Noam Shpancer: The Good Psychologist (2010)

A witty, absorbing novel on the days and ways of a cognitive behaviour therapist whose life outstrips his theories.

I seem to be drawn to books with psychologists as characters lately. No wonder I picked up The Good Psychologist when I saw it in a book shop. After a few moments of puzzlement I enjoyed it a lot. It’s unusual. One could call it literary non-fiction, if that genre even exists. What puzzled me was that the main character is always just called “the psychologist”. Like some of his patients, he has no name but is referred to via his profession. The other thing that surprised me is that you have a feeling not only to be in the therapy sessions with him but also in class where he teaches his students.  Shpancer, a first-time novelist, is a professor and therapist and both professions are the topic of this book. It is important to know that the specializations of his character are the same he has, namely anxiety disorders and depression. The method is cognitive behavioural therapy. I was completely absorbed by the novel. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be in therapy, this book will show you. If you are interested in psychology, you will enjoy it and should you suffer from anxiety disorders, I think this book may help you or at least show you that there is a possibility to be cured.

Eager therapists, the people-persons who drip with goodwill and sympathy, theirs is a false promise, and theirs is a wounding touch, he will say later in class. A therapist who rushes to help forgets to listen and therefore cannot understand, and therefore cannot see. The eager therapist, the one who is determined to offer salvation, involves himself and seeks his own salvation.The good psychologist keeps his distance and does not involve himself in the results of his work. The right distance allows a deep and clear gaze. The good psychologist reserves the business of closeness for family members and beloved pets and leaves the business of salvation to religious officials and street corner eccentrics.

The Good Psychologist tells the story of a middle-aged, single psychologist who also teaches evening classes. His life is rather lonely but that’s how he wants it to be. He is in love with a woman who is married to a very sick man. They had an affair and because she wasn’t able to conceive from her husband, she asked the psychologist whether he would be willing to let her have his child. After she gets pregnant, she breaks the affair off and doesn’t want to see him anymore. Still they stay in touch professionally and she is the one he turns to when he needs advice with one of his clients.

Tiffany is a stripper who cannot dance anymore. Like most of the people who come for therapy to the psychologist, she has panic attacks. Her biggest fear is that she will never be able to dance again and will not earn enough money to get her child from her abusive husband where the girl stays at the moment.

The chapters alternate between chapters in the therapy room, the class room and at the therapist’s home. We see how he treats with the method of cognitive behavioural therapy, how he teaches his students the principles and how he applies them in his own life.

Tonight we will discuss a common confusion among young therapists, he announces to the class. Mental health – to the extent that there is such a thing as mental  and such a thing as health – is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going. The therapist is like a driving instructor not a chauffeur.

I found this highly fascinating. The psychologist is constantly questioning the “cranky Viennese” (Freud) and introduces other names and concepts. Maybe this sounds very heavy-handed and theoretical but it’s well done. We learn that the biggest difference between psychoanalysis, the way Freud taught it, and CBT, is how different the importance of childhood is perceived. CBT therapists do not think that childhood is that important. They show their clients that it’s their thought processes they have to change. This is illustrated in many different ways and I was more than once amazed or surprised about different insights.

Try this exercise: switch all your daily buts with ands. Jennifer – he turns to her – instead of telling your fiancé, I love you but you’re driving me mad, tell him, I love you and you are driving me mad.

What I loved about this book is the fact that the psychologist never sounds smug. He isn’t a know-it-all. He is a man who struggles in his own life but who is genuinely kind. He does make mistakes and we see how he handles them.

The Good Psychologist is highly readable, informative, fascinating and it introduced me to a fictional character that I would enjoy meeting in real life.

Needless to say that this book is very quotable. Just like in Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, there is a great quote on every page. I just picked a very few and hope they give an impression.

Here write this down. The goal of therapy is to provide the client with the tools to nurture and maintain psychological health. We help him practice the correct use of the tools: acceptance of emotions, rational examination of thoughts; to consciously confront erroneous patterns of response and embrace the flow of correct healthy patterns.

