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Momma and the Meaning of Life - Tales of Psychotherapy

by Irvin D Yalom

listed in psychotherapy

[Image: Momma and the Meaning of Life - Tales of Psychotherapy]

I am not a psychotherapist, and yet have been spellbound by Dr Yalom's (Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University) masterful storytelling ability.

Born in Washington, DC of parents who immigrated from Russia after the first world war, Dr Yalom lived in an inner city ghetto, where he read voraciously and entered medical school to become a psychiatrist. As he says on his internet site – "Psychiatry proved (and proves to this day) endlessly intriguing, and I have approached all of my patients with a sense of wonderment at the story that will unfold. I believe that a different therapy must be constructed for each patient because each has a unique story. As the years pass, this attitude moves me farther and farther from the center of professional psychiatry, which is now so fiercely driven by economic forces in precisely opposite directions – namely accurate de-individualizing (symptom-based) diagnosis and uniform, protocol-driven, brief therapy for all."

The author's refreshingly special attitude shines through the heart-warming, and highly original six tales told in this book. Several of these, including the first which inspired the title of this book, are fictional. This features a bitter-sweet fantasy conversation with Dr Yalom's mother's ghost which appeared in a dream around the phrase "Momma, how'd I do?", in which his mother's perspective of raising him and not being appreciated nor thanked is explored.

Other extraordinary tales are recounted, including that of Paula, a terminal breast cancer patient who spurs on the then novel concept of forming cancer support groups and ends up sparring with Dr Yalom "… All of the medical professionals at the workshop are automatons, inhumane automatons. We patients who struggle with cancer twenty-four hours a day – what are we to them? I'll tell you: we are nothing more than 'maladaptive coping strategies'."

Also unforgettable is Irene, a surgeon whose husband had been diagnosed with a malignant inoperable brain tumour. To make the situation even more difficult, the husband was the closest friend to one of Dr Yalom's old friends, who beseeched Dr Yalom to take Irene on as a psychotherapy patient. The difficulties recounted in this tale of bereavement (the husband died after Irene's first year of therapy; however the therapy continued for 4 years), form the longest chapter Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief in this book.

The most dramatic and provocative tale, in my opinion, is The Hungarian Cat Curse, told by Ernest Lash, the therapist character from one of the author's earlier novels Lying on the Couch. In this somewhat murky, surreal fantasy, Ernest Lash recounts the story of one of his patients who decides to terminate his therapy. While digging into the reasons for this decision, the therapist unlocks the recent memory of this man of an encounter with a woman, Artemis, who provokes the most amazing sexual feelings in men, who are afterward visited with the grotesque and terrifying 'dream' of being chased by a giant cat. The therapist, thinking harshly of this man who deserted this woman after his death-defying experience, decides to investigate Artermis himself. The amazing sequence of events which occur, including a 'therapy' session with this cat in his ninth life, in which issues around the meaning of life and death are probed, are not to be missed.

I have not read any of the author's earlier books, including the best-selling When Nietzsche Wept; I will be ordering his other renowned novels forthwith.

This book can be ordered from the Positive Health bookstore. Please click the Bookshop image at the top of the column to your right, then click on Psychotherapy.

Sandra Goodman PhD
Piatkus Books

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