So it was a perfect time for me to read Lori Gottlieb’s “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” an irresistibly candid and addicting memoir about psychotherapeutic practice as experienced by both the clinician and the patient. One day, Gottlieb is a perfectly happy psychotherapist in Los Angeles, the mother of a young son, madly in love with the man who wants to marry her. Who suddenly breaks things off because — out of nowhere — he has decided he doesn’t want to spend the next 10 years with a child under his roof. (Specifically, he doesn’t want to have to pay attention to her son’s Lego creations. What a jerk.) And, voilà, Gottlieb has what’s known in the trade as her “presenting problem,” the issue that gets you into therapy in the first place, but which is really just the touchstone for what are probably many more deeply embedded issues.
Therapy, she writes, “elicits odd reactions because, in a way, it’s like pornography. Both involve a kind of nudity. Both have the potential to thrill. And both have millions of users, most of whom keep their use private.” Her book does feel deeply, almost creepily, voyeuristic. (In an author’s note, she reports that she got written permission from her patients to write about them and went to great lengths to disguise their identities, sometimes conflating several individuals into one.)
[Read our Q. and A. with Lori Gottlieb here]
Gottlieb explores her patients’ inner demons — a young newlywed diagnosed with terminal cancer, an older woman who finds life meaningless and intends to commit suicide on her next birthday, a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a woman stuck in a cycle of alcoholism and damaging relationships — and simultaneously peers into her own psyche with Wendell, a middle-aged, cardigan-sporting psychotherapist.
John, the producer, comes in complaining that he’s surrounded by idiots — at home, at work — but eventually reveals that he’s still grieving over the death of his young son years ago. Julie, the dying young woman, chooses to spend her last months working as a cashier at Trader Joe’s, where she feels more joy than at her tenure-track university job. Gottlieb herself reveals that she’s Google-stalking her ex-boyfriend. “Therapists talk a lot about how the past informs the present,” she writes, and changing your relationship to the past is “a staple of therapy. But we talk far less about how our relationship to the future informs the present too.” But “when the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it. And having the future taken away is the mother of all plot twists.”