Book review: Untangling the soul

The paradox of dual roles gives part of the subtitle, ‘A Therapist, Her Therapist,’ its dramatic flair.

July 24, 2019 17:51
4 minute read.
Book review: Untangling the soul


After a dozen tries, I thought I was done with psychotherapy until I read Lori Gottlieb’s new book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. This compelling account of Gottlieb’s adventures as both therapist and patient offered up such a potent combination of insight, wisdom and compassion that as soon as I put the book down, I began googling therapists hoping to find a Gottlieb clone to untangle the knots in my twisted soul.
Despite its title, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” is not a self-help book. What Gottlieb has produced is a memoir that is so rich in story that it is being made into a TV series starring Eva Longhorria.
Case history as literature is nothing new. More than a century ago, Freud penned his tales of the mentally challenged Viennese patients he called the Wolfman, the Rat man and Anna O, but Gottlieb takes this one step farther. Not only does she bring us into the therapy room where we watch her act as healer, caught in a personal tailspin, Gottlieb signs herself on for the “talking cure.” It is the paradox of being into these dual roles that gives this book its subtitle, A Therapist, HER Therapist and Our Lives Revealed, and its dramatic flair. And Gottlieb has plenty to say. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is 411 pages long but it’s a page-turner.
The stories are both hilarious and deeply moving, such as the tale of cancer patient Julie who, realizing that her time on Earth was rapidly coming to an end, exchanges her college teaching job for a gig behind the cashier at Trader Joe’s, where she thrives in the supermarket chain’s fun upbeat atmosphere.
But it’s not all fun and games. Tragically, Julie who is a young wife and not a mother, succumbs to her cancer, which leaves Gottlieb stuck in a wrenching professional dilemma. Should she breach professional confidentiality by attending Julie’s memorial service? In the end she goes, but she keeps her beloved patients’ secrets to the grave by consciously avoiding interacting with the other mourners.
As poignant as the stories are, the book’s best moments occur when Gottlieb writes about herself. After graduating from Yale and working as a writer for the TV show ER, she realizes that she wants to deal with real lives rather than fictional ones. That inspires her to go to medical school, where she discovers that she’d rather talk to her patients than cut them up. This leads her into psychotherapy, her true calling.

WHEN THE man she thinks she’s going to marry suddenly lets her know that he doesn’t want to co-parent her son – Gottlieb has an eight-year-old boy conceived via artificial insemination – the crisis inspires the book. Devastated and barely functioning, Gottlieb takes her broken heart to the kind wise cardigan-wearing Wendell Bronson. She’s not an easy patient. Obsessed with the breakup, she is reluctant to engage with the process that she is so skillful at directing for others, but Wendell finds a way to pull her in. He’s not above calling her to attention with a soft kick in the shin or dancing with her when that seems right. Mostly though, he listens deeply, offering the occasional observation, which in time helps her to glue her broken self back together again.
Not above showing her humanity and imagination, Gottlieb will hug her patients. She’ll even text a patient who is lost in his cell phone, reminding him that she’s sitting in front of him waiting. But for the most part, both Wendell and Gottlieb work by the rules. They set clear treatment goals and when the time is right, wean their patients away from them through a process known as termination.
It’s impressive to read about therapy done right. None of the dozen or more therapists I saw did either of these things. More did the opposite, allowing me to waste my sessions rambling on as they sat in silence and letting the therapy go on and on and on until I eventually stopped coming. Good therapy, the kind that Gottlieb experienced as both patient and healer, is rare. Many therapy patients do not feel helped by the process and some even say they feel worse after the therapy. In contrast, Gottlieb leaves Wendell in a better place, having made peace with the loss of the boyfriend.
Still, I leave her with a queasy feeling. Despite her stellar career, Lori Gottlieb seems more alone than any person should be. She’s a 52-year-old single mom without a co-parent. Her own parents are aging and unwell and she herself suffers from an undiagnosed illness that she humorously calls her “floating uterus,” which doesn’t sound funny at all.
Gottlieb lacks the basic supporting pillars of a good life: a partner, a community and a spiritual belief system. As costly as the process can be, finding someone to speak to can soften life’s hardest blows. It may not be enough on its own, but it’s one supporting pillar for a mentally healthy life. 

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