The Examined Life

The Examined Life: How we lose and find ourselves

by Stephen Grosz

Chatto and Windus, London 2013

On first reading, Stephen Grosz's simply told vignettes of his patients seem lightweight.

Other reviewers have likened Grosz to Chekov and Freud but if I was looking for either in-depth case studies which throw light on the psychoanalytic method or short stories, I was disappointed for these are neither.

Re-reading allowed me to seek out the resonances and deeper themes of the human struggle we all share. In a gentle, respectful tone, Grosz describes each patient's story and a moment of insight – the patient's or the analyst's – when change happens. They are like life-drawing exercises, moments in time captured gracefully, if a little posed.

Much as I have my reservations about the analytic method with its daily appointments over months or years and the lack of face to face connection implied by the use of a couch, Grosz's spacious attitude to his patients shines through. He shows great empathy for each one and great commitment as he sits with them 'trying to be present'. Growth, like life, takes as long as it takes.

Behind each story is a person whose life is so much more than the story told. Grosz respects that and makes it clear that wherever possible (some of the patients have died), he has the person's permission to share their experience. He is not afraid to note where he drew the wrong conclusion and stood corrected by his patient, either in the session or much later.

A woman nurses her dying father and can give herself permission to be a mother. A man lies, blatantly and compulsively, to keep his mother's loving complicity alive. Another bores everyone around him in an act of aggression which says, 'I don't care how you feel.'  A third self-soothes with his minutely imagined house in France, retreating to it in his mind to avoid conflict.  A woman would rather forgo love than live in the present.

Grosz's own father denies the familiarity of the village he grew up in, rather than expose himself and his family to the grief of the Holocaust. Their guide says, 'Everyone does this differently.'

Grosz's delicate stories remind us that, yes, everyone does life differently, and what a gentle miracle that is.

For a New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani see:

An interview with the author: