Review: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

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The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz book cover
The Examined Life (2013) is a collection of short case studies, compiled by transatlantic psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. The cases span Grosz's own career, and describe a range of patients who simultaneously display the fragility of the human mind and the strength and resourcefulness of people struggling to overcome their own, often overwhelming, problems. All this relayed in a subtle, jargon-free style as Grosz guides the reader through the treatment of his patients, whilst revealing something about the human condition in the process.

To relay the process of psychoanalysis is no easy task, harder still to condense down the content of hours upon hours of therapy into a few short pages. Grosz makes his work accessible, while perhaps conceding a quite considerable level of detail. As the book develops there is an increasing sense of voyeurism as the story of each patient is laid out for the reader's pleasure, and then quickly resolved so that the next episode can begin. In truth, most of the episodes are relayed in a way that doesn't come close to touching on the complexity of the cases, and thus, seemingly, undervalues the complexity of humanity.

It is notable that the majority of cases are unextraordinary, and as as result the observations that are made often lack any deep profundity and leave one with a sense of indifference. There is an expectation that messages from these stories will be generalised to the wider human condition but this is rarer than it should be and generally unsatisfying, leaving the book as a collection of mildly interesting cases, which speak only intermittently to the human condition, and which often end abruptly having added no evident value to the collection. Added to this is the fact that Grosz rarely explains exactly how he has unpicked each case to deliver a resolution, instead regularly utilizing the 'a-ha' moment and maintaining the mystique of the psychoanalyst. Although this is a book for the general reader, a little more theory (to give a more interesting picture of the analyst's role in the treatment of a patient) would have been welcome.

Whilst many are half-formed or poorly supported, there are some interesting thoughts here and for many readers these will provoke an examination and better understanding of parts of their own life. What's more, Grosz's studies depict, although on a shallow level, the care and subtlety of the psychoanalytic method. At a time when psychodynamic treatments have been relegated to a lowly position in the treatment of mental health issues in England, this is an interesting introduction to the close bond that can be formed during more intensive therapy; an interesting alternative to the more pared down approach of cognitive therapies like CBT, which are far more readily used in most cases today.

Through Grosz's writing one gets the sense of both the strengths and weaknesses of his profession; the power to truly help a person in need, and the ability to facilitate unhealthy introspection, and work from the most subjective form of evidence. Indeed, there is an authority implied in a publication like this that can never be the reality for a psychoanalyst, his information based on the subjective reports of his patients. It's easy to slip into treating Grosz's explanations and stories as undeniable fact, but this would be to grossly misunderstand the process.

Nevertheless, there is something hugely valuable in the qualitative recording of cases, and whilst this might be far from an academic study, it is a quiet plea that the richness of the case study not be entirely forgotten in the age of the reductive, quantitative, results-oriented report. This is an argument, if a subtle one, for more in-depth treatments but it is also a call for a deeper and more considered approach to interacting with one another in daily life; Grosz's soft words are persuasive, if not profound.

I was a little underwhelmed by this, finding it too superficial and lacking in any substantial thoughts of interest to a wide audience. However, I will hold my hands up and say that this may be because of my own academic background in psychology, and those with less experience of the types of cases described may well get more from the book. 


Useful Links
Reviews of The Examined Life on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Examined Life on Amazon (US)

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