The Examined Life chronicles the cases of thirty-one patients who, we are told, have collectively spent more than 50,000 hours in analysis with Grosz. These are not really case studies, at least not in the classical style of psychoanalysis or even psychiatry. The comparison that comes to mind, and may well have served as a model for Grosz, is with the author Oliver Sacks, particularly his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat with its study of bizarre cases from the world of neurological disorders. But while with Sacks’s work we never quite escape the sense of being voyeurs to the freakish world of the neurologically afflicted, with Grosz we “meet” people at grips with the ordinary issues of ordinary people – we enter the loves and lies, the griefs and triumphs of everyday neurosis, we might say.
It is an engaging work. When published in the UK it spent the first three months in the top ten on the Sunday Times nonfiction bestseller list, and many consider it an insight into the very human struggles that analyst and analysand respectively find themselves caught up in. And while it might be harsh to say this, since the book is intended for a popular audience, it is also true that it fails as a set of clinical studies. What I found is that many of the cases read like synopses of a novel, which might explain both why it has been popular and what is wrong with it as a work of psychoanalysis. The genre of the novel takes over the recounting of the studies and what we get is not the surprise of the clinic and the idiosyncrasy of human desire but rather the comforting familiarity of novelistic expectations.
The tropes are familiar. The book opens with an illustration of the analyst as hero. He sets himself up in humble, workman-like surroundings, and we would be excused for thinking him inadequate to the task of treating bulimics, cutters, attempted suicides, and more – the “industrial waste”, the bottom of the heap, that in the clinical world end up being referred to the novice analyst. But since this is the opening chapter, the novelistic form demands that there is hope for our “narrator”. And we are not disappointed. Freud of course famously wrote that his case studies read like novels, but this is not really true. We can now say what for obvious reasons Freud could not: they read like Freudian case studies. Freud invented the genre and if it has evolved and changed, for better or worse, it is still not the genre of the novel.
1 Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves, New York: Norton, 2013, 240pp.