Review: Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom

I started this collection with the intent of re-familiarizing myself with Yalom’s unique wisdom and forthright regard with his patients. And thankfully it started off promising enough by including some much-needed humor to lighten the air between doctor-patient:

Almost able to hear his joints creaking, I took his heavy battered briefcase, held his arm, and guided him to his chair.
“Thankee, thankee, young man. And how old are you?”
“Eighty years old,” I answered.
“Ahhh, to be eighty again.”

This exchange pretty much summarizes the approach of this collection, being that the main theme surrounding each story circles itself on coming face to face with mortality and death anxiety. Plus, a major part is dedicated to dissecting dreams, which I never grow tired of reading through Yalom’s empathic and insightful observations.

“We all face aging in our own manner. I know I’m very old. There is no denying that eighty is old. I’m working less—I see far fewer patients now, only about three a day, but I’m still writing much of the rest of the day. I’ll tell you the truth: I love what I’m doing. I feel blessed to be of help to others, especially others who are facing the issues I’m dealing with—aging, retirement, dealing with the death of a spouse or friends, contemplating my own death.”

Honestly, the constant discussions surrounding death didn’t bother me, until a couple of stories into the book when it suddenly dawned on me that Yalom’s passing would mean no more new therapeutic content… His books read like free therapy consultations that are factually effective for me, so I was glad to have this reassuring read on hand when the thought passed my mind.

“Yes, I know my existence is drawing to a close, but the end has been there since the beginning. ”

The thing that came to bother me then about Creatures of a Day was the rushed nature of the shared exchanges. I realized about halfway through that my issue stemmed from the fact that the cases described were usually short-term sessions, so we don’t see a complete arc of the person’s life, like what I so cherished in Momma and the Meaning of Life & Love’s Executioner, where the stories span multiple weeks, months, etc… So with these ten stories, I was always left hanging midway, feeling like we were about to make progress in the patient’s life, but then being put to a halt because we’d reached the inevitable end. And that feeling of abruptness, with no real sense of closure, came to repeat itself nearly with every following story in this collection.

Knowing what the author is capable of by having read his previous short story collections – which all completely rocked my world – I felt like this wasn’t what I was seeking. Don’t get me wrong, Creatures of a Day still featured the familiar therapy sessions that I’ve come to seek solace in,  but I can’t deny that there just weren’t any major breakthroughs being uncovered for me, like what I’d gotten used to finding in the aforementioned books. I was in need of “a deep and true session” that “enlivens me.”

So then the seventh story, hoping for a tale full of closure and growth, turned my frown upside down with Sally and her sealed away box of writing.

“There are a lot of dark chapters in my life, darker episodes than I’ve conveyed to you, and there are a lot of dark stories in that box, stories that I may have mentioned, but only obliquely, in our therapy. I’m afraid of their power, and I don’t want to get sucked back into those days. I’m very frightened of that. Oh yes, as you know, my family looked good from the outside, but inside . . . inside there was so much pain.”

I felt the utmost empathy at that. And I like how this thought was shared by a previous patient as well. It’s as if a train of thought starts in a preceding story only to be completed by the following patient.

Perhaps, if I had known going into this that the book follows only short-term sessions, I would’ve felt more prepared and welcoming. But I do have to give credit to Dr. Yalom for always being able to “offer something of value even in a brief consultation.” It’s no easy feat when you consider the circumstances.

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Review: Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom

I had originally started Irvin D. Yalom’s newest release Becoming Myself, where he mentioned this collection of stories which sounded more fitting because my attention span was slight at the time.

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy offers a keen insight on ten patients, from all walks of life, who turned to therapy, “all ten were suffering the common problems of everyday life: loneliness, self-contempt, impotence, migraine headaches, sexual compulsivity, obesity, hypertension, grief, a consuming love obsession, mood swings, depression. Yet somehow (a “somehow” that unfolds differently in each story), therapy uncovered deep roots of these everyday problems—roots stretching down to the bedrock of existence.”

Though the problems may be considered “common problems of everyday life,” Love’s Executioner made them seem like anything but. Yalom writes his patients with the utmost respect and interest.

I’d like to mention in particular one story that started off the collection on a bang for me with Thelma, “a depressed, suicidal, seventy-year-old woman,” who for the past eight years “could not relinquish her obsessive love for a man thirty-five years younger.”

“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.”

My attention was riveted to her. I went through a turmoil of emotions reading her story, and came out of it with a changed perspective of my own. It was such a wild ride that in the end I felt like both the doctor and the patient being treated. The longest piece, deservingly so.

“You are you, you have your own existence, you continue to be the person you are from moment to moment, from day to day. Basically your existence is impervious to the fleeting thoughts, to the electromagnetic ripples occurring in some unknown mind. Try to see that. All this power that Matthew has—you’ve given it to him—every bit of it!

“What goes on in another person’s mind, someone you never even see, who probably isn’t even aware of your existence, who is caught up in his own life struggles, doesn’t change the person you are.”

I was easily swept away into the pensive and therapeutic writing style. It offered an introspective look into moments not many of us get to see represented. The book also had many noteworthy lines that left an imprint on me, such as:

“You know, there is no one alive now who was grown-up when I was a child. So I, as a child, am dead. Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead—when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that old person dies, the whole cluster dies, too, vanishes from living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?”

