With something like a thousand books a week being published in this country, readers are threatened with drowning in an indiscriminate sea of detective novels, cookbooks, Baedekers, self-help manuals, romances, celebrity biographies. . . . If publishers could refrain from glutting the market with everything they can lay their hands on in even one genre--"pop psych" books like "The Severed Soul," say--literary standards might be salvaged and vast tracts of woodland preserved to protect us from global warming and overheated imaginations alike.
Herbert Strean lost my sympathies in the first chapter of "The Severed Soul," co-authored with Lucy Freeman. (The exact nature of Freeman's contribution to the book is not made clear, but in view of the implausible dialogue, hackneyed imagery and disjointed syntax, it can't have been literary.)
I bore up as Strean catalogued the tasteful accouterments of his office overlooking Central Park and even as he platitudinized that "all patients should make sure their analyst is qualified." But then, having agreed to accept for psychoanalysis Nancy, the "paranoid woman" who has been "raving" in his office, Strean reflects: "This is . . . a powerful challenge, like trying to make par on a long and winding hole where you cannot see the green as you tee off." Poor Nancy, I thought, "caught in a cross current of the wish to kill and the fear of being killed," with a guide who views the human dilemma in terms of a golf match.
As his self-aggrandizing subtitle suggests, Strean envisions himself charging into the psychoanalytic fray on his white electric cart to rescue a fair damsel in distress. Whether a battleground is an appropriate site for healing is questionable, although Nancy's distress certainly is not. Having lost her mother to cancer when she was 6 and grown up a kind of shadow-wife to her cold but seductive father, she is suicidally depressed and convinced that the principal of the school where she teaches hates her enough to poison her soup.
She is far more privileged, however, than the schizophrenics I know. The daughter of a prominent gynecologist and the wife of an advertising executive, she readily agrees to "pay over several hundred dollars to lie on the couch 45 minutes four times a week," 11 months a year, for more than five years. Stretched out there in her "fashionable dark blue silk dress," free-associating articulately, she'd make a striking contrast to toothless, smelly D, who is given to pitching cigarettes and paper towels around the restroom of the neighborhood center she frequents.
Throughout her analysis, Nancy continues to hold a teaching job, unlike M, another schizophrenic of my acquaintance, who is too preoccupied ducking death rays from the television screen to keep track of a two-way conversation, much less a roomful of ebullient second-graders. But then, people like D and M aren't likely to wander into an office on Central Park West.
Thus, Nancy doesn't seem like the most representative choice for the purpose Strean puts her to: a model for his generalizations about the proper treatment of all schizophrenic patients. His heart seems in the right place, however, as he argues that by listening to and accepting Nancy's utterances, acknowledging her strengths as well as her weaknesses, and seeing himself and Nancy as more similar than different, he serves her better than the doctors who have previously locked her up, drugged her and given her both insulin and electric-shock treatments. And fortunately, during analysis Nancy does appear to achieve the self-forgiveness and self-control she needs to function responsibly in the world without unbearable pain.
The tale of this transformation lacks tension, however, since we never see Nancy in her world but only hear, at second hand, her not very distinctive voice within Strean's book-lined walls. Such is the nature of psychoanalysis, "the talking cure," and although analyst and patient may perceive the process as intensely dramatic, Strean never quite brings it alive for the reader/dropper/voyeur.
On the contrary, since the same issues arise repeatedly and provoke similar reflections each time, the effect is static. On returning to Nancy after one summer vacation, for instance, Strean reports his feelings in almost precisely the same words he used the year before, right down to the threat he recalls his mother making: "Herby, do what I say or you'll be in deep trouble!" "Oh dear, poor Herby," a reader is likely to sigh at this point, "he doesn't seem to be making much progress at all."
A self-confessed "compulsive workhorse," Strean once asked his own analyst: "You mean if I don't write a book a year, you'll still respect me?" He confides that this year's book, "as I realized while writing it, is my way of holding on to the memory of Nancy." For a complex of reasons, then, Strean felt compelled to write "The Severed Soul." You need not, however, feel similarly compelled to read it.
Instead, if you enjoy the psychoanalytic method, you might try Alice Miller's slender book of essays, "The Untouched Key." Miller's premise resembles Strean's: that trauma experienced in childhood, if not permitted free expression, will cause potentially deadly psychic pain. Rather than presenting a case study, however, Miller takes the more characteristically European approach of textual analysis.
In the light of what biographical material she can find ("biographers are seldom interested in their subjects' childhood," she notes), she reads the work of a variety of literary and artistic figures in terms of their early traumatic experiences. Her subjects include painters Pablo Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz and Chaim Soutine, comedian Buster Keaton, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Crucial to the individual's ability to turn painful experiences to creative rather than destructive ends, she finds, is the presence of "a sympathetic and helpful witness who confirmed the child's perceptions, thus making it possible for him to recognize that he had been wronged."
The consequences of a child's feelings of powerlessness and guilt that most concern Miller are not individual but social. The repression of those feelings, in order to preserve "the illusion of a strong and wise and benevolent father," leads to quiescence in the face of the evils perpetuated by society's "fathers," that is, those in positions of power, who are intent on waging war.
Through a rereading of the myth of Abraham and Isaac, Miller urges "children" to question these figures and reject their destructive behaviors: "The new Isaac--with his questions, with his awareness, with his refusal to let himself be killed--not only saves his own life but also saves his father from the fate of becoming the unthinking murderer of his child."
The pieces in "The Untouched Key" are too sketchy to be fully satisfying, but they stimulate the reader to thicken their texture with her own reflections. It's refreshing to be released from the couch, from the office, from the need to make par on that tricky fourth hole, into a world that depends on our psychological and thus our moral health for its saving.