Lying On the Couch | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 02, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:51 PM, May 18, 2015

Lying On the Couch

Author: Irvin D. Yalom, M. D. -- Publisher: Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Tulip Chowdhury

LYING on the Couch is a story that opens up like the unfolding petals of a blooming flower. It is a gripping book that throws light on different theories and practices of psychotherapy. It's about Justin and Carol and their problem- ridden marriage and about Marshall and practice. And there is Earnest Lash, Justin's therapist who talks of his patient's behavioral patterns. Coming in second and third person views, the story throws light into human lives from different windows.

  Ernest had been counseling Justin for five years. Justin and Carol had married for the wrong reasons and it was a daily warfare for them. Ernest tried to show Justin that there was nothing to hold him on to that marriage and yet Justin would not go for a divorce. Carol was a die-hard lawyer and she was paying for Justin's therapy sessions hoping that he would get out of his indecisions about life and then the marriage could work for both. They had twins, an eight-year old boy and a girl. Justin had no time for the children or his wife.  Carol had gone for therapy when she was dumped by her high school boyfriend.  She held low opinions of psychotherapists despite sending Justin to one. She called them “shrinks” for her experiences had ended in sexual exploitations and only added to her misery.

Ernest's failure to get Justin out of his marriage faced an awakening when one day his patient announced that he had left Carol for a much younger woman called Laura. Ernest was vexed. How baffling humans were. For five years he had tried to convince Justin to leave his wife but in vain. Then, a much younger woman, with a flip of her fingers assured him that leaving his wife was the best thing for him. And not only that, he recalled that during the last sessions, Justin had not even mentioned Laura to him. How come his patient was keeping secrets from him?  He confided to his psychotherapist friend, Marshal, “I tried visual imagery and urged Justin to project himself into the future---ten, twenty years from now—and imagine himself still stuck in this lethal marriage, to imagine his remorse and regret for what he had done with his own life. It didn't help.”

Reading about patients, we find Shelly, a deep rooted gambler. He was under counseling with Marshal and was the husband of Norma, Carol's friend. When Shelly married Norma, he promised to give up gambling and to give complete financial control of his bank accounts to his wife.  But he was not able to give up poker. He played poker with money from the secret account he had with a bank. When his wife found his secret she sent him the separation papers through Carol. But there was a loophole for Shelly, if he went for counselling and cleared his gambling habits, she would reconsider her separation plans.

 There was Peter Macondo, the millionaire with filthy habits and too much money for his own good. His children dropped out of school, took to drugs and hardly talked with him. His ex-wife refused to talk about any of those problems. He wanted to marry a much younger woman but was afraid that the woman might be a trap for his money. And so, Macondo came to Marshall for therapy. With Marshall's help Macondo was able to settle his problems with his family and also to marry his young woman. The case studies of the people taking psychotherapy become intense as the reader gets to learn view-points from the patient and the doctors.

 Things become twisted for Earnest when Justin's wife Carol planned a revenge on him for she was confirmed that Earnest had convinced her husband to break the marriage. Since Carol  had faced sexual  advances from the therapists before she thought that Earnest will do the same. She started going to Earnest under a false name and tried to lead the psychotherapist into a relationship. She looked for the signs every session, planning to frame him as soon as he fell into her trap. Carol probed into Earnest's life trying to gain a hold on him. Earnest tried to share some of his own life just to build up a closer doctor-patient relationship. In the process he formed the opinion that 'a patient has confidentiality, but the therapist has none.' He knew that all he confided in Carol will be disclosed to other therapists down the lane.

 There was Eva Galsworth, a dying patient of Earnest. The fifty-one years old cancer patient has been coming to Earnest for her sessions for the past year. He had unstintingly devoted himself to easing the pain of her dying. But one day Eva sent a message saying, “It's time.” Earnest rushed to her side and he held the frail body against his own as Eva breathed her last. Eva had lived the last days of her life and termed the last days as, “sucking the marrow out of the bones of life.”

Both men, Earnest and Marshall were dedicated to their work with their patients. But at times they get into troubles too. When Marshall broke a law of the doctor-patient ethics code, it had him running to the court. When he asked Carol to be his attorney, she told him, “ I have evidence that psychiatrists may be among the most gullible of people. I mean, after all they are accustomed to people telling them the truth—people paying them to listen to their true stories. I think psychiatrists are easy to swindle.”

At one point Earnest too was on the verge of giving up his restraint on himself as Carol continued with the sexual advances. Throughout the book, readers get a picture of human nature, of greed and impatience. The therapists and their patients, with their problems and prospects are characters caught in a real life drama.

Lying on the Couch is a master work of presenting psychotherapy with a storyline. As  characters go through ups and downs of everyday life, readers find a blending of their own life with them. The working of the human mind is held up to the readers with its tantalizing ways.

The author, Irvin David Yalom, is an American existential psychiatrist who is emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, as well as author of both fiction and nonfictions. He bonds the serious aspects of life with sensitive touches and yet presents life with the artist's touch of humor. A completely absorbing book to keep the reader up till the last page.

Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA.

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