Life & Culture

Stephen Grosz: telling tales from the consulting room

Compelling characters, surprise endings — the renowned psychoanalyst’s book is not the normal set of case histories


There is something mildly thrilling about sitting in the consulting room of a famous psychoanalyst and asking him a few searching questions about how he feels about the success of his recent book and his motivations for writing it.

It is also fitting that we talk in the house in Hampstead where nearly all the action took place. The Examined Life is a series of 30 vignettes, taken from encounters that occurred between Stephen Grosz and his patients in the very room where we are sitting. The book was fought over by publishers and was serialised on Radio 4 — an unusual amount of attention for what is essentially a book about a set of clinical case histories.

But as American-born Grosz, explains, the tradition of setting down encounters with patients in readable story form goes back to Freud — and beyond. “The Jewish philosopher Gershon Sholem said that anything that can be talked about in a theoretical way can also be done in a story. I’m a great believer that anything, no matter how complicated and theoretical, that can be done in technical language, can be done better in a very simple story.”

Smiling, he adds: “Some more religious friends of mine do say that the stories read like the rabbi’s comments on a Torah portion. I don’t know how I feel about that.”

But Grosz’s impulses in writing the book were not so dissimilar from a rabbi’s. While a minister searches for the message in the weekly portion, so Grosz attempts to explain the significant moments in his career as an analyst — and crucially to do so in a readable style and without jargon.

‘The thing about analysis is that the analyst knows nothing'

“The stories are all short, between 1,000 and 2,000 words. There were a lot of things I wanted to communicate. I wanted to strip away all the theory. I wanted reading it to be a bit like a therapy and for you to be surprised by the endings. Sometimes in my sessions I think to myself: ‘My gosh, I hadn’t thought of that’. I wanted it to have an echo of that and it seems to have worked. Readers have picked up on it.”

An example of the surprise that Grosz speaks about occurs in one of the pieces, in which he recounts a conversation with a Jewish woman who explained how her father had sat shivah when she married a non-Jewish man, and had poisoned his family against her so that there was minimal contact until she had children. Then she discovered to her astonishment that her father himself had been in a long term affair with a non-Jewish woman while condemning her for doing exactly the same thing.

Grosz explains that this is an established psychological trait, known as “splitting”, but that he much preferred the expression the woman had used. “She said: ‘The bigger the front, the bigger the back’. It’s a fabulous expression because it gives a clear picture of something dynamic. It’s a way of putting ideas about ourselves onto others, as if to say that they are the bad ones, not me. We all do it in minor ways.”
Despite many years as an analyst, Grosz still has the same fascination with the subject he had as a teenager when he first encountered Freud.

“I read The Interpretation of Dreams when I was 15 and was blown away by it. I was interested by his idea that we don’t have direct access to knowledge about ourselves — that we have to infer our desires by examining our own behaviour.”

Grosz studied at Berkeley in California and later went to Oxford. As a trainee psychoanalyst, he underwent his own therapy, during which he had a revelation about the process.

“I went into analysis thinking that your analyst knows everything. But I discovered very quickly that the thing about analysis is the analyst doesn’t know anything at all.

“The point is that you have to examine everything together and keep your mind open to all sorts of possibilities.

“And that’s what I tried to do in the stories. I would often arrive at a cliched meaning and then the patient would show me there was a deeper meaning. This would come as much as a surprise to me as it did to the patient.”

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