The analysed self


The analysed self

Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz on how we lose and find ourselves.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books Long-reads

It’s getting late. Outside, the glare of the winter sun has given way to the airless purple of a cold January evening. A patient is due any moment now. But, as my interviewee makes profoundly clear, there really is no time like the present. So I ask one more question: ‘How much of Sigmund Freud’s thought is still vital to psychoanalysis today?’

‘That’s a very big question because there’s so much…’ Stephen Grosz pauses. Seated in his consultation room, opposite the proverbial couch, or, in this case, a bed, a testament to the imperatives of the talking cure, and speaking thoughtfully, quietly, he is clearly an heir of Freud. He tells me of his first encounter with The Interpretation of Dreams, as a 16-year-old, when his older brother, then a student at Berkeley, gave him a copy to read. And he talks of how exciting it was, in those intellectually heady years in the Sixties and Seventies, when as a Berkeley student himself, his interest in psychoanalysis intensified as his engagement in radical politics grew.

‘We all read Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, which was drenched in Freudian thought. And Norman O Brown was at Berkeley and Santa Cruz at this point, too… Everything was political in those days’, he says, chuckling. ‘It was in Marcuse, in Brown, in the Frankfurt School in general, which I was intellectually very close to. At Berkeley, remember, the head of the sociology department was Leo Lowenthal, a friend and colleague of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. There was a great linking together of psychoanalytic ideas and political ideas, and this was happening against the background of the anti-war movement, People’s Park, the Free Speech Movement. It was an incredibly exciting time to be a 17, 18-year-old.’

And yet, for those who know Grosz from his intensely moving, almost parabolic work, The Examined Life, a presentation and interpretation of some of his most resonant case work over three decades, Freud is noticeable by his absence. There is little talk of sexuality or libido and nothing of the Oedipal complex, or its heir, the superego. The Examined Life, open-ended, ironising, wise, is closer to Chekhov than to what is popularly thought of as psychoanalysis. So is the founder of this most theoretical of psychotherapies, the explorer of the continent of the unconscious, no longer relevant?

‘One’s not looking to apply Freudian ideas to patients’, Grosz answers. ‘For a start, there’s been so much theoretical development since then, so many great clinicians and analysts, and we’ve learned a lot clinically since Freud, so we wouldn’t do some of the things that he did.’ He pauses again. ‘But I think some of Freud’s classic ideas of just listening, listening to the words of the patients, their stories. Trying to understand, for example, how their anxieties are driving their actions, how their fears are constructing these defences – these fundamental ideas, which inform my work, are there in Freud.’

‘What I tried to do in The Examined Life‘, he continues, ‘is to give a picture of the way in which those ideas are in use now, but doing so without all of the Freudian language. A historian once said it wasn’t ignorance that prevented the discovery that the world was round; it was the knowledge that the world was flat. And that’s been a problem with Freudian terminology – it has become a way of knowing things that stops us learning, a language that got in the way of seeing the patient. Psychoanalysis is a process of not knowing together, and starting to learn things.’

And that’s what The Examined Life exemplifies: not an ossified theory, heavy with jargon, but a method, a way of seeing individuals, of listening and interpreting and, alongside the patients – ‘It’s an honour to be brought into people’s lives in the way that the analyst is’, says Grosz – telling the stories that need to be told. It makes for a deeply affecting experience. There’s the anxious and depressed Rebecca, worried about her relationship, but who comes to realise that, at root, she misses her no-longer-infant son needing her; there’s lovesick Helen, whose forlorn affair with a married man, who continually breaks his word, has turned into a means to keep herself from the tumult and promise of the here-and-now; and there’s the immeasurably sad tale of nine-year-old Thomas, a disturbed, troubled, academically challenged boy, who racially abuses and even spits at Grosz as a way to provoke the angry response he needs, because it means Grosz (or the boy’s parents, or teachers) thinks he can be better than he ever really can. ‘My brain is broken’, the child admits.

Grosz’s patients are not all suffering some childhood, parent-related trauma, as psychoanalytic caricature would have it. But they are all haunted, yes, often by something obscured, painful or troubling in their past, but sometimes by a future they fear losing — the marriage and the children. They are selves haunted by loss, and by the prospect of loss, and an inability to accept, and to face up to, the necessity of change. And so they are stuck, living now, but haunted and troubled by the no longer or the not yet.

Haunting is central. ‘One story in The Examined Life is ostensibly about lovesickness, but it’s really about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol‘, says Grosz. ‘I’d always loved that tale. But one day I realised something: it’s actually a profound story about psychological change. Scrooge begins as a mean miser – even the word “Scrooge” is nasty, an amalgamation of “screw” and “gouge”. But he goes from being embittered and aggrieved to being generous and kind. “He was as good a man as the city had ever seen”, as Dickens puts it. And that transformation takes place through a series of hauntings.

‘I often feel the analyst is the ghost, and you have to haunt your patient with what has happened, you have to haunt them in the present about how they are living now, and you haunt them with the future, about how life is going to be. This idea of haunting is very different to scaring someone. Scaring is the public-health warning, the picture of throat cancer on a cigarette packet, the declaration that you will die if you keep smoking. No one really changes through being scared in this way. Haunting is different. It is about seeing your own life in a very specific way, how you came to be the person you are, and how you are living in the present, and how you will continue being that person in the future, and the effect of that is quite powerful. Analysts have to be ghosts – we have to haunt our patients.’

