Stephen Grosz has worked as a psychoanalyst for twenty-five years, spending more than 50,000 hours with patients. The Examined Life is a collection of stories about some of these patients, covering five areas of life: beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving.
The stories he tells are of faked suicides, teenage tearaways, pathological liars, a woman in denial of her husband’s affair, an elderly gay man coming out after decades of marriage, paranoia, being boring, and living with HIV. And they are fascinating.
Having a nosy around other people’s lives is always interesting – it’s why we read, isn’t it? – but there are a couple of reasons why these tales are particularly compelling. The first is that Grosz tells his patients stories well. There’s no unnecessary filler just months, and sometimes years, of analysis condensed into a few pages. He dispenses with any psychoanalytic jargon bar the odd time when he feels that it would further benefit our understanding of someone’s behaviour. The second is that these stories are universal. Okay, so you might not be Amanda P., 28, single, living alone in London, returning from a business trip:
…as she turns her key in the lock, an idea takes hold. ‘I had this fantasy – I saw it like a film: turning the key triggers some sort of detonator and the whole flat blows up, the door exploding off its hinges towards me, killing me instantly. I was imagining that terrorists had been in my flat and had carefully primed a bomb to kill me.
But you’ve probably suffered from paranoia at some point in your life. Grosz says:
Most, if not all, of us have had irrational fantasies at one time or another. And yet we rarely acknowledge them – even to spouses or close friends. We find them difficult, even impossible, to talk about. We don’t know what they signify or say about us. Are they a sign that we’re breaking down? Momentarily mad?
You’ll have to read the book if you want to find out!
Grosz doesn’t only examine the lives of his patients either. He looks at characters from literature – what is Ebenezer Scrooge’s problem? What’s Bartleby the scrivener got to do with short-lived relationships – and people in historic events – why didn’t people in the south tower of the World Trade Centre leave as soon as the first plane hit the north tower? The answers are simpler that you might imagine but reveal an awful lot about the human condition.
The Examined Life isn’t a self-help book but you’ll come away from it understanding more about your own behaviour and that of your loved ones, having been thoroughly engrossed throughout.
Any Cop?: Absolutely fascinating. You’ll be amateur psychoanalysing yourself and everyone you know.