by Keith Ablow
Little, Brown, 2007
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Feb 12th 2008
Living the Truth is a self help book intended primarily to help the reader squarely confront the reader's emotional past, however painful or frightening. The author, Dr. Keith Ablow, is a psychiatrist and inveterate writer of both nonfictional and fictional works. Ablow believes fervently that it is futile for a person to attempt to "cover up" a psychologically troubled and painful past. Instead, a person should strive in great earnest to get to the truthful core of painfully troubling problems ensconced deeply in the person's psyche. Indeed, as propounded forcibly by Ablow throughout the book, bluntly truthful introspection is the key unlocking the door to impactful change in a person's life. The crisp writing of Ablow crackles with firm conviction in imparting, in a plain English style of writing, the cardinal thematic message of personal empowerment by means of living the truth. All persons stand to benefit from the remarkable insightfulness of Ablow regarding the enigmatic workings of the human mind.
In superbly instructive fashion, Ablow utilizes a three part mechanism to help the reader live the truth. The living the truth mantra of Ablow is conveyed in important part through the medium of anecdotal recounting of information drawn by Ablow from his real life patients, encompassing the skilled grafting of enthralling snippets of real life conversations into the text's corpus.
The filtering of these raw anecdotal fragments through the discerning intellectual screen of Ablow in search of their psychological import and meaning is the second part of the living the truth mechanism. To the reader's likely considerable edification, Ablow demonstrates great adeptness at ferreting out important albeit elusive psychological truths in connection with the recounted anecdotal data.
The plethora of self help exercises populating the text comprise the third prong of the mechanism used by Ablow to psychologically empower the reader. The "exercises", in the form of writing tasks assigned to the reader, are intended to bring into sharp focus a clear picture of a reader's true self. At least if done with thoughtful diligence and unsparing candor, the doing of the multifarious exercises is tantamount to a reader building, brick by brick, the edifice housing the reader's true psychological self. The extended series of exercises composed by Ablow are designed brilliantly to elicit psychologically revealing information, and contribute very materially to the book's powerful self help strength.
Starting in the book's "introduction", Ablow steadfastly advances his trenchantly held view that honest introspection in search of emotionally painful inner truths is personally empowering. The aspiration of Ablow is to embark with the reader on a journey of living the truth. Congruent with that goal, the textual section that follows (entitled "Our Partnership") contains a "pledge" which states, in pertinent part, that the journey of living the truth holds the promise of a more honest, loving, and powerful life, but getting there will be hurtful. Ablow admonishes the reader to sign the pledge only if the reader is committed to making real change by facing the truth about the reader's life. In the thirteen chapters that follow, Ablow relentlessly pursues a daring journey of keeping eyes open unblinkingly to truth.
The defining lineaments of the "pain to power" principle are etched artfully in Chapter One. As conceptualized by Ablow, exhuming painful truths buried deeply in one's psyche is a person's greatest source of power. Psychological "shields" (such as: obsessing, gambling, drugs, alcohol, smoking, overspending, and overeating, to name a few) form the substantive cynosure of Chapter Two. Such shields, in the judgment of Ablow, are inherently flawed psychologically, because they are intended to shield against arrows of painful inner truths which actually are the most potent weapon in the arsenal of living an empowered life. Four key "fictions" that people use to defend against emotionally painful truths are examined perspicaciously by Ablow in Chapter Three. In consonance with the book's transcendent theme that emotionally painful truths are remarkably empowering, the chapter's overarching message is that readers should strive to live a real, rather than fictional, life. There are also, according to Ablow, four "faces" of pain. And these four faces are described in Chapter Four. As delineated by Ablow, the four faces of pain result from efforts to repress emotional pain. The antidote to this psychological toxin is to confront forthrightly the emotional pain, rather than attempting to repress it.
Ablow, in intellectually doughty fashion, wrestles with sundry contentious questions. For instance, the crux of Chapter Five is grappling with why people deny the truth. As explicated by Ablow, the denial process may commence in childhood as a sort of psychological defense intended to guard against anything perceived as diminishing a feeling of being loved and feeling safe. And for some people, the denial process may continue into adulthood. As is his wont, Ablow mesmerizes the reader, in Chapter Six, with instructive and insightful commentary relating, in this particular chapter, to why people repeat the past. The tightly embraced view of Ablow is that, paradoxically, efforts to keep emotional pain buried will actually cause the pain to be resurrected repeatedly, in one form or another.
The gamut of subjects broached by Ablow traverses a considerable swath of psychological ground. In Chapter Seven, Ablow expounds afresh on the psychological phenomenon of humans "running from" emotional pain. Acording to Ablow, the impulse to avoid emotionally painful truths seems to be "hardwired" into the human nervous system. Garnering fuller understanding of "family fiction" raptly engages the interest of Ablow in Chapter Eight. Ablow asserts that many families have histories that are partly fictional; and the fiction may be used (with deleterious psychological consequences) as a means to insulate one or more family members from painful truths. The thematic emphasis of Chapter Nine is that living the truth is about forgiveness, not blame. In penultimate Chapter Twelve, Ablow muses that confrontation by parents with toxic psychological dynamics affecting their lives may help protect their children from otherwise debilitating mental and physical illness.
Critically, it is noteworthy that the self help value of this book is bound tightly to the multitude of self help exercises embedded in the textual terrain. And these exercises, if done as instructed, oblige the reader to flay the reader's own psychological skin. Even though the exercises are intended to be psychologically cathartic, for some readers they may simply be too emotionally painful to endure. Moreover, even if a particular reader becomes inured to the emotionally churning experience of dredging up deeply buried, painful truths, there remains the important matter of proper psychological interpretation of the results. Critics may caution that placing the didactic tool of self help exercises in the hands of a lay reader not schooled formally in the demanding art and science of discerning psychological evaluation raises the danger of the tool being wielded unwittingly in a maladroit manner resulting in flawed self help building efforts. In another vein, the sheer number of exercises may discourage particular readers from doing them, or at least all of them.
There are other aspects of this book which critics may potentially decry. Some experts may look warily askance at the ideas put forth by Ablow, and possibly castigate them as being adrift from a firm neuroscientific mooring. And to some, it may be unsettling that the text is substantially devoid of the customary trappings of formal academic writing, and reliant heavily on information of an anecdotal nature.
But it cannot sensibly be gainsaid that Ablow, in this very thought provoking and highly insightful book, has shown exemplary ability to revealingly illumine darkened nooks and crannies of the inscrutable human psyche. Professional audiences who likely will be held in thrall by this enlightening book encompass: psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, behavioral therapists, neurologists, psychiatric nurses, social workers, and neuroscientists.
© 2008 Leo Uzych
Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University. His area of special professional interest is healthcare.