Book Review: Writing the talking cure: Irvin D. Yalom and the Literature of Psychotherapy

2019
Jeffrey Berman
SUNY Press
313 pages

Reviewer:  Ben Scanlan

I approached this book with some excitement. At least some of my desire to become an existentialist was fuelled by my engagement with Yalom while I was a psychiatric patient. I’ve read almost all of Yalom’s work, with the exception of his latest with his late wife as they prepared for her death, which is also the only work Berman doesn’t address. While I am a reader, I wouldn’t want to cite myself as somebody wholly conversant in literature as a serious subject and for that reason I felt some trepidation as Berman’s qualifications and position as a professor of English suggested this could be quite outside of my comfort zone.

The format of the book is straightforward; each of Yalom’s works has a chapter dedicated to it, working in chronological order. Prefaced is an introduction about “Existence Pain” and the conclusion deals with, at the time of writing, the last book “Becoming Myself” and the 2014 documentary “Yalom’s Cure”. The pace of the book grows, as the first four books are dealt with inside forty-nine pages, despite the wealth of writing included in The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and Inpatient Group Psychotherapy. In some ways this is to be expected, the author is writing from a literary perspective about Yalom, and his summations of the books is accurate. However, there is not as much rich material as contained in the less clinical works beginning with Love’s Executioner.

Berman makes explicit links between books in a wonderful way, in a way which makes me question my own ability to retain information between books and wonder whether I am part goldfish. For example, he notes that Yalom uses The Glass Bead Game in the first edition of The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and again thirty-two years later in The Gift of Therapy. Having consoled myself that good notation and a spreadsheet could have done the job, I can see a way of seeing links that somewhat mirrors some of the interventions Yalom talks about in his early work and the book is better for that. Within that comparison it’s possible to see how Yalom has managed to transcend two professions simultaneously as a writer and psychotherapist, that the ability to hold in mind stories and details serves both aims well. I’d like to think I’d thought that before, but in Berman’s work that consideration is made more explicit due to the step removed and the ability to see more of the detail.

However, Berman is not just a map maker of Yalom’s work, far from it. He is far more than that. He takes a lead from Yalom in offering his own opinions based on the work. For example, in the chapter on Love’s Executioner, he offers questions that may have arisen for Yalom’s family as a result of his disclosure that he was compelled back into therapy as a result of a love obsession (p57). It may just have been my reading, but I could almost hear the incredulity in Berman’s writing not only that Yalom disclosed to the client, but was willing to be so open with his family. His literary expertise is called to the fore time and time again in small doses, exemplified by his noticing in Lying on the Couch that the lawyer Marshall Streider consults, one Julius Jarndyce, is recalling of “the notoriously long court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens’s 1853 novel Bleak House. If one assumes that Yalom made this choice deliberately, and this is just one example, I’m struck at the depth of knowledge and interest Yalom must have, and how much has passed me by as a reader who simply doesn’t have access to literature, and literary references, at my fingertips. Through Berman, my admiration for Yalom only increases.

As a therapist, I’m not sure this book gives me much value in terms of how I can and will practice. As a reader of Yalom, I found it hugely insightful, and have already made plans to revisit my own reading of some of my favourite books to see what I can get from them that I didn’t previously. As somebody with some desire to understand how therapy is positioned in the wider world, I really welcomed this opportunity to explore something I know quite well from a perspective I’m not able to hold, that of a literature professor. All in all, I found the book delightful, if challenging, and would recommend it to anybody with who feels a deep interest in Yalom, literature or existential psychotherapeutic thought more broadly

Ben Scanlan is an existential phenomenological psychotherapist. His Contemporary Psychotherapy profile is here.
Ben Scanlan

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