Oliver Sacks’ 1985 best-seller The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat demonstrated the intriguing potential of neurological tales. Eminent academic and psychotherapy practitioner Irvin Yalom’s Love’s Executioner (2000) likewise demonstrated the intriguing potential of psychotherapy tales. Unfortunately, his latest collection is not in the same league.
It starts off interestingly enough with the story of Paul, an 84-year-old eccentric, who is inspired to visit the 81-year-old author by Yalom’s acclaimed novel When Nietzsche Wept. Why come for just one psychotherapy session? Simply, it transpires, because after failing to complete his doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche, Paul entered into years of correspondence with one of Nietzsche’s biographers. All he wanted was for Yalom to spend a single session reading and thus affirming and bearing witness to the letters between this biographer and Paul.
Another story begins captivatingly with Yalom attending the funeral of Molly, his cleaning lady, where he meets Alvin, an erstwhile patient. It reminds him of Alvin’s therapy and his distress about being rejected by one woman after another when they visited his home. It also reminds Yalom that after he, too, visited Alvin’s home and found it piled high with stacks of telephone directories, train timetables, science fiction books and other hoarded bits and pieces, he recommended that Alvin hire Molly as his cleaning lady. This did the trick: Alvin found a wife who became the mother of his children, all thanks to Molly.
Yalom is determinedly upbeat in recounting these and other tales, even one in which he gives the patient involved the same name, Justine, as the eponymous heroine and torture victim of the Marquis de Sade’s novel. Yalom’s Justine is a victim of torturing self-hatred. In attempting to assuage this condition, Yalom tells her how much she helped another of his patients, Astrid, by whispering to her not to be so self-pitying in front of her children. “I didn’t whisper…I hissed…I was spiteful, viciously envious, and totally exasperated by her,” Justine retorts. Yalom’s bid to reassure Justine by emphasising her goodness fails to quell her conviction that she is bad. It simply leaves her, she points out, with “vicious thoughts” lying in wait for her.
But exploring his patients’ fear of being ambushed by hateful thoughts and feelings is less Yalom’s concern than his determination to enable them, this book’s cover blurb proclaims, to lead a life worth living. For one of his patients, this involves encouraging her to say what she would tell him if she were bold. “I would ask,” she replies, “Why are you charging me so much? Why do you need so much money?” Cutting short what more she might have had to say about how this related to her inhibitions about being bold and self-assertive, Yalom writes that he is so “flabbergasted” by her response that he immediately offers to cut his fee in half.
The book ends with a patient, Rick, who complains that Yalom seems less interested in what Rick feels and thinks than in what he has learned from the meditations of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whom Yalom has encouraged him to read. “Point well taken,” concedes the psychotherapist sagely before congratulating himself on getting Rick to dive into the “sea of wisdom” of the “great-souled” Marcus Aurelius. Yuck!
Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy
By Irvin D. Yalom
Piatkus/Little, Brown, 224pp, £14.99
Published 5 March 2015