An Interview with Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz
In twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent more than 50,000 hours listening to his patients’ stories. His first book, The Examined Life, published last year, presents a selection of these in beautiful and incisive prose. (As Michiko Kakutani put it in an enthusiastic review, the book reads “like a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks.”) The portrayals of his patients’ struggles and changes, thanks to the talking cure, accrue over the book into a powerful case for the psychoanalytic process. Jessica Gross spoke to Grosz, who lives in London, by phone last year. The first part of that interview follows below.
Jessica Gross: It took a few decades for you to decide to write a book. Can you tell me about that process?
Stephen Grosz: I’ve written technical papers for analytic journals, and I always liked analytical presentations, but I didn’t like the format of our scientific journals. Talking is more convincing than any outcome study, and I wanted to find a way to get that on the page. Another thing is, I am sixty, I got married at fifty, my daughter is ten and my son is seven. With parenting, you are very aware of death and loss. My mom died at sixty-four and my father had heart attacks. There was something about that that was very motivating. I wanted to do two things: write something my kids could read when they were eighteen or so, and give them a picture of a kind of disposition toward the world. That is maybe the thing that I find hard explaining to people who haven’t been in analysis. I hoped that the book would leave them a picture of my way of thinking about things.
JG: A friend was recently asking me about analysis, and was clearly very interested in it, but also afraid. I explained what it is like, at least in my case. She said, “Well, I don’t mean to be offensive, but I find that analysis is very indulgent.” That is something I have heard frequently. How do you respond to that?
SG: I do hear that a lot in consultation. Most of the people who come and see me are in pain, and are suffering. Sometimes people have anesthetized the pain, so they may not feel it directly—overworking, drinking alcohol, masturbating, prostitution, pornography, over-exercising, overeating—
JG: Any kind of addiction.
SG: Yes, to be numbed in some sense. They come because that numbness is starting to break down and sometimes, as you can imagine, they want me to make it work again. They are numbed so they are not fully present with themselves or their children or husband or girlfriend. It is not too hard to see pretty quickly that if they are able to take it apart a bit, to slow down, they will be able to work better too, to be more productive and successful. That is hardly an indulgence.
Also, psychotherapy is not very fun. I am not very nice. I will say terrible things, as my analyst did once to me, which is very useful but can be quite tough. The atmosphere of acceptance makes that possible: some people really thrive because they feel deeply accepted, sometimes for the first time in their lives, in a way they can really think and talk about and draw the distinction. They can feel loved. To have that is not an indulgence. Plus, patients will say, the money I used to spend on shopping, or traveling, or dining out, as an anti-depressant, has paid for my psychoanalysis. I don’t need to do that anymore. So what did you say to your friend?
JG: Well, the first thing I said was defensive.
SG: It is hard not to be, because the person is covertly saying you are self-indulgent, spending all that money on yourself.
JG: Yes, but I don’t think it’s just about the money—I think it is also about very explicitly choosing to participate in an activity that is entirely focused on you, even though so much of what we do is, but presented in other guises. With analysis it is so explicitly focused on you. But after a minute I thought and said, I feel that the intensity of the introspection has allowed me to be more empathetic. It is really hard to see outside of yourself when you are not really aware of yourself.
SG: I totally agree. I think it is almost priceless.
JG: Your book features many of your patients’ stories. They’re all anonymous, but did you ask permission? And what were people’s reactions?
SG: I’ve taken every possible precaution to protect my patients’ confidentiality, another reason why it took so long to write. That I meant I had to change all the names and particulars to preserve anonymity. These things are complicated because no one comes into analysis to be written about, they come into analysis to get their problems solved. On the other hand, it is an illusion for patients to think it is 100% private.
People’s reactions were different. Everyone who is in the book has been positive about it, because they were asked, unless they were no longer alive. A patient who is currently seeing me, who isn’t in the book, said, “I presume my story just isn’t finished yet.” Which was kind of interesting. I have had people come for consultations since the book was published, and one said at the end, “This has been a very interesting consultation, but you weren’t as good as you are in your book.” Which I thought was fair. [Laughs.]
JG: Analysts, I believe, don’t tend to take notes during sessions. Did the quotations in the book come from post-session notes?
SG: I do sit with a notebook after sessions and write things up. They are the closest to what I remember, and I can’t think of a single instance where a patient read the book and said, “That’s not what I said.” Sometimes they will say, “Oh, wow, I completely forgot that dream or that exchange but that is exactly right, I did say that.” That is also interesting. Sometimes we forget that part of analysis is “I don’t remember.” It reminds me of Virginia Woolf explaining why most biographies aren’t very good—people remember the facts, but they don’t remember the experience of what it was like to be them at fourteen or fifteen or sixteen or twenty. Looking back, they can tell you the events that happened to them, but they don’t remember how they felt. What an analyst is trying to do is help you remember what it was like to be you at that time. Sometimes, it is very moving when you both remember it together—“Oh, yes, I was very trapped or hopeless, up against a wall, I didn’t feel like I could get out”—and that’s not how they feel now, and they had forgotten that experience.
Read part two 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.