Tuesday 1 February 2011

'in the final analysis'

The Good Psychologist
by Noam Shpancer

After being born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz Shpancer is now a Professor of Psychology at Otterbein College and also works with the Centre for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy, both in Ohio. This, his first novel, was a bestseller in Israel before being brought to the UK by the enthusiasm of editor Jenny Parrot at Little, Brown. The Good Psychologist of the title remains nameless throughout and I'll stop short of saying that he is based directly on Shpancer himself (I wouldn't be so presumptuous) but the similarities are obvious in at least two of the three facets of his life that we will follow: the class he teaches at college, his sessions at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders, and the turmoil of his personal life. These three distinct areas will blur and merge as the novel develops, our narrator struggling to maintain those boundaries, and in particular to implement those principles he teaches each week in his own life.

Reading the book I couldn't help but be reminded of the television series In Treatment which I wrote about last year. Both share the same challenges to the therapist except that the novel allows us access to his every thought whereas the TV series has to rely on the extraordinarily expressive face of Gabriel Byrne. Shpancer mentions a few of his therapist's clients but our focus is directed to one in particular, the 'four o'clock client', a nightclub 'dancer' who seems to be suffering from a kind of stage-fright after having had a close shave with a spiked drink. The Psychologist from his lofty perch can even afford a little smile to himself as he calmly assesses what he will do to help her - 'Exposure treatment for the stripper...There's poetry in everything, everything is music; just listen, and you will hear it.' But this slightly smug distance will be erased as he becomes more and more involved in the details of her life and her quest to escape the degradation of her past and to win custody of a daughter.

The inability to maintain his usual professional distance stems from the echoes this client's case has with his own buried secrets. Gabriel Byrne's therapist would end his week with a session with his own therapist but Shpancer's has no such refuge. Even more dangerously he seeks his comfort and professional support from Nina, a former colleague with whom he shares a huge secret and dangerous connection. Having kept that potentially explosive situation a safe distance away he re-engages with it once again, something that threatens to bring those carefully constructed defences crashing down. I won't go into any more detail as I don't want to spoil what is easily the book's most fascinating aspect.

In his class - Introduction to the Principles of Therapy - both his students and the reader become familiar with the basics. These sections, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem to take up a fair portion of the novel and how you feel about that may depend on your familiarity with therapeutic techniques. The sketchy details of his student's lives aren't enough to maintain interest and the psychology itself might suffer in exactly the way that he fears it might for his students.

The whole educational enterprise that in the past seemed so promising and challenging suddenly feels dry and wilted. The skeleton of therapy, which he labors to construct for them, by its nature is a skeleton still, and hence lifeless, dead. Dry bones, he mumbles to himself, is all that's left of the juicy flesh of the human experience after you have chewed and digested it for them.

Where these sections really succeed is in the way the Good Psychologist of the teaching model contrasts to the Good Psychologist himself. A kind of dramatic irony is achieved as he explains to his students the mechanics behind our everyday human interactions and the reader then applies them to his situation. How best to treat his recollections when he tells us that memory

...is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.

When he moves on from the narrative of memory to actual falsehoods and the use of the lie to ensure social cohesion we have already learnt the secrets held that force him to tell his own little white lies, not to mention the lies that he tells himself.

The naked truth, like the naked body, is a startling, charged presence, and so it must commonly be covered up. This is why you will teach your children to put their clothes on and think before they speak.
He stops and looks around.
The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software, but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist must get to know it, learn its ways.

Having taught in his own class the ways in which psychology has moved on from the theories of 'the cranky Viennese', that no quick fix solution exists, we shouldn't be surprised that the novel doesn't have an entirely neat ending. After all, 'This life, in the final analysis, is a chronic, and terminal, condition', and the Good Psychologist equips his clients with the tools they need to deal with it. Both his students, clients and even he himself can only hope to learn the lesson from each event and carry that forward to the next. Learning who to trust and how to trust is tough if you can't entirely rely on what your own instincts tell you.


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