Progress Note: Therapists in Media

Mr. Frond in Bob's Burgers:

Is this guy licensed? Probably not. He's terrible, and yet he's terrible in a way that I feel the profession has to answer for, and thus I consider him an excellent depiction of a terrible therapist in media. Soppy, false, fundamentally cowardly, and quick to threaten social services.

The therapists on Married at First Sight:

There's Dr. Pepper Schwartz, the blonde woman with the very warm smile who really seems like she wants the best for people, which makes her a terrifying paradox because SHE IS LENDING HER CLINICAL REPUTATION TO THIS SHOW, a show where emotional children try to use thousands of years of religious and civic tradition to trick a stranger into caring for them for life, but like.. MUTUALLY, which is even more upsetting somehow because it speaks to such a depth of delusion. Then there is Dr. Joseph Cilona, who is probably okay, but his facial hair is much too well-groomed, making him look like  a wax copy of himself. The sex therapist I don't mind because she has such a Carrie Bradshaw demeanor, which seems more honest to the enterprise and therefore less frightening.

The unnamed protagonist's therapist in Chemistry (Weike Wang):

The unnamed protagonist (UP) has been having a conversation with her therapist about the lack of purpose and joy in her professional life (I am summarizing and you should just read this book, it's very good and a thousand times funnier and more piercing than that description makes it sound). The therapist asks her if she has hobbies. The UP, who has been doing nothing but work since she was a child, has a hard time getting the point, and shoots down a series of therapisty suggestions for relaxing hobbies. Then this perfect moment:
"The shrink excuses herself to get water. I see her shadow return but linger a few seconds outside the door. Eric has said that I carry close to my chest a ball of barbed wire that I sometimes throw at other people."

You should read this book.

Problem in Living #5: I'm so angry

Dear Book Therapist,

Lately I wake up mad and stay that way all day. I work a lot but never have any money, and that's how it's always been for me, and most people I know seem to have it that way too. I'm irritable with everyone and I'm kind of sad all the time. And the news is so hideous, every day, and it's always violence, various kinds of violence both large-scale and private, and emotionally it's like I have an itchy rash all the time. What should I read?

-Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

The problems with anger is that it's one of the emotions we're not supposed to have, socially speaking. There's a whole industry of self-help that has decided that negative feelings are essentially a form of psychic garbage, an unpleasant byproduct of living that should be minimized to the extent possible and cleaned up whenever it appears, at least if you're, you know, a virtuous person who's concerned about others. Sometimes this worldview will allow that sadness is necessary, and it might admit frustration, if frustration is the feeling of refusing to accept subpar results. But anger is really not allowed. Anger is a gross mess. It's somehow... unhealthy. It will cause inflammation and make you break out and your dentist will have to have you fitted with a mouth guard so you don't grind your teeth to powder. Anger is sort of unhygienic.

Your book therapist thinks that's dumb. Anger is okay. It's just uncomfortable. And it's not so far from sadness, actually. Some old-school psychology holds that anger and sadness are two sides of the same coin; anger turns outward what sadness turns inward. Anger is also deep, reptilian, prehistoric. Anger is what we feel when the things we love are threatened.

Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart is about the kind of anger that comes straight out of being in a family, loving people too much, being too close, not having enough, not being sensible, being a helpless child, being a powerless adult. It's very comfortable with mess, itch, and heat. Reading it may soothe you for a minute.

xo

Book Therapist

Problem in Living #4: I miss my mom

Dear Book Therapist,

I recently moved a few hundred miles to follow a job opportunity for my partner. This is my first big move and I'm at loose ends. I miss my mom. She lived just a few minutes away from our old house and it was pretty normal for me to stop by there after work just to say hello and help with dinner or watch a TV show. I didn't realize how much I still depended on seeing her and running things by her to feel grounded. I'm embarrassed about how much I miss her!

I'm making plans to see her for visits soon but it's still hard. What should I read?

-Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

You have a really special thing: a family that makes you feel calm. Please don't be embarrassed about needing and missing that! It's such a lovely thing that I think plenty of people miss it even when they've never had it in the first place.

There is a scene in a Tessa Hadley short story where a medium-sized family-- I want to say there are about three teenage children in it-- is having breakfast on a rainy day in their tall, narrow house. They're eating toast and making fun of each other, and Hadley describes the way that it's a little steamy in the kitchen from cooking and close quarters and the chilly day outside. In a few minutes, they are all going to disperse and take up their days. They aren't thinking of this as a special moment because it's an ordinary thing for them. Does that kill you? It kills me.

Tessa Hadley is an example of one of my favorite types of writer: one who has both enormous compassion and enormous precision. The authorial voice is often a kind of floating God-eye who has been here before and seen this particular heartbreak and knows what her characters should be doing, even while she also sees plainly what they ARE doing. Which is to say, the authorial voice is a kind of disembodied ideal parent. You don't just miss your mom because she's kind to you and loves you; you miss her also because she SEES you, with precision.

So you should read some Tessa Hadley. Start with MARRIED LOVE. Or THE LONDON TRAIN. If you're looking for a hit of a very middle-class, country-house, nice-scarf-wearing type of mom, try THE PAST.

xoxo

Book Therapist

A Progress Note from Book Therapist

Your Book Therapist has been AWOL since.. wow, since March, I see. My apologies! I was busy getting married. Now that's done, I'm married, and it's a one-time thing as I understand it, you don't have to re-up. So I have a little more time on my hands and I'm looking forward to filling it with my favorite things: 1) talking about human pain 2) talking about books in terms of how they make me feel and what they teach me about living, which I know is an unsophisticated way to discuss books, but I can't help how God made me.

Problem in Living #3: I lost my narrative

Dear Book Therapist,

When I was a kid, I would read adventure or fantasy books and feel so powerful and excited about the world. But now, in real life, it feels like only the bad stuff is powerful and regular people just have to grind away and try not to get crushed and replace the vacuum filters every six months and remember to take out the recycling. I'm losing touch with that feeling little kids have of being potentially very powerful in a dangerous world. Instead I feel small and tired in a dangerous world. What should I read?

-Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Small children are glorious little ego freaks who think they might be able to control the weather with their minds. That's part of what makes them so hopeful. If things go just right, adulthood brings some tempering humility without destroying this capacity entirely.

Small children are all on the hero's journey. Even when they are toiling through the school day-- which is often more boring and crushing than taking out the recycling,  and takes much longer-- they see themselves at the center of a swashbuckling narrative of justice denied, progress slowly won, etc. Which, the thing is: that's a narrative that fits, more often than not. 

So you need a reminder. We here at Book Therapist missed International Women's Day, but to make up for it I would like to recommend to you my favorite book when I was 10: Sherryl Jordan's WINTER OF FIRE, which will wake the dormant ten-year-old within you, get her heart pumping, give her an ur-narrative for understanding racially oppressive cultural myth-making, and get her all fired up about the liberation of working people. This book is about a girl who frees her people with the power of her MIND. Tell me that's not a fantasy you had while someone was trying to teach you long division in 1994.

One of the insights of Jordan's book is that anybody can make change just by seeing through a lie. That makes me a little hopeful.

xo

Book Therapist

Problem in Living #2: Is life supposed to be boring?

Dear Book Therapist,

I graduated from college recently and I was lucky enough to get a full-time job within a couple of months that lets me pay the bills and my student loans. I work in admin for a very large non-profit. I know I should feel grateful that I got a job with benefits right out of school but I feel like I'm losing my mind from how bored I am. I just wish that one day was even a little bit different from the next. I feel crazy from how much I just want to just walk outside and feel the sun on my face and not come back. Is this just what adulthood is like? I imagine doing this for decades and I feel terrified. No one else seems terrified. What's wrong with me?

-Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

You don't know it yet, but you are being confronted at this moment by your witch-alligator. The titular dog in William Steig's 1972 classic DOMINIC encountered his own a short time after deciding he was bored at home and striking out on his own. A witch-alligator stands at a fork in the road, looking freaky and toothy, wrapped in a shawl, offering to give you more information than you want for 25 cents. Dominic's told him which road to follow to find an adventure. Yours is not giving you that kind of helpful advice yet. All she is telling you is that if you  keep going the way you're going, you will suffer. But that's enough.

You have a problem to solve: you need to find work that is meaningful to you. But you're not going to be able to solve that problem if you stay locked in shame about the fact that you need more from your life. Dominic did not waste a moment wondering if there was something wrong with him that caused him to bore so easily. He just focused on solving the problem of his boredom. 

Is life supposed to be boring? No. Are all jobs like this? No. Hold on to yours for now, and keep looking for what you need. Notice the people around you who have been in the same line of work for a long time: what's working for them? Notice when you feel a twitch of envy toward someone else's life: what do they have that you want? And budget carefully for now, because whatever change is coming, it will help to have some money in your savings account. Godspeed.

PS: Late capitalism makes us feel grateful just to stay afloat, keeps us living on margins so narrow we can't entertain change, and turns education into a barrier to entry instead of a tool for development. Consider investing some portion of your energies, no matter how small, into dismantling this. You will feel better.

xo

Book Therapist

Problem in Living #1: The Fascist Insect that Preys Upon the Life of the People

Dear Book Therapist,

The last couple of months have turned me into a wreck. The election was a shock, and I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. At the same time, I'm embarrassed that I was so complacent before the election that I felt like I was standing on a rug in the first place. And ALSO at the same time, I'm starting to feel crazy from being in a state of high alert all the time, and now I can't tell when I'm being reasonable and when I'm not. What should I read?

-Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Once, there was a young woman who occupied much the same psychic space you're in now, except that instead of living in a mild state of complacency and comfort, she lived in an extreme state of complacency and comfort. She belonged to one of the richest families this country has ever produced, in one of the lower-achieving branches, which meant that her only real responsibility in this life was to not get kicked out of a series of the nicest girls' schools in Northern California, and to maybe make a reasonable effort at graduating from Berkeley. And then one day, she was kidnapped by a cell of leftist guerrillas. Right out of her crappy student apartment.

She was locked in a closet for a month or so while the guerrillas, who were a bunch of local misfits participating in your basic personality cult around a surly male leader with a drinking problem, read her radical literature in a Marxist / prison abolition / George Jackson vein. She also got to watch on TV while her parents explained that they didn't have enough money to meet the kidnappers' extremely creative demands. She thought they were lying, because the family appeared to have more money than God, but very little of it was liquid and none of it had ever been discussed with her, because her parents thought it was gauche to talk about money, so there's also a secondary lesson in here about the importance of financial literacy. But the combination of believing that her parents were abandoning her and suddenly hearing about structural racism and poverty for the first time pretty much broke her brain.

And that's the story of how Patty Hearst decided to join the Symbionese Liberation Army after they kidnapped her, and started saying "motherfucker" a lot and participating in communiques with the press that signed off DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE and getting into shootouts and robbing banks.

What I'm saying is that there are moments in life when it feels like a veil has been torn away. Those moments can be immensely productive, and ultimately they are what make us into the people we are. However: heed the warning of Patty Hearst. The moment the veil comes down is the moment when it's easiest to lose your head. Keep your feet on the ground. Stay connected to people you trust. Try not to be motivated by anger. Be motivated by love for people who are endangered by bad politics. And don't get distracted by image. You start worrying about image too much, and before you know it you're in a shootout with a security guard in the parking lot of a sporting goods store in Compton because you tried to shoplift a bandolier-style ammo belt.

For you I recommend Jeffrey Toobin's excellent 2016 book on the subject, AMERICAN HEIRESS.