Annotation by: Telaina Eriksen
Irvin Yalom’s Momma and the Meaning of Life consists of six tales of psychotherapy, four nonfiction and two fiction. Yalom, renowned relationship-based, here-and-now psychiatrist, tackles his personal mother issues in “Momma and the Meaning of Life.” In “Travels with Paula,” Yalom writes about his relationship with a breast-cancer patient that revolutionized the therapy of death in California. “Southern Comfort” offers the reader a look into group therapy in a psychiatric ward. “Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief” details Yalom’s seven-year therapy with a female surgeon who lost her 45-year-old husband, both parents and her godson in a two-year span. The last two stories, “Double Exposure” and “The Hungarian Cat Curse” revisit the fictional psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Lash who readers met in Yalom’s novel, Lying on the Couch.
This is a strange collection that feels like Yalom took everything he’d written that he didn’t know what to do with and threw it in this book. Uneven doesn’t begin to cover it. “Seven Advanced Lessons in Therapy Grief” is well-written and moving…and it inhabits the same space as “The Hungarian Cat Curse” where the protagonist psychoanalyzes a reincarnated cat.
The nonfiction outings do hang together thematically—all dealing with loss. The fiction offerings are more playful (or at least they attempt to be). “Double Exposure” is charming enough to be readable but “The Hungarian Cat Curse” is so out of place it is baffling. It passes playful and heads south on Absurd Highway and not in the good Gabriel Garcia Marquez way. Not only is it out of place, if a reader has read Lying on the Couch, he/she cannot suspend disbelief that the harried and helpful Dr. Lash character would ever (unless under the influence of strong pharmaceuticals) buy into the situation being presented in the short story.
Yalom is a concise writer with a great depth of philosophical and medical knowledge and his content is interesting. His characters seem real and nuanced. He’s not lyrical, but he gets a reader from Point A to Point B with little difficulty and his characters’ motivations always seem true (with the exception of the reincarnated cat).
Yalom, though confident and experienced, does not pretend to have all the answers. “Where was the line between intimacy and seduction? Would she become too dependent on me? Would she ever be able to break away? Would the powerful husband-transference prove to be irresolvable?” (p.150)
He also tries to bring to light the problems with therapy today. “How can you say Ernest has seen her only for fourteen sessions?…I’m luck to have an HMO give me eight visits and only if I can out of my patient one of the magic words—suicide, revenge, arson or homicide…” (p.171)
Yalom also brings comfort to those readers who might have developed attachment or dependency on their own psychotherapists. He talks about his patients who are dependent on him without judgment and with compassion. “The ending of every session was problematic: she hated me having so much control… Every ending was like a death. During her most difficult periods, she was unable to keep images in her mind and feared that once I was out of sight, I would cease to exist. She also considered endings of sessions as symbols of how little I cared for her, how quickly I could dispense with her. My vacations or professional trips invariably posed such major problems that on several occasions, I chose to phone to maintain contact.” (p.149)
This is a worthwhile collection due to the strength of the nonfiction pieces but in terms of fictional offerings, Yalom’s two novels, Lying on the Couch and When Nietzsche Wept are much more compelling than the two pieces of fiction offered here.