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by Jane Ryan (Editor)
Karnac, 2007
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil on Sep 16th 2008

Tales of Psychotherapy

Tales of Psychotherapy is a charming book. It's a collection of forty writings, some fictional, some not, on psychotherapy. The concept is unusual. Editor Jane Ryan explains that contributors were asked for short stories that were either fictional or true. To be pedantic, a short story is a piece of fiction. An historical account, or analysis of a professional issue, or an autobiographical piece, is non-fiction, hence my preference for the term "writings". But that is pedantic. There are 28 individual contributions in this book, and it's a real collection of allsorts. You never know what you're in for when you move from one chapter to the next. Perhaps that's what it's like being a psychotherapist. You never know what memory, what trauma, what banal rumination you're going to be paid to listen to. Not that anything in this book is banal. Far from it. There's something in every contribution, and to make it better you get to read a short biography of the author.

The book is thematically organized into sections on different aspects of psychotherapy. There is no particular pattern to this; it includes "boundaries" "coincidence", "healing", "the psychotherapy relationship" "childhood" and "love". It's not always clear if these writings are fictional or not. A psychotherapist might say it's about what it means for you. Fair enough. Reading through the book you get a sense of what it is to be a psychotherapist. I don't know if it's accurate or not, but I developed an image of a modestly and sparsely (but tastefully) furnished room, a few paintings, most likely impressionist, a window with a view, and a few personal objects, telltale evidence that the idealized therapist is a Real Person. I was surprised how many psychotherapists practice at home.

The writings range from moving accounts of damaged lives to playful anecdotes about the vicissitudes of therapy. Mustard Therapy is Alexandra Wilson's delightful tongue-in-cheek poke at psychotherapy. It comes as a relief following David Herbert's rather creepy Stones. There are a few stories involving abuse of children and with these the book takes on a somber tone. Barbara Hillman's Jigsaw is a moving recollection of childhood exploitation told in a straightforward and unsentimental way. Jigsaw will make you grateful you're not a psychotherapist, and grateful that other people are.

Ghosting through these writings is the specter of Sigmund Freud. Occasionally he appears on stage. I loved Maggie Murray's The case of Anna F. even if I couldn't decide whether she was right in all her interpretations. The idea of Anna Freud visiting Broadmoor has some appeal. I still don't know what to make of Ella Lindauer's Fragments, but there must be people whose families lived in Vienna at the same time as the Freuds. The first contribution is an interesting, but inconclusive anecdote about how Freud turned down various offers to advise on court trials and films in the United States. Interesting, but I liked Freud more with a bit of artistic license.

This is a book that would appeal to anyone with at least a passing interest in the psychotherapies. I'm sure practitioners could find much to debate about the approaches taken, interpretations made, the meaning of different revelations and emotions. Some of the contributions have genuine literary merit; others are a little labored, but the case studies are especially interesting. Tales of Psychotherapy would make a nice distraction for your daily commute or an enjoyable fireside read. I'd even take it to the beach. If you see it on the coffee table on your next visit to your therapist, pick it up. You might read something you need to talk about.

© 2008 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, New Zealand.  a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz