well and good, but not for me”—they say, “Psychoanalysis has been discredited.”
SG: Yes, and I think analysts are to blame, too. Analysts for a long time behaved as know-it-alls and didn’t engage in the kinds of discussions that we are having right now. I did think, when I went to my analyst, that he knew everything. I thought, Oh my God, this guy has x-ray eyes. I didn’t have to say anything and he would know my subconscious based on how I crossed my legs. But of course, that is ridiculous. Actually, analysis is a form of not knowing. It is two people not knowing together and slowly building up a picture.
Some of my friends and colleagues do empirical defenses of psychoanalysis. I think all those things are good and important, but I’m not sure that empirical views will paint the best picture. The way people experience something like analysis is more about being. But that is why we have stories. That is what literature does: we go into people’s minds and thoughts and memories. There are lots of better ways of portraying that than statistics. Some of that may be what I am trying to do—tell stories.
JG: What do you find most difficult about this profession?
SG: I make it pretty clear in the book that you fail a lot, you don’t understand things. It can be difficult, working with someone, before you have figured that out. But after all this time, I feel rather lucky, to be honest—I feel privileged by the stories people tell me. It is a wonderful and remarkable thing. I feel personally encouraged by my patients’ courage.
JG: You mention in the book that you feel envious, at times, when you help patients through conflicts that you struggle with. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that.
SG: I thought it was important just to be honest. Envy is a word that we don’t use socially, outside of the consultation room, but there is tons of it around. It is pretty ordinary that parents envy their children. Their children have more time than them, more potential, life can change. I started seeing a child of a patient of mine who is starting at Oxford in the autumn. He is fabulous, brilliant and funny, and I did sort of wish I were starting university again, that I were his age now. But of course, it is an illusion. I sometimes envy patients—they are brighter, more attractive, earn more money. Teachers envy bright students, coaches envy good athletes; it does happen. The key is unhooking ourselves from that. It is not that we don’t do it, but that we exist in the reality of our place and time, and accept that.
Read part one of the interview here.
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City. She contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.