Reviewer: Ben Scanlan
Ann Shearer, a Jungian analyst who worked formerly as a social welfare consultant and journalist, writes what is billed as “the first book of its kind about a neglected and even taboo topic: the place of enjoyment and good humour in psychotherapy”. This is a high billing as the number of psychotherapy books grows ever larger, but personally I’m unable to find another that makes this the explicit purpose of a text.
I was excited to read this book, and scrambled to reply when the call out for a reviewer was received. Why, if not just as the first of its kind? I have a lot of memories of humour in difficult situations. The last time I took an overdose, I was found by a housemate and a couple of hours later was laughing with my housemates in A&E, in part because of the absurdity. We were roundly told off by a nurse for being inappropriate, or rather my housemates were, as they were ‘undermining the seriousness of what had happened’. I also remember vividly the first overnight shift I did at Maytree (a residential centre for people in suicidal crisis) with a guest who was leaving the next day and was acutely suicidal. We spoke from 22:00-02:00 and it was a mixture of the emotionally deep and the fantastically hilarious, as though we’d been friends since birth; to a degree the laughs facilitated the pain and made it a little bit more ok.
Shearer divides her book into three sections: ‘Humour and the healers’, containing chapters 3-5; ‘What’s so funny?’ encompassing chapters 6-8, and ‘In the consulting room’ containing chapters 9-12.
I really enjoyed chapter 2, ‘A goddess laughs’, which is a retelling of the Greek goddess Demeter’s loss of her daughter Persephone, and Demeter’s subsequent anguish. Key to the progression of the story, and to Demeter’s ability to continue with life, is an unknown line from the servant Iambe. “Everything changed. Iambe limped up to her, looked her right in the eye and told her a joke. The queen and her daughters froze. But Demeter smiled, and then she laughed and then everybody laughed for sheer relief” (p.12-3). This story resonated, as the day before I read it, a client had come after a two week break in an anxious and agitated state. The client vomited, in their phrase, what had happened over the first ten days since we’d last met, which took up the first twenty minutes. I said something along the lines of, “a lot really has happened to you, hasn’t it?”. My client then looked me straight in the eyes and said, “that’s not all of it”. There was a moment of huge pain, and then the client started to laugh. As did I. The two week gap had wrought pain upon pain upon pain. In my laughter, I can see echoes of the example Shearer cites from Irvin Yalom’s work, when he laughed with a client and was told “it was Herr Doctor Professor’s first spontaneous act” (p.114). This is indicative of Shearer’s approach of drawing from other authors with small vignettes, to illustrate how humour can be used by both therapist and client to illuminate something.
There is a chapter 13 which isn’t contained within the three main sections: ‘Stories of life and death’. Shearer draws on examples of when humour has been used in connection with serious topics, ranging from Jack Dee’s experience of performing at a HIV-AIDS benefit evening, via Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who finds “it is only in his last, broken hallucination that he can reach the point of laughter for himself” (p.119), to humour in Nazi Germany. Her point, as I read it, is well made and draws upon her citation of Frankl in that “humour was [one] of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well-known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (p.121-2). As Shearer says when she brings the chapter to a close, “people who come to consulting rooms, no less than anyone else, want to find or re-find what Frankl calls ‘the art of living’. That art is humour’s own. It can offer the step back from immersion in the psychological present which makes possible, however fleetingly, the beginning of self-reflection” (p.125).
On reflecting about the book, I find myself no further forward in understanding Shearer’s own work; this is somewhat inevitable, as she states in her acknowledgements that “none of my patients appears in these pages. But other people’s do, and I’m grateful” (p. vii). This isn’t to the detriment of what she’s written, but it feels like an opportunity lost from my perspective, especially as somebody who doesn’t identify with being a Jungian analyst. It is clear Shearer has done her research as she cites widely and often, but I do wish she’d included more of her own experiences of when humour has worked, when it’s felt like it’s not worked, and more of the personal-therapist. This is possibly reflective of my stance as an existential therapist as opposed to a Jungian analyst, but there are glimpses of her sense of humour such as her saying “how many of us, if we’re really honest, can resist the delightful incongruity of an ‘inapprpriate’ fart?” (p.7). There is clearly a playful side to her, and I just wonder about its appearance when she is an analyst.
Certainly, in the week since reading the book, I’ve noticed humour more in the consulting room, and I’ve noted that at times I’m reluctant to go there. I’m reminded of one of my first lecturers who told the tale of how they would meet a client in reception on the ground floor, show them the lift and tell them to go to floor three, before running up the stairs to beat the lift; all this to preserve the separation of therapy from ‘real life’. Shearer’s statistics about the lack of humour in research tells a tale that, as a profession, we just don’t want to engage with it, yet when I speak to peers, and peers of different orientations, humour is present for most, along with a sense of awkwardness.
This is a fantastic, thought provoking book that draws from a multitude of orientations and practitioners to make it, in my opinion, accessible for many of us. As much as it informs, I’m struck that I’m also examining a lot of past therapeutic relationships and situations and reflecting on whether I’ve defaulted to something and am too serious. Shearer is, to my mind, correct when she says that “humour can help us out of the isolations of neurosis, the painful sense of alienation from other people; it can help us ourselves and others too” (p.129). If we’re not able to access humour with our clients, are we attending to their needs enough? It’s a question we should be asking ourselves and this book frames that wonderfully.
Ben Scanlan is an Existential Psychotherapist and Supervisor in private practice in Canada Water and London Bridge. He has worked in the NHS, in sport and the charity sector, and has an interest in working with men and suicidal clients.