And in the haunting, the individual faces up to his or her self, confronts loss, in near enough full consciousness. ‘One of the things that struck me while reading A Christmas Carol, was that every evening Scrooge reads his ledger’, explains Grosz. ‘What he’s doing is reassuring himself, through his miserliness, that there’s always an increase, albeit in profit – that there’s always a gain and never a loss. If you read the story carefully, you’ll see that he has lost so much – he’s lost his mother, his sister. You can feel that he’s suffered so much loss. So he’s not going to get attached to anyone. He’s not going to get married. Because he doesn’t want anyone to matter to him, and endure the pain of loss. So his only attachment is to a bank account, where profit is accruing.’

The hauntings bring Scrooge to a the point of self-recognition, of acceptance. So is this what the psychoanalyst tries to do — to bring the patient to a moment of self-clarity?

‘They achieve that themselves’, says Grosz. ‘They’re struggling to understand, and I just have some tools, which I’ve picked up in my nearly 30 years of working with people. Psychoanalysis gives individuals the space and the time to ask the questions – what was it about my relationship with my father that stopped me mourning his death? Why do I feel the way that I feel about my own child? They can then be more honest with themselves in analysis about what they’re thinking and feeling. And that I believe is invaluable – to arrive at a truthful view of oneself and the world.’

It is, of course. But not all of us require analysis to arrive at that moment of self clarity. We might all be haunted to some extent, our memories, our fears and anxieties, sometimes distorted, erupting into our present lives, but we don’t necessarily need analysis. We’re not paralysed by our spectres. When, I wonder, does this unconscious self-haunting become a problem? His answer hinges on the extent to which the haunting arrests one’s development.

‘As I get older – I’m more in the third act than the first or second – I see ever more clearly when someone is stuck developmentally. By which I mean, for instance, a 30-year-old who can’t leave their parents, for instance, who, in analysis, can’t stop talking about his parents. I’m not hearing much about his work, or friends or relationships. So I would wonder why he is afraid of letting go of his parents, because it’s only by letting go that they will make space for the next phase.

‘I don’t really say this in the The Examined Life, but it’s a subtext: life is a series of necessary losses. We’re born. We lose the womb. And we do so to gain the world. We have to go from having the umbilical cord, to having the breast, to eating solid food, to going to nursery, and then to school. And one is spending more and more time with friends and cultivating relationships outside the family. Each stage is a loss, but it is necessarily so, to make room for the new. We leave the parental home, go to college, out to work, form our own relationships, have own children and so on.

‘To have all these new things, we have to give up the old things. And I always see people stuck at various moments developmentally. So part of my work is thinking why and how I can help individuals to be freer, to live more fully.’

I’m reminded of the old Freudian battlecry, ‘Wo Es war, soll Ich werden‘ (literally, ‘where It was, there I should be’, or more figuratively, ‘Where Id was, Ego shall be’). The process, that is, where an individual brings to consciousness a hitherto unconscious, possibly repressed determinant, a process of self mastery. One’s development, one’s change, with all the loss and sometimes pain that entails, is accepted, embraced even. I suggest to Grosz that he is helping people become more autonomous.

‘You see it all the time’, Grosz explains. ‘People will be getting closer and closer to each other in a relationship, but then freezing the relationship at a certain point. They don’t get as close as they might, for various reasons. Part of my task is to understand what’s inhibiting them, what’s stopping them from becoming more devoted to their work, more devoted to their partner, to their children, to their friends – what’s preventing them from letting things matter. So they can say, “I lived the fullest life I possibly could”.’

In some ways, despite his general area of work, Grosz is offering a counterpoint to what is often characterised as therapy culture. He is not encouraging individuals to develop a relationship of psychological dependency – he’s certainly not in the business of offering the fragile self endless affirmation or esteem-raising praise, let alone antidepressant medication. Rather, he is helping to cultivate higher degrees of autonomy, helping people to live, work and forge relationships in the here and now. And crucial to that is realism, a demand that individuals confront and accept ‘the necessary series of losses’ that their development entails. Because with that acceptance of change, individuals can embrace the gains that these losses can bring, the chief one being the opportunity of the present. There is nothing easy or painless about this. As Lionel Trilling noted of Freud, an almost tragic weight is given to existence – a metaphor which echoes in Grosz’s own refrain, ‘letting things matter’.

He writes, for instance, of the kind of advice he’d want his daughter to hear should she find herself in a relationship she doesn’t want to be in, but can’t quite give up on the idea of. ‘I’d want her to be told that sometimes we have to mourn the future, that many young couples have more future than present. Breaking up means giving up not on their present, but the future they’d dreamed of. Leaving a relationship, starting a new life, meeting the right person, getting married and having a child can take a long time – much longer than she might imagine. She might have to go through some pain to have what she wants. But facing up to reality, however dreadful, is almost always better than the alternative.’

Time’s up. The buzzer goes. A patient is helped in by someone, probably a friend or a relative. Another listening is about to begin.

As I’m leaving, Grosz mentions his debt to Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller. There Benjamin contrasted the oral tradition of storytelling, in which members of a community listened to, integrated and retold folk tales, creating wisdom from collective experience, with an atomised modernity, writ large in the individualistic world of the novel, and the incommunicable, meaning-less nature of information. Benjamin writes, ‘An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers’. He mentions stories that gave peasants agricultural advice. ‘All this points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim.’ Reading The Examined Life, one can’t help but notice the way in which patients’ everyday experience is, through its (re)telling, turned into stories, complete with maxims, practical advice, near proverbs – for instance, ‘paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard. The paranoid knows that someone is thinking about him.’ ‘In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers’, said Benjamin. The same might be said for Grosz the psychoanalyst.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Stephen Grosz, is published by Vintage Books. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).

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Topics Books Long-reads


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