Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy
Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love's Executioner contains ten tales of the author's psychotherapy patients, and I initially picked it up out of voyeuristic interest. The title made me think they were stories of sex and death (a strong attraction for me), and that turned out to be true.

What I did not expect was how much of a pageturner the book turned out to be. Nonfiction is hard to write because life typically doesn't follow the "beats" of a good plot the way fiction does. In my past life as a journalist, I learned a nonfiction writer has to make sense of facts by seeking out and imposing some type of arc on a mess of information. Yalom, however, is a master plotter. Every one of these stories grabbed me from the first couple paragraphs and propelled me through to the end on the raw strength of "I wonder what happened next?" "Love's Executioner" starts out with a woman declaring she's had an affair with an old therapist, and the author is her last hope. "If Rape Were Legal..." starts out with a graduate student storming into the author's office and declaring she's called his patient a dumb s#$@. "Three Unopened Letters" leads with the title mystery.

A lot of fiction writers could learn from Yalom's masterful openings, and the way he builds tension. Story construction aside, the voyeuristic interest that drew me to the book is very much fulfilled. Yalom tells not only his patients' stories but his own. I am not easily shocked, and yet I found his emotional honesty shocking. He admits affection for people others would be repulsed by, admits being motivated by curiosity or ego when he could have claimed kindness, and, in one story, "Fat Lady," admits to prejudices I've rarely seen voiced and owned to the fullest extent. Along the way, he gets in a lot of philosophical discussion about the purpose of life, the imminence of death, and so on.

I am not sure I would want him as a therapist (he seems humane, yet deeply flawed -- perhaps I am left with this impression simply because of his faithful description of inner thoughts that a therapist would hide in the moment). However, he's an excellent writer and student of the human condition.

I loved this book, but I should note it's not for the faint of heart. If you haven't figured out from the titles I mentioned, I'll state explicitly that it contains a lot of controversial and painful material, often not from a politically correct standpoint. "If Rape Were Legal..." is a sympathetic portrait of a man who claims he would rape women if he could get away with it. He eventually redeems himself, but I certainly found the initial portrait of him (and the author's accepting attitude towards him) rather offputting. "Fat Lady," which is about Yalom's efforts to overcome his prejudices toward an obese patient, made me cringe many times. The disgust he felt for his patient was vividly described, and painful to read.

These things don't dock any points from the book, though -- I've always believed painful or difficult material is worth experiencing if it's presented in a certain way. I got a lot from these stories, including the difficult ones, and Yalom deals with difficult subjects with courage and sensitivity.

As a reader, I settled into an interesting combination of prurient interest and philosophical stimulation. I would love to read more by this author.

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