Book review: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

09 October 2017 - inspiration

“All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them.” – Karen Blixen

Why are we the way we are? Why do we do what we do? How much can a person change? In 31 brief chapters that recount the stories of patients he encountered during his 25 years of practice, The Examined Life by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz offers us a deeply affecting look into the inner workings of the human mind. From jealousy and self-doubt to closure and change, Grosz masterfully weaves a portrait of the beauty and tragedy of humanity through the lens of psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud based on the belief that we can create change in our lives once we’re conscious of how our repressed emotions and experiences of the past unconsciously inform our present behaviour and motivations. “If we cannot tell our story, our story tells us,” writes Grosz. “We develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”

Each story in The Examined Life offers an intriguing glimpse into the process of psychoanalysis without the jargon. The patient tells his or her story. Grosz’s role is simply to be “alone with another person, thinking, trying to be present”. This often allows him to find connections between the patient’s past and present—the “a-ha!” moment of recognition that psychoanalysis is often associated with—which precipitates the patient’s ability to move forward and change.

How are Francesca’s past experiences connected to her passiveness towards her husband’s infidelity? What does Peter’s pathological lying really mean? The characters in The Examined Life are as ordinary as they are perplexing, and uncovering the hidden emotions and motivations behind their behaviours is perhaps exciting because it gives us clues to our own.

The astute insights Grosz draw from his patients’ emotional struggles are some of the most poignant and striking features of the book. On closure, he writes, “My experience is that closure is an extraordinary compelling fantasy of mourning, it is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow.” In another story about a friend who has trouble truly engaging with others, Grosz concludes, “I thought about his fear that if he was known, if he was seen as he believes he truly is, he would be found dirty, broken. And being dirty and brokenhow could he love, or be loved?”

But as the book critic Michiko Kakutani points out, The Examined Life is far from a “cheesy self-help” guide. The book is remarkable not for the “a-ha!” moments or its aphorisms, but for its compelling portrayal and humbling reminder of the immense variety and complexities of the human experience. Each story brings us closer to recognising the humanity in others, and in doing so invites compassion and understanding for their struggles—and our own.

Through the lens of psychoanalysis, which Grosz describes as simply “asking the useful question”, The Examined Life presents a moving and hopeful exploration of the ways we make sense of our lives and our capacity for change.

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