How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch. Edited by Sherry Amatenstein. Seal Press. $17.
An anthology is, by definition, something of a mishmash. An anthology of short essays about people whose lives are something of a mishmash is a kind of meta-mishmash. And that is How Does That Make You Feel? It is important to understand that “both sides of the therapy couch” have mishmash lives – the most-valuable lesson to be gleaned from a book that is by turns overwrought and maddeningly superficial. Editor Sherry Amatenstein, trained as a licensed clinical social worker, titles her brief introduction to the book “We’re All Crazy,” and that is the underlying message here: therapists’ patients, by definition, have a wide array of psychological problems – but so do therapists themselves. Whether this is supposed to be reassuring or not is never quite clear.
There are 34 brief entries here. Amatenstein’s own, “Therapist Without a Clue,” offers a fair sample of the approach taken by therapist contributors, starting with an explanation that it is her birthday and she is spending it “seeing nine patients in a row. Boom, boom, boom, boom – assuaging other people’s hurt while I bury my own.” Nine pages later, Amatenstein has achieved a tiny bit of closure for herself by deciding to go out for her birthday after all. This is pretty much the pattern for the therapists’ entries in How Does That Make You Feel? “I Really, Really Hate You” by Beth Sloan (a pseudonym “for obvious reason,” Amatenstein says, but so much for being open and aboveboard) is about one of this therapist’s sessions with a woman who bemoans getting only $2,500 a week from her husband, is constantly having plastic surgery, insists on showing Dr. Beth her breasts, and causes the doctor to need repeated puffs on the inhaler that she has used since developing asthma as a result, she says, of being abused by fellow junior-high-school students. The patient’s behavior reminds Dr. Beth of her own mother’s insistence that giving birth caused “my [vaginal] lips” to be “hanging down like cow’s udders” and of her mom telling the child who would become Dr. Beth, “You made me ugly down there.”
If revelations like these – there are lots of them – make it seem as if the therapists are the ones who ought to be in therapy, readers will be gratified to know that they are: the vast majority of people who practice what is now called “talk therapy” have therapists of their own. Becoming a patient, it is believed, makes the whole therapeutic process easier to understand and the concerns of patients easier to accept with sympathy and empathy.
Does this work? It depends on what “work” means in this context. The therapists who write here are functioning professionals, but they often seem barely to be keeping things together either personally or professionally. If this is true in general, it may help explain why therapists at times cross the line, sometimes egregiously so, as is clear from some patients’ essays. “Therapy Undercover: Satin Shirts and Sex Talk” by Estelle Erasmus, for example, is about the child psychologist whom Erasmus saw when she was 16 – a man preoccupied with getting Erasmus turned on, or at least getting her to say she is turned on, even though she tells him she is not attracted to him: “My answer never changed, though he campaigned constantly as if one day it could.” Abusiveness by therapists is a recurring theme of the patients’ contributions to How Does That Make You Feel? In one of the shortest essays, the three-and-a-half-page “The Therapist Who Shouldn’t Be One,” Patti Davis talks about the mistake she made in seeing the same therapist who was treating her boyfriend – apparently the two men behaved toward her in much the same way, because, she says, “after about eight months of this, I finally woke up to the fact that I was being bullied and torn down by both of them.” Brief though this entry is, it makes an appropriately pithy point about this whole anthology when Davis writes that “even though someone has a degree in psychology and a list of patients, he can still be manipulative, toxic, and probably more ill than most of the patients he claims to treat.”
Perhaps not “more ill,” on the basis of the tales here, but “just as ill” seems to fit. Yet it is hard to know whether these stories are typical or whether they exist on the outskirts of the therapeutic world. For one thing, only six of the 34 are written by men; this could point to gender bias of some kind, or simply underline the fact that the book’s publisher calls itself “a forum for women writers and feminist issues,” but it would be nice to know which. For another thing, Amatenstein makes no real attempt to provide context for the essays, simply describing them as “no-holds-barred” and saying they will “humanize” therapists “but will not trivialize the process.” But they do trivialize it – by reducing it to a set of short, pointed, occasionally very moving but often merely bad-tempered and superficial commentaries on a form of mental-health treatment that by definition is profoundly unsettling and, also by definition, is practiced by some people who would be better off doing other things. The intimacy of “talk therapy” is very different from that of other, physical forms of medicine. Most of the essays in Amatenstein’s book are enough to make one wonder why anyone would want to be involved in it – on either side of the therapy couch.
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