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: 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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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 expense 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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