Personally I do not think there is one therapy that is right for everyone but this sure sounds like one that makes a lot of sense, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders.

If you do not want to read this novel but are interested in the therapy, here is a site that gives a Mini Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Siri Hustvedt: The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010)

While speaking at a memorial event for her father, the novelist Siri Hustvedt suffered a violent seizure from the neck down. Was it triggered by nerves, emotion – or something else entirely? In this profoundly thought-provoking and revealing book, Hustvedt takes the reader on her journey through psychiatry, philosophy, neuroscience and medical history in search of a diagnosis. Conveying the often frightening mysteries of illness, she illuminates the perenially mysterious connection between mind and body and what we mean by ‘I’

Siri Hustvedt is one of my favourite writers. Whenever she has a new novel out I’m likely to buy and read it. I’m a bit behind as I haven’t read Sorrows of an American and The Summer Without Men yet. Until now I haven’t read any of her essays but was planning on doing it and when I saw The Shaking Woman or The History of my Nerves in a bookshop I bought and read it immediately.

Whether someone likes this book or not depends a lot on the expectations. Many readers where disappointed to find a blend. The Shaking Woman is halfway between essay and memoir, very dense, hardly anecdotal but highly informative and thought-provoking.

“Nerves” is such an interesting term and topic. I recently watched the movie Housewife, 49 based on the diaries that a 49-year-old housewife wrote during WWII. She is  depressed and, as she says, “nervous” or has problems with her “nerves”. I also seem to remember distinctly Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice exclaiming on and on “My poor nerves”. By using the word we may mean quite a lot of things and this is precisely what Siri Hustvedt hints at too.

During a speech for her late father Siri Hustvedt started to shake violently from chin down. She continued to speak and the shaking wasn’t in any way audible, it didn’t affect her capability to speak in any way. She says she didn’t even feel nervous or anxious before the speech. If this had happened only once she might not have felt tempted to undergo so many tests and read such a lot about various topics. But it did happen again and from what I understood still happens to this day.

Everybody with a chronic disease can feel with Siri Hustvedt and her struggle to make sense of what happens. It’s the nature of many chronic diseases that are somewhere on the borderline between physical and psychological to be hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.  These are some of the topics she writes about. But she doesn’t only write about the different tests and treatments she undergoes, she looks for a deeper meaning. What does it mean when you say “I’m ill”? Who is this “I”? What does it mean when you say you are physically ill? Is your mind not part of your body?

Who are we anyway? What do I actually know about myself? My symptom has taken me from the Greeks to the present day, in and out of theories and thoughts that are built on various ways of seeing the world. What is body and what is mind? Is each of us a singular being or a plural one? How do we remember things and how do we forget them? Tracking my pathology turns out to be an adventure in the history of experience and perception.

She thinks for a long time that what she has is a convulsion disorder and therefore we hear a lot about the history of hysteria, its early treatment and what has become of it now. She parallels hysteria and shell-shock and wonders why both terms are now out of fashion.

One of the doctors she consults tells her she has a panic disorder and she also reads a lot about this.

But it wouldn’t be Siri Hustvedt if she stopped there. She goes far beyond her illness and so, in the end, this book is less about a symptom than about the mind as a whole. She also writes at length about migraine and different ways of perceiving the world. About memory and imagination.

When I read a novel, I see it, and later, I remember the images I invented for the book. Some of these images are borrowed from intimate places in my own life. Others, I suspect, are taken from movies or pictures in books and paintings I’ve seen.

She also writes about mysticism, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Freud and mixes all kind of views and theories.

At the end she has explored numerous things but still doesn’t know what she really has.

The Shaking Woman describes one woman’s intellectual journey that starts with a symptom and ends with an exploration of all sorts of disciplines, theories and views on consciousness. It seems as if the inconspicuous sounding word “nerves” was a little door that Hustvedt opened to enter a huge, huge landscape. I’m glad I took the journey with her.