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

Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy

By Irvin D. Yalom

Basic Books

216 pages, $24.99

By Stephanie Shapiro

“Paul was 84 now. He must have begun working on his dissertation in his mid-twenties, 60 years ago … His life on hold for 60 years? No, I hoped not,” Irvin D. Yalom muses about his new client, who suffers from writer’s block.

The prickly old scholar brings 45 years’ worth of correspondence with his former professor to the single session he has requested of Yalom. All is to be dealt with in a single hour.

After plenty of sharp wordplay and evasive maneuvers by Paul, the therapist thinks he may have a key to what Paul is looking for.

“Finally, finally, we had had an encounter,” Yalom declares, peering through a chink in the patient’s paper armor.

To Charles, a business executive, he also reveals his personal position: “I want to be like a father to you, but I also want to help you get past the need for a father.”

Natasha, “a portly Russian woman of 70 or so,” carries to their first appointment a photograph of herself when she was a young ballerina, “a marvel of elegance.”

Yalom suggests she may doubt his interest in the Natasha of today. She doubts even her own presence. “I’m not truly here … It is not me here, not me experiencing these things.” Smitten with an old flame, Sergei, four decades before, with “not one word from him since I slashed his face so long ago,” she ponders a Web search to find Sergei again, to feel real again.

Yalom, 82 years old at the time of the conversation, manages to work in a plug for a previous book of his by having Natasha think about its title. She eventually comes to terms with her feelings and sorts love from the “mirage of love.” The experience is not without painful moments: “Holding my feet in boiling oil does powerfully concentrate my mind,” she tells Yalom.

Seven other clients, including a fading flower child from the ’60s with only a few weeks left to live, work with Yalom on making sense of their lives. A reader may question the point of this book (and a previous, similar volume) in the first place.

These are not case studies. Yalom has heavily disguised each patient’s identity and sometimes added fictional scenes, but obtained each patient’s written permission for publication. So the stories are “true” but not necessarily legally accurate.

Yalom declares, “The most important thing I, or any other therapist, can do is offer an authentic healing relationship from which patients can draw whatever they need.” He is not the silent note-taker of the past, but rather devises, or sometimes stumbles on, “a unique approach for each patient that would not be found in any therapy manual.”

He worries that most training programs today will lead to extinction of this “humanistic, holistic approach.” These Tales of Psychotherapy show his approach in action and how much of a personal stake the therapist has in the process. One patient is fighting death terror, another yearns for a better past, as Yalom accompanies them along their twisted life paths to some kind of resolution.

This “encounter” way of therapy keeps bumping against boundaries of definition. Yalom is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a psychiatrist in private practice. But the book title says “psychotherapy,” a more flexible category than psychiatry.

He offers these stories of insight into the human condition as examples for other therapists to examine, not as recipes to copy. He also offers them for the general reader, as possible means of understanding one’s own ideas or experiences.

This approach to psychotherapy has deep roots in philosophy and the history of psychotherapy. But if Yalom listed references every time one of the tales connoted a philosopher or scientist or other expert, the book would have been much longer. A general reader can recognize some of the sources that might apply in this existential approach and guess the authors of the books in his office. But that’s optional.

Reading these tales is like having a quiet chat with someone who has had a very interesting day. There is no scholarly effort needed; the stories speak for themselves. They also offer a dividend – greater insight into life in general and perhaps a situation in particular, with some pretty vivid characters along for the journey

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.