This precise piece of commentary struck me.

Speaking of which, this note on experiencing “love at first sight” was so satisfying to agree on: “You don’t know this person. In a Proustian way, you’ve packed this creature full of the attributes you so desire. You’ve fallen in love with your own creation.”

At the expanse of sounding a bit abrasive, this book was perfect for my nosy self that likes to hear personal stories without having to share something of myself in exchange. And though I did not agree with the tactics used in certain tales, I read on in fascination of the differing views of reality presented. Now, I can move on to Yalom’s newest release.

Oh, and one last thing I have to highlight upon ending my review, this piece on experiencing “crushes”:

“At a conference approximately two years prior to meeting Thelma, I had encountered a woman who subsequently invaded my mind, my thoughts, my dreams. Her image took up housekeeping in my mind and defied all my efforts to dislodge it. But, for a time, that was all right: I liked the obsession and savored it afresh again and again. A few weeks later, I went on a week’s vacation with my family to a beautiful Caribbean island. It was only after several days that I realized I was missing everything on the trip—the beauty of the beach, the lush and exotic vegetation, even the thrill of snorkeling and entering the underwater world. All this rich reality had been blotted out by my obsession. I had been absent. I had been encased in my mind, watching replays over and over again of the same and, by then, pointless fantasy. Anxious and thoroughly fed up with myself, I entered therapy (yet again), and after several hard months, my mind was my own again and I was able to return to the exciting business of experiencing my life as it was happening.”

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Review: Letters to Talia by Dov Indig

I was captivated when I read the back cover of Letters to Talia, since the concept of having an irreligious Jewish kibbutz girl writing corresponding letters to a soldier/ Yeshiva student about Judaism and learning more about her faith sounded almost too good to be true. But the book lived up to even the highest of standards I had set for it in my head. It’s an everlasting read that had me bouncing from one emotion to the next.

Dov Indig was killed on October 7, 1973, in a holding action on the Golan Heights in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Letters to Talia, published in his memory by family and friends, contains excerpts from an extensive correspondence Dov maintained with Talia, a girl from an irreligious kibbutz in northern Israel , in 1972 and 73, the last two years of his life. At the time, Talia was a high-school student, and Dov was a student in the Hesder Yeshiva Kerem B Yavneh, which combines Torah study with military service.

Coming into this right after having had to tolerate the non-stop infidelities in This Is How You Lose Her was like a breath of fresh air. Not only does Dov Indig, an only child of Holocaust survivors, have practically the perfect answer on literally everything regarding God, Jews and our identity, people, and homeland. We’re left with lots of food for thought, and it was a real challenge trying not to write the whole book down into my notes so I wouldn’t forget even the tiniest thing uttered by him. There was this genuine fear inside me that I would forget a convincing argument of his, and it stemmed out of how utterly convincing his points were in their nature. Dov Indig kept on surprising me with his knowledge page by page. A real wunderkind. It is these kind of quiet stories that tell the moving account of someone’s words and actions that affect me the most.

I mean, there were times when Talia presented a case seemingly unfit to contradict (such as, the recruitment of Yeshiva students into the IDF, and civil marriage in Israel), but he always pulled through with pages and pages of wise words on the relevant topics and sources to support his statements. And not only that, but his responses came across as really balanced and well-thought-out. You could feel his calm and welcoming nature reverberate off the page when it came to answering questions about Judaism.

Usually, I would insert some quotes of his here to prove my statement, but since I read the Hebrew edition that option isn’t relevant at the time. But just know that there’s no denying the colossal wisdom and faithfulness behind Dov’s words. Knowing the end of his story, however, made every moment of his utterly melancholy and bittersweet. I’m thinking mainly about those parts when he got hopeful about what his future would entail as a believer. It’s impossible not to feel the weight of the words (and the world) in those pages.

Since this conversation is made up by two parts, I have to mention that I was displeased from the get-go with the way Talia handled the conversation. My annoyance stems from the fact that her personality relies heavily on not knowing really… anything. Talia tends to go for deep questions without inquiring first if what she’s asking is fact or something she heard from ear to ear, which leads to a lot of naïve and shortsighted comments on her side. Over the course of Letters to Talia it began to feel like one of those plot devices, where one side asks foolish questions just so that the hero can appear more educated. So it became difficult to enjoy the conversations circling Dov and Talia because I was dreading for her point of view to appear. I mean it’s pretty difficult to enjoy an educated conversation when one person isn’t adding anything remarkable to the table other than white noise.

The funny thing is that I then read this article that interviews Talia nowadays, and she seems to agree on her naïvety back in the day. So there was a tiny source of comfort knowing that she would somehow grow into her character over the years.

But luckily, Dov’s writing, that showcased just how well-read and enlightened he was, made up for the negatives of the other side. It was a true privilege to bask in the wisdom of his words through the letters shared in this book.

As a last side note, I do wish we would’ve gotten to see some pictures of the letters they sent one another just because I’m curious as to how his writing style looked like on paper. But overall Letters to Talia is a highly recommended story that I’m utterly grateful to have read.

5/5 stars

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