Review: Momma and the Meaning of Life by Irvin D. Yalom

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Yalom’s titular story in Love’s Executioner, particularly this one line I keep circling back to: “Perhaps the function of the obsession was simply to provide intimacy: it bonded her to another—but not to a real person, to a fantasy.”

So wanting to bask again in the author’s wisdom, I took the plunge and started Momma and the Meaning of Life. In six enthralling stories drawn from his own clinical experience, Irvin D. Yalom once again proves himself an intrepid explorer of the human psyche as he guides his patients–and himself–toward transformation. With eloquent detail and sharp-eyed observation Yalom introduces us to a memorable cast of characters. Drifting through his dreams and trampling through his thoughts are Paula, Yalom’s “courtesan of death”; Myrna, whose eavesdropping gives new meaning to patient confidentiality; Magnolia, into whose ample lap Yalom longs to pour his own sorrows, even as he strives to ease hers; and Momma–ill-tempered, overpowering, and suffocating her son with both love and disapproval.

I knew I’d picked the right time to read this when it opened up with the titular story Momma and the Meaning of Life, recounting a dream of Irvin Yalom discussing with his late mother. Exploring dreams and the message behind them is my Achilles’ heel. What took my breath away was their earnest conversation about motherhood by making him understand that his mother is human and him not seeing her as such by upholding too many unrealistic expectations is hurting both of them.

“The way I what? Go ahead. You started—say it—I know what you’re going to say.”
“What am I going to say?”
“No, Oyvin, you say it. If I tell you, you’ll change it.”
“It’s the way you don’t listen to me. The way you talk about things you don’t know anything about.”
“Listen to you? I don’t listen to you? Tell me, Oyvin, you listen to me? Do you know about me?”
“You’re right, Momma. Neither of us has been good at listening to the other.”
“Not me, Oyvin, I listened good. I listened to the silence every night when I came home from the store and you don’t bother to come upstairs from your study room. You don’t even say hello. You don’t ask me if I had a hard day. How could I listen when you didn’t talk to me?”

Oh, what last lines. She knows how to hold her argument; the final comment completely shifted my perspective.

And as I continued my reading of the tales in this collection, I came to realize that his grief for his mother lies at the heart of the following stories. The strong-willed women that followed, all with a formidable presence, left a lasting impact on me.

I took many notes of the conversations shared throughout my reading because it not only made me think and try to understand my own life, but certain phrases were “too important to me to be entrusted to memory.”

I think these stories are so readable and therapeutic to me because, as Yalom put it: “Perhaps they had benefited from spectator therapy: watching someone else work effectively in therapy often primes a patient for good therapeutic work in the future.”

As well as this line that captures it all: “Most of all, I had shown them that there is no such thing as a boring or empty patient—or group. Within every patient, and within every clinical situation, lies the chrysalis of a rich human drama. The art of psychotherapy lies in activating that drama.”

Each story, featuring a strong and multifaceted woman that reverberates off the page, had something show-stopping to say. From Paula’s grandiose faith through her terminal illness in Travels with Paula (“I remember once telling you that a compromise cannot exist alone: it breeds, and before long you have lost what you most dearly believe.”), to Irene’s grief-stricken state of loss and rage, where I took to heart her deeply specific point about connecting with people. I felt a little off-kilter in the best of ways when I read it:

“When I started seeing you, I was not going to take the risk of losing someone important to me again. I couldn’t go through that. So I had only two choices—”
As she so often did, Irene stopped, as though I should be able to divine the rest of her statement. Although I didn’t want to prompt her, it was best, for now, to keep the flow going.
“And those two choices were?”
“Well, not to let you matter to me—but that was impossible. Or not to see you as a real person with a narrative.”
“A narrative?”
“Yes, a life narrative—proceeding from a beginning to an end. I want to keep you outside of time.”
“Today, as usual, you walked into my office and straight to your chair, without looking at me. You always avoid my eyes. That what you mean by ‘outside of time’?”
She nodded. “Looking at you would make you too real.”
“And real people have to die.”
“Now you’ve got it.”

My head reeled. The point she made on holding eye contact struck a hidden chord in me. Really, truly, with all of my heart, I was awestruck that someone I’ll never meet could describe something within me so precisely with one phrase. It’s like this article conveyed, “where I fully understood the power of words and their ability to bring about a strange sort of comfort through shared experience.”

It was worth saving this insightful, revealing, painful book to read at the right time, though, the hours passed all too quickly with this to consume. Of course, not all the stories were revolutionary, but each contained something wholesome and uniquely kind that made for a healing and enriching reading experience.

I do have to note, though, that the last two stories dissatisfied me in comparison to the preceding tales, mainly because it wasn’t with Yalom as the therapist, rather a random (and fictional) Dr. Lash inserted with no prior introduction. The only thing that doctor made me realize was the fact that having Irvin D. Yalom in our story was a central point in the therapist-patient interactions. Before the out-of-nowhere insert of Dr. Lash, I was under the impression that the patients were the ones that made the story so worthy. But after reading Dr. Lash’s average therapy with his patients, it made me appreciate and look at Yalom’s approach through new eyes. Dr. Lash feels like the therapist you’d meet in real life, whereas Irvin D. Yalom is the one you want to read about in books; the therapist that challenges your thought process and goes out of his way to make sure you’re both on the same page. It just goes to show that sometimes you got to see the bad to know that the good is underappreciated. But it still threw me off that we didn’t receive a warning that the story was fictional until the afterword at the very end. A little heads-up that we were about to explore “the boundary between fiction and nonfiction” would’ve been much appreciated before I got into the story feeling confused as to who this Ernest Lash was.

On a more positive note, the shortest tale talking to his mother’s ghost in his dream and the longest tale describing Irene’s raw grief and laments is where I feel this collection really flourishes. I got answers to a questions I didn’t even know I had. It’s what I hoped Yalom’s writing would evoke out of me, as it did in his previous collection. He has my everlasting admiration in the Nonfiction area.

Lastly, the central theme of disentangling dreams and trying to make sense of them through analyzing every corner was an added bonus for me.

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Momma and the Meaning of Life, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

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