I don’t know how I came to check out The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz (it’s an occupational hazard for a librarian to end up with too many books in one’s possession at any given time), but it turned out to be an engrossing nonfiction read that is easy to read yet deep enough to leave you pondering the stories it contains. It is laid out in chapters covering the following topics: beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing, and leaving, each containing a series of vignettes that are only ever a few pages long. Each story is about a particular patient the author (Stephen Grosz) has encountered over his 25 years in practice as a clinical psychoanalyst in London, England. The overall result: a glimpse into the human psyche.
Although I vaguely remember Psych101, I thought it would be helpful to refresh my memory on exactly what psychoanalysis is (I did at least know that Sigmund Freud developed the practice). The Canadian Psychoanalytic Society defines it as “a treatment approach based on the observation that individuals are often unaware of many of the factors that determine their emotions and behaviour”. The way Grosz explains it is that he meets with patients 50 minutes a day, 4 or 5 times a week over a number of years. He boils it down to helping people to change and with that change comes loss. As Grosz states in the preface “what I’m describing here isn’t a magical process. It’s something that is a part of our everyday lives.”
There were many thought-provoking stories that stood out for me. In one such narrative called On Bearing Death, a woman named ‘Lucy’ struggled with anorexia most of her life. After her father became ill, she cared for him (in turn taking better care of herself) until he passed away. That very evening she had a dream about being on the train with a baby whom wasn’t her own, but was in fact her father in infant form whom she was able to soothe to sleep. 4 months later she returned to Dr. Grosz sharing the news that she was pregnant. She deduced from the dream that taking care of her father those months had allowed her to realize that she could look after a child of her own. As Grosz describes “Lucy had found her voice – a way of putting her own feelings into her own words – not just with me, but also in spite of me.”
At first I felt like I was left hanging at the end of each story as Grosz never gives any resolutions or hints regarding an individual’s path to recovery from their pain and torment. Then I slowly began to accept the fact that unlike a fictional story, there aren’t any miraculous resolutions in real life; becoming the person you want to be and overcoming your grief or anger or unhappiness is indeed a process. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of psychology works, this is definitely worth picking up.