Shelf Help Review: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

This book is about learning to live.

In simple stories of encounter between a psychoanalyst and his patients, The Examined Life reveals how the art of insight can illuminate the most complicated, confounding and human of experiences.
These are stories about our everyday lives: about the people we love and the lies we tell; the changes we bear, and the grief. Ultimately, they show us not only how we lose ourselves but how we find ourselves too.

When I heard about Shelf Help, the read-along of Vintage titles aimed to help readers think about the world around them, become more aware of themselves, and maybe even feel better in 2014, I knew it was for me. I don’t often read non-fiction but the titles on the list drew me in. Having had a bit of an up-and-down start to 2014 myself, I haven’t quite been on track with the first few books, but I’m back up to date and I have to say, I thought The Examined Life was a fascinating place to start.

Not being a psychoanalyse myself, nor ever having attended a session thus far, I only had my impressions from films or fiction to go on, but I was surprised by the calm and quiet of the stories Grosz relates. However, despite the tranquil atmosphere, the stories are full of emotion, passion, sadness, even tragedy. No solutions or quick fixes are offered, although some clients do find their situation is resolved. Instead, this is an invitation for readers to observe, to consider and to reflect, like Grosz himself.

The book is divided into thematic sections, which gather together stories with more or less subtly similar resonances: Beginnings, Telling Lies, Loving, Changing (the longest section) and Leaving (the shortest, with three stories only). Despite this apparent organisation, there’s still huge variation between the situations described as you read through the book. I read from start to finish, but it would work equally well to dip into the section you want to read, and I’ll certainly be coming back to particular episodes in the future as events resonate with me at the time. Anecdotes of clients, completely anonymised, are also interspersed with incidents from Grosz’s own life, and his thoughts on a number of topics – for example, “How praise can cause a loss of confidence”.

Some of the stories I found most moving touched on Grosz himself, his life and his development as a psychoanalyst; his attempt to take his father back to the places where he grew up is especially emotional, as was “How anger can keep us from sadness”, in which Grosz tells us about a particular challenging young boy and the difficulty he had getting through a thick armour of fury and violence. There are a myriad of other ideas and situations covered too, from incidents that might appear small or relatively innocuous to clients in deep despair and desperate need to help to see their world differently. That might sound depressing but Grosz’s tone means that we empathise – or at least sympathise – without ever feeling sentimental or mawkish. I finished The Examined Life feeling enlightened, intellectually, but also as if I really had gained a better insight into myself in the process. That may sound like a big claim for a slim volume but, if you don’t believe me, give it a try yourself.

The Examined Life was January’s Shelf Help read, published by Vintage and out now in paperback, at £8.99.


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