Hazel McHaffie

The Examined Life

Storytelling

I know, it's been far too long. Oscar will have grown beyond all recognition.    ‘We make stories to make sense of our lives,‘ says psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. ‘But it’s not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.‘ I’m here for my last event of the Book Festival for 2013 so it’s fitting that it’s about storytelling – my job. As before in the Peppers Theatre, it’s baking hot – the poor chairman is visibly melting. And there’s a booming voice competing from next door where a children’s storyteller sounds to be adopting amazing voices.

In his acclaimed book, The Examined Life, Grosz contends that storytelling is key to sanity, and essential in helping us change. But we can be reluctant to accept the need to change – as the well known saying goes: ‘I want to change but not if it involves changing.‘ This is partly because there can’t be change without loss. But loss is part of living, so Grosz has written a collection of short stories about different patients, tracking the trajectory of life from birth to death, with all the attendant losses and changes that involves.

He selects one man with HIV who consulted him for 22 years to illustrate his work and the relationships he builds up. His aim is to reveal the patience needed to help any patient find out who they are. To capture what there is between analyst and patient; to feel one is there in the room with them. To appreciate the privilege it is to face things with someone else. To see ourselves more clearly through the stories of others.

At the heart of his clinical practice is the idea that ‘All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.‘ It may take a long time for someone to eventually tell their story, but Grosz provides a place of acceptance whatever the person is grappling with. The analyst, he says, has to haunt the patient with ghosts of his past and present and future; haunting makes the patient alive to the realities that he might not want to see, just as it did for Scrooge in Dickens‘ famous A Christmas Carol: this is what is going to happen if you don’t change.

What do you need in order to change? Courage to see things that need changing. Acceptance and tolerance of loss. To be ready to let go of some things in order to have others. And one of the signs of good health is the capacity to ask for help in doing so.

But says, Grosz, a good book can also change the way you think. Yes, indeedy. And what more appropriate quote to use as I bow out of the Book Festival for another year. I’m back for a party thrown by my publisher in the Party Pavilion tomorrow night, but this is my last ticketed event. I’ve enjoyed all the sessions I’ve attended. I hope you’ve gleaned something worthwhile from peeping over my shoulder.

Quote in the entrance tent at the Book Festival

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